Beyond Binders Full of Women: What Will Really Erase Gender Wage Inequality?

Mitt Romney’s awkwardly-phrased “binders full of women” statement unfortunately captured more attention than his non-answer to the question about the wage gap between men and women.  (Also the story is a lie– Romney didn’t ask the women’s organizations for the binders, the organizations presented them to both Romney and his opponent during the campaign as a challenge)

But I think the real story here is that progressives don’t really have a unified agenda for how to address wage inequality either.  

The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed into law by Obama is a good policy, but just nibbles at the issue.  So what now?

Solutions are tricky because the problem is tricky.

Although women make 77 cents for every dollar that men make, economists chalk up about 9 cents of that gap to unexplained factors such as pure discrimination of the “I don’t think you’re smart/strong/skilled enough because you have a vagina” variety.  The other 14 cents are due to things like women having less work-experience or education or being in lower paid industries.  

Some people think it’s only the 9 cent “unexplained factors” that we need to go after.  I think that’s stupid.  The true burden of gender inequality isn’t from a few mean boss men being meanies to women workers.  It results from a compounding of one layer of deeply entrenched inequality on top of another on top of another.

It’s the cleaning lady who makes less money than her construction worker husband, who loses seniority by leaving the workforce for a few years to take care of the kids, which is influenced by the fact that society pays construction workers more than cleaning ladies (due to historical expectations of “women’s work” not needing as much pay), which is also influenced by the husband never being taught how to cook and clean and take care of other people when he was a boy, and is also influenced by her parents who didn’t encourage their daughter to become a construction worker instead, and it’s all influenced by our whole damn society’s obsession with macho cutthroat competition.

For example, it’s not like the lack of women engineers just fell from the sky from the fucking Math Gods.  It’s in large part due to documented discrimination within the sciences in academia.  So when policy wonks say “Well, if you read the STUDIES, the REAL wage gap is only 91/100,” I say they just don’t get how inequality really works.

But what they’re really saying is that there are some parts of the gender wage gap due to sexism, and some parts due to choice.  (Choice of lower-paying careers or college majors, choice of being a stay-at-home-mom for a few years, etc.)  However, if most of the wage gap is due to choice, that gap should theoretically be eliminated and even reversed within a generation.

That’s because today, American women under the age of 35 are now actually much more likely than men to say being successful in a high-paying career is very important in their lives.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s a good thing that women increasingly value making money over other priorities like their families.  It’s not that men care less about money than they did a generation ago, but only that women care more.  I think Americans of all genders could use a little more focus on their families over their careers.  But I digress.

The point is despite that women of my generation are apparently more career/money driven than men, I doubt my generation will see the wage gap magically vanish.

Why?

I don’t think changes in personal preferences will erase the wage gap because I don’t think personal preferences are the reason the wage gap exists now.   Personal choices don’t exist in a vacuum– they’re affected by laws, institutions, culture, resource constraints and power dynamics.  More women choose to be teachers.  But women don’t get to choose the fact that teachers make less money than other jobs with similar education levels.  If you happen to like teaching, you just gotta suck it up.

Some solutions I can think of:

  • Mandating companies give paid maternity leave (we’re one of the only countries without it)
  • Unions focusing on women-dominated industries like domestic work, food service, garment work, childcare
  • Raising the minimum wage (minimum wage-earners are mostly women)
  • A cultural shift towards greater acceptance of men also taking off work to raise children (paid paternity leave might help)
  • A turn away from the budget cuts that have disproportionately hurt women working in public-service jobs like teaching and social work

But the larger issue here is that I’m just throwing out random thoughts.  We’re not on the same page with a real agenda for how to address the gender wage gap.  And I’m not holding my breath that the gap will be closed unless we come together with something real and move it forward.

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