Ending Women’s Work

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare some facts about occupational segregation by gender in the United States. As I explained in a previous post,

  • Essential workers in the United States, whose jobs were deemed “too vital to be halted” during the pandemic, are overwhelmingly women.
  • The jobs of these essential workers are generally underpaid, undervalued, and unseen. Over half of all essential workers in the United States are women who are paid well below fifteen dollars an hour.

The underpaid roles of these essential works—along with other roles that are segregated by gender including, healthcare workers, childcare workers, home healthcare aides, teachers, social workers, and administrative office workers—are considered to be “women’s work” by society and, as such, less valued. These underpaid roles contribute to the gender wage gap, “a feature of every economy on earth,” as reported by Anna Louie Sussman of the New York Times. Sussman notes that clearly our efforts at achieving “pay equity” have not worked so far, and she suggests that the problem is our approach. Instead of working toward pay equity, Sussman maintains that we should be focusing on achieving “equal pay for work of equal value” to break through the wall of low pay for “women’s work.” The value of a job should be determined by skills, level of responsibility, work conditions, and degree of physical effort and be compared to the pay men get for jobs that require these same skill levels and efforts. Sussman asks, “whether a female-dominated occupation such as nursing home aide, for instance, is really so different from a male-dominated one, such as corrections officer, when both are physically exhausting, emotionally demanding, and stressful—and if not, why is the nursing home aide paid so much less?”

Sussman points to efforts in New Zealand implemented by law in November 2020, which she explains are “aimed at eliminating pay discrimination against women in female-dominated occupations.” She suggests that this new law could provide a road map to the rest of the world about how to eliminate the “seemingly intractable gender pay gap. . . . What is really at stake,” Sussman explains, “is . . . a societywide reckoning with the value of ‘women’s work.’”

Sussman notes that the idea of focusing on pay equity, or equal pay for work of equal value, is not new:

  • In 1919, the International Labor Organization proposed pay equity for women. It was ratified in 1953 by 173 countries (but the United States) but was never implemented.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to feminist activists and scholars, the idea gained momentum in the United States but was snuffed out by the courts in 1985 in a case pushing for “comparable worth” wage standards. The courts deemed this approach to wage equity to be an interference with the free markets for labor. The Reagan administration elevated the free-market argument and stifled further efforts to gain traction with this approach.

In 2012 in New Zealand, a breakthrough occurred when Kristine Bartlett, a caregiver who worked for more than twenty years in a home for the elderly, making barely above minimum wage, filed a claim with the Employment Relations Authority against her employer. The claimant asked the court to look closely at why caring for the elderly was any less demanding and dangerous than better-paid occupations mostly performed by men, such as prison guards. The Bartlett claim was settled out of court with resulting pay increases of 15 percent to 49 percent for 55,000 workers. The settlement sparked new claims throughout the public sector from other female-dominated occupations, such as midwives, social workers, and school support staff. Subsequently,

  • In 2017, with a newly elected feminist prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, the government of New Zealand went to work on establishing principles and processes for resolving pay equity claims.
  • In 2018, a settlement on behalf of state-employed social workers demonstrated that female-dominated occupations could be evaluated in a bias-free way.
  • In November 2020, a new law in New Zealand went into effect to require the pay-equity approach to eliminating the gender pay gap.

Sussman points out that it is still not easy to apply a gender-free lens to evaluating all occupations because in the real world,

  • Value is assigned through an interplay of employer power, social beliefs and biases like racism and sexism
  • Biases must be unlearned, which is not easy

It has been easier to implement the new pay equity evaluations in the public sector occupations because the government is the employer. Sussman notes that supporters of pay equity counter the private sector argument that pay equity is not affordable by pointing out that employers are not entitled to make profits on the backs of underpaid women and businesses that can’t pay fair wages are not viable businesses.

Sussman ends by saying that now we will see “what happens when an entire society, led by a feminist prime minister, decides . . . to say yes” to pay equity. Let’s keep our eyes on this approach. New Zealand has figured out a lot—and perhaps we will have a feminist president someday who will provide the vision and the will to implement pay equity in the United States.


Photo courtesy of Army Medicine (CC BY 2.0)

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