Beyond Equal Pay for Equal Work

Today, April 17th, is Equal Pay Day. It marks the day that women’s earnings catch up to those of their male counterparts.

When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963, women were paid merely 59 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned. Today, nearly fifty years later, women in the United States – and Connecticut — still only earn 77 cents to every dollar men earn. This gap in earnings translates into $10,784 less per year, or $434,000 less during the course of a woman’s lifetime. And this gap is even larger for women of color. According to the National Women’s Law Center, African-American women make only 62 cents to every dollar earned by white men; Hispanic women make only 54 cents. Controlling for race, African-American women are paid roughly 88 cents for every dollar paid to their African-American male counterparts, and Hispanic women are paid 89 cents for every dollar paid to their Hispanic male counterparts. These wage gaps translate into a loss of $19,575 for African-American women and $23,873 for Hispanic women every year.

In these difficult economic times, women  – who are frequently the sole providers for their children and whose families, even in two-parent households, increasingly rely on their income – cannot afford to lose $10,784 – $23,873 a year. When 2.1 million working single mothers and their families fall between 100 and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), every dollar counts. $10,784 means groceries, rent, transportation, and child care. It can mean the difference in a families’ survival.

Studies have shown that some of the wage gap is due to discrimination. Women frequently earn less than their male counterparts in the same occupation, even if they have a similar work history, education, and skill sets. In Connecticut, for example, women in management, business, and financial occupations were paid only 72 cents to every dollar paid to men in the same occupation. Women working full time in sales were paid only 66 cents to every dollar paid to men in the same occupation.

Yet, to really address the wage gap, we have to move beyond equal pay for equal work. We have to address gendered job segregation and the fact that feminized professions are both undervalued and underpaid.

While most women today are in the labor force, the occupations predominantly held by women, such as child care providers and nurses, are those that reflect traditional female nurturing and supportive roles. These feminized professions are characterized by their low wages and status. But these jobs do not necessarily require fewer skills than many of the better-paying jobs dominated by men. Political scientist Ellen Frankel Paul has noted that zookeepers – a traditionally male job – earn much more than workers caring for children – a traditionally female job. Caring and educating children is just as difficult (if not more so) than caring for zoo animals. Yet, our society chooses to value – and pay – zookeepers, who are associated with science and veterinary medicine, more than child care providers. This is due to the fact that “women’s work” of caregiving is simply undervalued and because it is conceptualized as natural.

Until we, as a society, value caregiving and early education, we will have a wage gap. Until we, as a society, recognize that educating our children isn’t something that comes more naturally to women, but a demanding profession, we will have a wage gap. Until we view a child care worker as having just as much human capital as a zookeeper, we will have a wage gap.

Women’s work isn’t less demanding or less valuable. And it isn’t worthy of less pay. Women aren’t WorthLess.

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