Equality is not enough: moving beyond equal pay to an equitable workplace
We are at a moment of reckoning. The world is split open and ready to renew again after the world-changing events of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we reconsider what is normal, we must recognize how our systems were broken. Returning to that “normal” is not a celebration. As we reflect on the upheaval of our lives, our work, and our families, we will realize what our choices will impact future generations. While remote work allows for greater flexibility, we cannot ignore the challenges it created in our family landscapes. In particular, the women, who bear the burden of working an invisible shift as caregivers and as full-time professionals who face undue discrimination in the workplace.
During this past year an exodus of women swooping to the calls of familial obligations. Women left the workplace at four times the rate of men (Mason). C. Nicole Mason of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research coined the term she-cession in response to the large numbers.
Because of the shuttering of the economy, many people lost their jobs, sense of security, and sense of safety.
It is the first time since 1948, arguably the beginning of economic acceptance of women in the workplace, that female unemployment has reached double-digit (Covington). Ironically, more women were on payroll jobs than men in December. Hospitality, education, and some healthcare jobs were on the rise (Mason). The shutdowns erased any semblance of that growth.
It is hard to gather any sense of shock in these numbers. We all know women are forced to leave their jobs to care for elders, children, and household responsibilities. We have seen the stress lines, the hunched shoulders, and the heavyweight of being a caregiver on our mothers, aunts, and sisters’ shoulders. Not all women consider this a sacrifice, but the fact of the matter is that more often than not women choose between professional development and caring for loved ones. The pandemic exacerbated the gulf between domestic duties among genders.
Mothers decreased their hours four to five times more than fathers during the early spring of 2020. During standard working hours, women were expected to provide 70% of childcare needs (Covington). More often than not this impact is more severe on women of color. Women of color are more likely to hold what we deemed as “essential jobs”, thus unable to work at a remote schedule. 23% of black women and 29% of Hispanic women worked “service” jobs in February of 2020(Covington). This forces women to grapple with impossible decisions. Do they stay home to protect the health and safety of their children or work to provide for those children?
The constant stress pushed many moms past the breaking point. A report by the Mckinsey Institute found that one in four women have thought of leaving the workplace. If every woman is considering leaving that would equate to 2 million women (Warrell). As we see a drop in the number of unemployed women this is not a signifier of success. It does not reflect an economic rebound but a higher portion of women have decided to cease looking for employment (Holpuch).
The concerns of the she-cession are vast, but the greatest risk is in the long-term impacts. This moment will change the arc towards workplace equality. The N.W.L.C believes that COVID has wiped out all job growth for women in the past decade (Haridasani Gupta).
This inequality is embedded in our society. A 1769 law was created to control the wages of women, naturally at a lower wage than men. The expectation of childrearing overshadowed any possibility of independence. White women were able to profit off their husband’s wages, but women of color were not as fortunate. They did not even have access to wages. As times modernized the restrictive laws continued. In 1873 the Supreme Court ruled that women could be excluded from practicing jobs that disrupt the “respective spheres of man and women”. Oftentimes this meant things like bartending or other “immoral” behaviors. And in 1933 Congress established National lower wages for women. In 1936 only 18% of Americans believed that women should work according to a Gallup Poll conducted (Sweet).
Throughout this history, women have fought for the ability to receive equal pay. The first union of women was created in 1825, in 1900 all married women had some degree of control over their income. Continuing in 1965 married people were granted access to birth control. Planned Parenthood estimates that ⅓ of female wage gains since that time can be accredited to the spread of access. In 1972 all women received access to birth control. In 1979 the pregnancy discrimination act passed. 1986 sexual harassment was made illegal. 1993 family and medical leave act pass to balance work and family needs. Yet despite all progress, women are not expected to reach equal pay until 2059 (Sweet).
And even then equal pay obscures many of the struggles of women in the workforce. It does not address the dearth of female role models in executive positions, the burden of working moms in the hidden second shift of domestic labor, the inaccessibility of affordable and quality childcare, and the instability of many women-filled industries. Without a holistic system to address barriers, there will always be a double standard haunting the women of America.
While we return to a “functional” economy, we ought to consider how many of these women are rejoining a job market with lower earning trajectories. Consider this: if you work in a service industry job such as fast food you can earn a raise for each year you continue to work. The raises could be .50 cents accumulated to five dollars over ten years. Yet if a mother leaves that job during the pandemic when she returns, if she can return to the workforce, she will start again at the bottom. All of her progress will be erased. In other sectors like healthcare, low-wage care jobs have limited access to benefits, high occupational hazard, and little control over scheduling. This is most common for home health care aides. As the negative components stack up, it becomes clear the intersectional
The policies for families must address various barriers to create an equitable workforce.
The federal guideline for child care is no more than seven percent of a household income. Guidelines do not match reality. The average two-parent household spends 25% of household income and single household parents tend to spend half their income on early childhood education. In 33 of the 50 states, childcare costs exceed the cost of in-state college tuition. How can you be saving for your child’s future when their present exhausts all your resources.
Early childhood education is a unique period where the cost of education is entirely dependent on the parents. Before five we see children as private obligations. We expect parents to provide for all spheres of a child’s life, including food shelter, and education. It is not until five years of age we see children as a public good (Mason). A public good diffuses the duty among parents and the government. Public education is free and provided to all children, supplemental nutrition is available at free or reduced costs. Childcare is no longer an issue as children are already supervised by professionally trained staff. The spreading of responsibilities allows for parents to extend or renew their professional careers. The choice between family and career is no longer so fraught.
Forgiving inaccessible rates of child care, the workers in this industry are exhausted. There is high turnover, low wages, and limited scheduling flexibility leading to few invested in the industry. Professionalizing the career path with higher educational expectations can incentivize more people to enter child care fields. After all, these are the people who begin the education of the next generation. The work is admirable and ought to be seen as such. Federal matching funds to increase the salary of childcare workers, as well as tuition assistance and loan forgiveness, are necessary policies to build up the infrastructure of child care.
Childcare is the only one spoke in the wheel. As argued by the IWPR policies that protect women’s health and bodily autonomy, accessible and quality healthcare, a raise in labor and job quality standards particularly in the service industry are needed. Government recognition of the historically discriminatory, racialized, and gendered economic policies that have become normalized into our economic model is a long-overdue conversation. Until we are in a place where women are “empowered to make decisions that are in the best interest of their families and careers” we will never reach workplace equity (Mason).
The issues of the COVID 19 pandemic are not new. Throughout our history females have been in a bitter battle for independence. We are at a time when women contribute nearly eight trillion dollars to the GDP (Mason). Yet this is only a portion of what is possible. Imagine what would change if we create an environment where women were allowed to reach their highest potential without forfeiting their families. Imagine how much better that world would be if children were granted access to quality care, nurtured from a young age, where mothers weren’t forced to make impossible decisions and people actually felt like the government cared for all people? Imagine that.
Covington, Meredith. The “She-Cession” Persists, Especially for Women of Color | St. Louis Fed. https://www.stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy/2020/december/she-cession-persists-women-of-color. Accessed 18 July 2021.
Haridasani Gupta, Alisha. Why Some Women Call This Recession a ‘Shecession’ — The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/09/us/unemployment-coronavirus-women.html. Accessed 19 July 2021.
Holpuch, Amanda. How the “shecession” Will Cause Long-Term Harm for Women in the US | US Economy | The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jan/04/shecession-women-economy-c-nicole-mason-interview. Accessed 18 July 2021.
Mason, C. Nicole. “BOLD POLICIES FOR A GENDER- EQUITABLE RECOVERY.” Https://Iwpr.Org/, p. 53.
Sweet, Joni. “History of Women in the Workplace.” Stacker, https://stacker.com/stories/4393/history-women-workplace. Accessed 18 July 2021.
Warrell, Dr Margie. “Women Are Quitting: How We Can Curb The ‘She-Cession’ And Support Working Women.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2021/01/06/does-a-she-cession-loom-how-to-better-support-women-through-this-pandemic/. Accessed 18 July 2021.