The price of equal work, unequal pay

“It’s not that I don’t want to have children, it’s that I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to afford them,” said a friend of mine a few days ago in a conversation in our Women’s and Gender Studies seminar on Mothers and Daughters. This week in class, we’ve been reading a book called The Motherhood Manifesto by Joan Blades — it’s a fabulous read I would highly recommend to any woman in America before you begin the process of family planning. Here are some things I’ve learned:

When this book was published, women…

  • Make up 46% of the workforce (that number is certainly now, six years later)
  • 81% of women between the ages of 25-34 are in the workforce
  • 82% of women become mothers by the time they turn 40
  • In America, women make 77 cents to every male dollar
  • Non-mothers make about 10% less than men on the whole; single mothers make 34% less
  • Mothers are 44% LESS likely to be hired than non-mothers
  • If a woman spends 3 or more years out of the labor force, she suffers a 37% loss of earnings

It is mere coincidence that our professor assigned this book at the exact moment that the Senate chose to block Obama’s revisions to the Paycheck Fairness Act, ones which would close loopholes and prevent further gender-based discrimination from taking place in the workplace. Despite the opposition, Obama still issued an executive order prohibiting contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with each other, as well as mandates to the Department of Labor to start collecting data on how much contractors pay employees by sex and race.

My question(s) to the GOP spokespeople who deemed these moves by Obama and the Dems to be just another “desperate political ploy” to rally voter support are thus: Why is it so unfathomable that politicians would see equal pay to women and minorities as an important issue to address, one which can be linked to a boost in the overall economy? Why are we continuing to subsidize inequality in big businesses by allowing a low minimum wage to persist (a problem which affects women more prominently, as they already face a pay deficit)? Why are we crippling our mothers, those who are responsible for the next generation of Americans, by refusing to hire them or offer the benefits they need?

By way of addressing these questions, I’m going to outline what I see to be three detriments of persisting pay inequality in America, and in doing this, hopefully clear up any doubt that this blatant discrimination (because that’s what this all boils down to…discrimination and perhaps greed) has got to stop.

First, inequality of pay cripples the workforce by promoting dissatisfaction and higher turnover among workers, increasing training and recruiting costs for companies due to higher turnover, and allows for big businesses to continue to pay their workers low wages at the expense of American taxpayers. I know that’s a mouthful, so bear with me. For most Americans, economic security begins with being able to make enough money to afford basic food, healthcare, housing, education, and other necessities. In this day and age, when the cost of living is ever-inflating, more and more people are falling below the poverty line because minimum wage and what constitutes a living wage are no longer synonymous. People in these jobs are forced to either search for higher paying options or work long, complicated work schedules just to make ends meet, mothers in particular affected by this problem (due to aforementioned hiring and pay disparities). This creates greater expenses for the companies, as higher turnover requires more money to recruit new employees to fill those created gaps, and train them once they are hired.

The Women vs. Wal-Mart Supreme Court case of 2011 is a perfect example of how this pay deficit affects the American taxpayers at large (this case cited in The Motherhood Manifesto). In this case, a single mother working at Wal-Mart to support her family realized that a male coworker was making 10,000 dollars more per year than her. She subsequently filed an employee discrimination lawsuit, which she lost by the way, the courts finding no way to prove gender discrimination across a company as large as this one. My point here is this: by paying this mother significantly less, despite the fact that she has the same responsibilities as her male coworker (children, bills, etc.) Wal-Mart is increasing the possibility of a need for welfare, or other government aid to supplement her low-paying job. In a country where the average CEO salary is hundreds of millions of dollars, does it not make more sense to level the proverbial playing fields of salaries, demanding a living wage for all employees, rather than subsidizing the greed and discrimination of big businesses with taxpayer dollars?

Second, this persisting wage gap cripples the American family by making it more difficult for even two salaries to meet the basic needs that accompany having children. As already stated, the cost of living in the country is ever-growing. More and more families require two salaries to make ends meet each month, and this fact inevitably accounts for the rise of women in the workforce in past years. However, a new state-by-state analysis by the National Partnership for Women and Families reveals just how much this pay inequality affects the American family. The study is based on US Census data, and it analyzed the gender pay gap and women’s spending power in all 50 states. It also looked at race, which made the gender pay gap even greater. They found that large disparities exist across the states for both racial minorities and women.

The report found that, for instance, if a woman working full-time in Ohio were paid as much as a man, she could afford nine more months of mortgage and utility payments, while a woman in Louisiana could afford 21 more months of rent if she earned the average male wages in the state (Louisiana and Ohio being some of the states where the gender discrepancies are the highest, Alabama, Utah, and West Virginia being others). Why not give these resources to the American family, particularly when it has been proven that raising wages will not affect the overall economic security of the company (the lowering cost of training and recruiting supplementing any loss).

Further, continuing to offer no family-friendly policies for women in the workplace (such as paternity leave or subsidized child care), forces women to pay the price for sick children or family members, and to potentially lose their jobs, should they face the choice between caring for a child or making it to work on time. California is the ONLY state out of 50 that offers paid family leave for women, and this is still offered for only six months (this being low compared to the year minimum found elsewhere). Women in America are largely forced, when it is time to have children, to string together fragments of unpaid leave and sick days, so as to be able to have some time to heal and bond with their child. This leads to 25% of Americans families falling below the poverty line after having a child, unable to make ends meet with just one salary, and no support during this difficult time. The United States is one of the only industrialized nations left in the world that largely offers no form of paid family leave or subsidized child care to its working mothers.

Finally, fair wages for women impacts the next generation. Allowing families to be more financially mobile allows for better childcare, and therefore higher cognitive and emotional development in infancy and youth. Studies show that more family friendly policies like paid parental leave lead to better prenatal and postnatal care, more intense parental bonding in a child’s lifetime, lower accident rates, and 25% fewer postnatal deaths (statistics from The Motherhood Manifesto). Providing benefits for part-time and low-wage workers, and comprehensive healthcare for children, allows women to care for the health of their child effectively. The Affordable Care Act has certainly taken steps in ensuring some of these categories, but it remains to be seen how effective that legislation will be for families.

Returning to the conversation between my friend and me in class, if women are expected to supply the next generation of American children in the current economic climate, changes must be made in policy to support these children better. The reality of our culture today is that women are in the workplace, and no amount of wishing or antiquated gender ideology is going to change that. It’s time to leave behind these ’50s style, Mad Men-eque politics that privilege one family model over another, and ignore the needs of half the current workforce.

To the GOP politicians that blocked Obama’s work on the Paycheck Fairness Act: If you are going to be pro-life, and encourage women to have children, the first step is to let go of your own prejudice, or your profound selfishness, and give the same benefits to others that you enjoy. Stop trying to control the body of the woman having the child, then offering no benefits for the baby once it arrives. This is 2014, you should know better; let’s finally get to a place of equal pay for equal work.

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