Illustration by PolicyMic’s excellent Tran Vo for an article that Liz Plank and I wrote in PolicyMic and HuffPo.

IF SOMEONE SAYS TO YOU: “THE WAGE GAP IS A MYTH” Don’t let them get away with it… 

            Today is Equal Pay day, ladies!  This is the day that our wages catch up with our male peers’ 2013 earnings!  Another way of thinking about this is that, American men could have stopped working on January 1st and not have had to start until today to make what we will make working the whole year. Harsh, I know. Seems unbelievable, but, c’est la vie!   

            This gap costs the typical American woman $400,000 during the course of her lifetime. What could you do with that money? Would you save up to buy a home? Put it in a college fund?  Buy food to feed your family? Pay doctors bills?  Dump an ancient car and finance a new one?  Elizabeth Plank and I set up a tumblr asking just that question (go post what you would do if you got a 25-45% raise today). 

            The Bureau of Labor Statistics catalogs 534 job types.  Men make less than women in precisely seven of them. Last week, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander demanded to know what gender gap legislation would do to help them.  If we had the time, we could have a super interesting and nuanced conversation about why patriarchy and justice are incompatible. But, sadly, we don’t. Instead, I when I’m done here, I will go read about fear responses in conservative amygdala and try to finish embroidering, “Patience is a virtue,” on the backside of a Notorious RBG bag for my daughter.

             The back-and-forth conversation about equal pay, in which we have been saying mainly the same things for more than the ten years of no narrowing of the gap, sounds like a fight between two four-year olds.  The commonly cited .77 cents to the dollar number oversimplifies a gap that reflects several factors impossible to encapsulate in a sentence, for example, sex segregation in the workplace and the long-term impacts of working part-time or full-time.  When skeptics express their objections to the notion that a gender gap in pay exists, and that it has practical impact on women’s day-to-day lives, what they are saying is, “employers are not blatantly sexist and paying the average female employee only 77% of what they pay men doing the same job.” (Which, actually, happens all the time, but we’ll move along.)  Technically, their responses to this statement are legitimate in that that number, 77%, is a reflection of median earnings of ALL full-time employed women against the earnings of full-time employed white men. Stating it this way is useful, because it simplifies a lot of data, and misleading, because it simplifies a lot of data. The gap differs by occupation, by race and ethnicity and within ethnic groups.

It is indisputable, however, despite the fiction of a “debate.” White men, the $1.00 benchmark earners that we measure everyone else in the United States against, make

13% more than Asian women

21% more than White women

34% more than Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women

36% more than African American women

40% more than American Indian and Alaskan Native women and

47% more than Hispanic and Latina women

Within each racial and ethnic category there is a gender gap, the widest being that between white men and white women, 78%.

Here are ten facts we don’t often hear but should talk about. Certainly when someone is saying to you, “the pay gap isn’t real.” Or, better yet, as was suggested in Politico, you’re probably lying.

  1.  The United States gender pay gap is among the worst in the developed world.   We rank 67th for “wage equality for similar work” among 135 countries that represent 90% of the world’s population.
  2. General wage inequality is inseparable from gender wage inequality. Any solutions proposed for fixing the first problem that are not informed by the latter one, will fail.  And yet, amazingly, you can often read entire summations of the wage gap problem in our country with nary a word about this.
  3. This gap hurts everyone, but women and children materially suffer the most.  It particularly hurts low wage, part-time working women who are unable to save. This has intergenerational effects.
  4. The structures that perpetuate it penalize women (and their dependent families) who seek genuine equality (which includes economic autonomy) and who, oddly, seek relationships not defined by financial dependency
  5. The wage gap is part of a larger gender-based wealth transfer evident in an even larger and more meaningful wealth gap.
  6. It’s global.  Every country in the world relies on the unpaid, unrecognized, unaccounted for domestic care work done primarily by women. The reality that this work needs to happen, and that women absorb the vast bulk of its costs (children, home life, and the elderly) is a major element to the gender wage gap.
  7. It hasn’t narrowed in ten years and it will not unless we adapt our structural biases to meet modern needs, something that takes collective will.  The number of people willing to vote for politicians who say, as a Wisconsin state senator did last year in the process of blocking fair pay legislation, that “money might be more important for men,” or that “women are too busy” to deal with fair pay through the law, indicates that we have a long way to go on the will front.
  8. The wage gap, and the structural reasons that perpetuate it, are why the US, which in 1990 had the 6th highest female labor participation rate among the 22 most developed economies in the word, had fallen to 17th twenty years later. The United States is the only country that has not pursued family/work policies that encourage women to work or facilitate their being able to achieve leadership positions.
  9. Sex segregation in the workplace, a second major component of the wage gap, will not end until we integrate gender equity objectives into our educational objectives.
  10. Sexism pays well.  Men with traditional views on gender roles are paid more than men with egalitarian beliefs. Their wives’ unpaid labor at home is a financial asset for in a workplace optimized for the ideal, single income, male worker. The fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce doesn’t seem to register for too many women. This American “father knows best” workplace environment, affects all women’s lives every day. We just don’t recognize the lifelong sexism of it.

         Unfortunately, mainstream media does very little to help people understand these gaps with nuance.  You have undoubtedly heard along the way somewhere that Equal Pay is a myth, a political lie that progressives and feminist tell to serve their male-hating purposes. Maybe in your workplace, or at the dinner table, or in a train, or in the dentist’s office, or at a school PTA meeting, or on the sidelines of a kid’s football game. You get the point.  Every year the mendacious and money-hungry she-demons at the American Association of University Women publish wage gap research,  “The Simple Truth,” to try and help spread the word.  It is, strangely, always corroborated by other major studies.  I have never understood this. Fiscal conservatives should WANT to close the wage gap. But, it’s not about money in the end. What this particular resistance to rational change ends up being about is a certain kind of social and economic patrimony.

            Critiques almost always come down to blaming women for “individual choices.” The analysis usually stops there, which is the equivalent of swimming halfway across river and deciding you are too tired to make it to the other side, then turning back and swimming the exact same distance to your place of origin.  The logical conclusion of this approach requires believing that women of color are biologically destined to make bad decisions, the darker the worse the decision apparently, while men of paler hues are biologically destined to make superior ones, which is simple discrimination and bias.  Oh. Well.  It’s oppressive and expensive and the denialism is counterproductive.

            Women’s “choices” remain defined and constrained by institutionalized sexism and racism , implicit biases and gender and race-based stereotype threats that start at birth and never end.  Speaking of which…did you know that today, despite women’s educational achievement and ambitions, the top job for women is the same as it was in 1960? Secretaries and administrative assistant – 97% of whom are women, mostly working for men with higher wage jobs and status, who have been proven to hold attitudes hostile to women in the workplace.  This has nothing to do with genuine choice and is not very complicated. It’s everyday sexism. We don’t acknowledge for what it is and we aren’t teaching our children to either. It would help if we put the “debate” to rest and got on with the business of fixing the problem.

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