AlterNet, April 24, 2007
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Equal Pay Day, on April 24, is not quite a national holiday. In fact, it's something of an anti-holiday, marking how far into 2007 a woman must work to earn as much as a man earned last year. Although women have made gains over the last century, by the most basic measure -- pay -- they continue to earn 77 cents on the male dollar, even if they have similar educational levels and work in similar kinds of jobs as their male counterparts.
The gender pay gap should be a concern to all Americans, not just women. The typical wife in the United States brings home about one-third of her family's income, and over the past generation, families with a working wife have been more likely to move up the income ladder. When women are short-changed, the whole family suffers.
This embarrassing fact -- hidden in plain view -- tends to trigger a barrage of objections from economic and cultural conservatives. Aren't women just making poor choices? they ask. Their argument is that even if most women probably don't "choose" to be paid less than their male colleagues, they do continue to choose to work in different jobs than men and take on the role of primary caregiver at home. Let's look at the reality. Women are disproportionately represented in lower-paid occupations like nursing, teaching, retail sales, and clerical work, and are more likely than men to work in the nonprofit sector. Women who attend college continue to choose majors that prepare for them for less-well-paid professions (but even within occupations, in the first year out of school, men earn more). And confronted with the reality of anti-family workplaces, women continue to not only do the most caretaking but also bear the economic brunt through lowered lifetime earnings.
So clearly, women, through their choice of occupation, college major and, ahem, "sensitivity" to the well-being of the young and defenseless, are making "bad" choices. If policymakers want to do something about this aspect of the inequality, they'll pretty much have to focus on getting high school guidance counselors to steer women into nontraditional, higher paid jobs.
So it's women's fault, right? Not quite. A sizeable chunk of the pay gap remains unexplained (41 percent, according to economists) by such basic life decisions. This means that if women worked in the same jobs as men and had the same educational and the same experience levels, they would still be making only 90 cents for every male dollar. How do we close this final gap?
First off, the remaining gap is not because women are choosing the jobs that allow them to balance work and family. Contrary to this myth, the reality is that mothers are actually less likely to be employed in jobs that provide greater flexibility (see PDF, here, for details). Only about a quarter of today's work force reports having any workplace flexibility, and it's the better educated, white and male workers who generally have more flexibility to run out of the office for a family emergency, take the afternoon off to take their child to the dentist, etc.
We need to encourage -- or even mandate -- that employers offer workplace flexibility (when possible), and paid parental leave and sick leave. Mothers and caretakers are discriminated against in the workplace -- they earn less than nonmothers even in the same jobs with the same experience and education. Men who take on care responsibilities are also often discriminated against, passed up for promotions or not seen as "dedicated" to the job.
Women -- and all workers -- need to be able to take some time off from work when they have to provide care. Yet, only about half of all U.S. workers have access to anticipated, unpaid leave (under the Family and Medical Leave Act), and even less have paid leave. And, of course, the less a woman earns, the less likely she is to have any leave, paid or unpaid. Highly educated women, who are more likely to have paid maternity leave than less educated women, have smoother transitions back to work after their child is born and are significantly more likely to return to their same employer. Unfortunately, this is the exception, not the rule.
Better leave policies can make workplaces more family -- and woman -- friendly. Nearly two-thirds of workers (both full-time and part-time) do not have access to paid sick leave to care for a sick child. The share of employees without paid sick leave for themselves or a child's illness rises to 84 percent in construction and nondurable manufacturing and 94 percent in accommodations and food services, an industry that disproportionately employs women.
We can close the gap in pay between men and women. But it will require that we expect employers to acknowledge that most workers are also caregivers and that this means that workers need some flexibility to be able to be both good workers and good parents. Size (of women's pay) does matter, and not just to women but to all of us.
Heather Boushey is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.