It started with this tweet:
FORWARD –> Gender wage gap at the WH: Female staffers are paid less than 87 cents for every dollar paid to men http://t.co/GDVaSiGk05
What initially caught my attention was that the person who tweeted it is not known to count gender equality among his biggest issues and is also not known to be a strong supporter of our current President. Hmmmmm…. But rather than assuming the worst, I simply asked him:
“So whaddya think about that gender wage gap at the WH? Are you gloating in the irony or outraged at the injustice?”
Ok, I want you to know that the tweeter is actually a really good friend of mine and I like him a lot. So we can engage in some ribbing just for the sport of it. But actually, I did find it a bit disturbing that he was placing greater emphasis on the shame of the White House than the shame of a society that undervalues women. It was hitting on something that is a freshly re-invigorated concern for me. I have three daughters and it makes me mad that what they choose to do with their life might not be rewarded in our culture and economy as highly as what a man might choose to do with his life. I also have just spent the last five years of my own life primarily outside of the career world and have found that looking to my future options, both prospects-remaining at home or re-entering the workforce-have their own indignities.
My friend and I went back and forth for awhile about the issue and essentially he was defending a position that women don’t make less than a man for the same work, but that 1) women usually choose professions that are paid less and that 2) women usually take “time-out” of work while men work longer hours. From his perspective, there was not an inequality in the opportunities offered to women, simply that women make different choices and that the outcomes (as measured in pay) were different.
So let’s look at this argument that women simply choose professions that pay less. First, I question how much of a choice we truly have had. Women have not always been allowed to participate in the workforce in the same way as men. There have been rules, formal and informal, prohibiting them from doing certain jobs. Once women did enter the workforce in greater number, their access to higher paying and higher power jobs has lagged. Finally, the jobs in which women do represent a majority of the workforce were jobs in which the wages remained stubbornly low. So could we choose to engage in jobs which pay more? Maybe at this point in history some could. But still, how very odd that so many women would so often simply choose to NOT enter a high-paying job!! Doesn’t it seem almost irrational that we would so persistently choose lower-paying work when higher-paying work would (according to the widely-held belief that money and opportunity are linked) yield ourselves and our families greater opportunities in life? But maybe it’s just because women are more altruistic beings. Maybe we just care more.
In fact, it is true that so much of the work done by women (again, in the health care, education and service industries) involves caring and serving, essentially putting other people’s needs first. But people who do this type of work are paid less than people who do other types of jobs and often they are simply not paid at all (as is the case for the women mentioned who take “time-out” of the formal workforce to care for children and aging adults, often despite tremendous self-sacrifice and financial sacrifice as well.) In fact, it was my friend who first brought up the point that women have chosen jobs that the market has simply placed less value on. But you would think that, by definition, these types of jobs would actually be the most beneficial to society. Afterall, looking out for the greater good before our own individual interests serves social interests. But why doesn’t our society reward that better? Why doesn’t the market reflect the high value to society of these types of occupations? Is it because people are so richly rewarded by the personal benefit they receive doing good that they have little use for financial compensation (because money is useless, right)? Or is it because we have a tradition of expecting women to serve, regardless of what they might receive in return? (Now, please don’t misconstrue this question to be one which infers we should only do things for which we’ll be rewarded by others. My faith places primary importance on self-sacrifice and serving others and I believe this is the best way from a spiritual and eternal perspective. However, is it fair that a secular society should also require this of women?)
And what about women like me who are taking “time-out” of work (as the Department of Labor study apparently likes to call it) because of obligations and commitment to family? As has been the case for me, taking “time-out” of my career to be home full time with my children has taken me out of consideration for promotions, projects and, therefore, pay raises that would make my wages equitable to a man following a similar career path who did not take the same “time-out” to be home with his children. So my friend may be correct to assume that I might have had similar opportunities to be paid more if I had chosen not to be home with my children.
So, let’s just take a moment to consider the scenario of the women who makes the choice to take “time-out” of work to care for a family member:
First of all, I find the term “time-out” to be insulting because it connotes some type of quiet retreat, a time away from work, a less-productive break from the “working world” to be tucked cozily into my home. Raising a family has been the most demanding, self-sacrificial thing I’ve done and society offers very few rewards for doing it. Yes, I consider it a privilege to be home full-time with my kids, but it is completely kicking my butt. Being a full-time parent is not a “time-out,” it is a time-constantly-round-the-clock-in. And I do not receive the same notoriety, acclaim, appreciation or respect I did when working in the career world. And, of course, I do not receive any pay. However, I made the choice because it was the best option for our family. And actually I believe beyond what is best for our family, there is also some benefit to society of the work I do at home with my children. (I say this not because I believe people who have children in daycare are not serving society as well, because I believe they are. Rather, I say this because it is the thing which will help my own particular children to best develop into healthy adults and because if someone else were caring for our children, they would not be able to offer the same personalized service at the same cost (free) as I am.) Furthermore, the benefit of caretakers to society is illuminated by the case of children and ill or aging adults who do not have a decent option for a quality caretaker and will have far poorer results in terms of both physical and mental health. These negative outcomes would have a tremendous cost to society.
So yes, maybe I would have been able to make more money if I hadn’t made the choice to take “time-out” to stay home with my kids. This could have happened to me. But recent studies indicate that there are wage disparities that persist even when these kinds of scenarios are not part of the equation. The Atlantic considered the question of whether or not women were simply making choices that would yield them less profitable careers and found that this wasn’t the case. Even when researchers accounted for “school selectivity, grades, choice of major, choice of occupation, and hours-worked,” it does not appear that women are given the same opportunities as men to receive equal pay. For example, studies indicated that despite being comparable in terms of their “high potential” for success, when projects were assigned to candidates, projects given to men were bigger budget, higher visibility, and better-staffed. Additionally, other studies showed men were offered bigger raises than women and that this couldn’t be accounted for by the skills they brought to the table or their level of responsibility.
I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not so sure that women are choosing jobs that have less value to society so much as that society just simply doesn’t value the work that women do. And if this is the case, then I think we have some serious policy changes and (yep, this next word sounds kind of mama-ish, but I am one so…) attitude changes to consider.
I’m not proposing that I should get paid to stay at home with my children (though, I bet someone somewhere has made a decent argument for that kind of policy and I know that there are policies in the US that allow family members to be compensated by entitlements if an adult would otherwise qualify for them or offer a stipend to family members who care for certain children in foster care). What I do believe is that people who choose to care for others should be better rewarded and more honored in our society and that, in fact, all of the unique contributions made by women should be highly valued. The fact that this indignity (clarification: I am speaking of the indignity of being underpaid, not suggesting an indignity in the work so many women do) is so much more often one that is bestowed upon women than men in both the formal and informal workplaces can’t help but make me wonder how much of this can be attributed to a systematic devaluation of women and the roles that they very often perform in society. My friend may say that it is no one’s fault but the market. But what is “the market” other than a measuring stick that responds to the values we each and we all, men and women alike, place on certain products and services. Clearly, this measuring stick is telling us we’re falling short of placing a high value on women and the work that women do.
So I’m curious what you think: How can we best honor women and the work they do both inside and outside of the formal workplace?