Equal Pay for Equal Work is Only Step One

You can’t talk about wage gaps without talking about the racialisation of these gaps.
Publish date:
April 23, 2012
racism, politics, employment, gender gap, mind the gap, wage gap

The Controversy

Last week, the Romney campaign decided to come out swinging with a claim that the Obama administration is bad for women, evidently in the hopes of wooing those pesky female voters back to the flock. Unfortunately, the architect of these particular talking points apparently didn’t think them out at all, which make the campaign look completely foolish -- see, for example, the claim that “women account for 92.3% of the jobs lost” under Obama, which didn’t even hold up under the most basic fact check.

It’s pretty obvious to everyone, including many Republicans, that the Romney campaign is off-base with that 92% statement -- the Obama administration hasn’t been unilaterally good for women, and I don’t agree with all the decisions it’s made and supported in regard to women’s rights, but given the war on women that people like Romney are spearheading right now, the claim was pretty laughable.

It’s also ludicrous to blame the current President for an economic mess inherited from Bush and, yes, Clinton; Obama hasn’t always managed the situation in the way I would like, but that doesn’t mean he’s to blame for all the things that have happened in the last four years.

I really just wanted an excuse to use this picture, which Nichelle Nichols kindly shared with the world.

But there’s more going on here than just the surface statement, which was already pretty dubious, because it occurred in the context of the ramp up to Equal Pay Day, an annual event that tends to spark a lot of discussion.

Twitter was alive with conversation and statistics on gender inequality and wages, but the problems with the pay and employment gap are more complicated than that.

Digging Deeper...

Evaluating the Romney campaign’s claims, E. G. at The Economist pointed out that men and women are employed in different kinds of settings. Which means that their overall employment statistics do tend to differ; the issue here isn’t just “equal pay for equal work,” but flat-out equal work:

Men lost jobs first, as the private sector shuddered. The losses for women (who are overrepresented in, for example, schools and civil service) became more noticeable over time, as states and cities started slashing their budgets in response to the recession...Women are more likely to work in service-providing jobs, such as schools or health care...

Women, in other words, are more likely to be employed in the service sector or in government positions with traditionally service-oriented roles. Gendered employment is a historical issue and one that still persists; for example, roughly 17% of employed men worked in natural resources in 2011, versus less than 1% of employed women.

Teaching is heavily gendered. (Photo by Flickr user cybrarian77, Creative Commons license.)

Pay is different for different kinds of work; this is a reality we are all aware of and accept. I expect my surgeon to make more than the clerk who sells me books, given the higher degree of training and skill required to be a surgeon. I still think the clerk should make a fair wage, be provided with benefits, and have a safe, pleasant workplace, of course.

Simplistic views of the wage gap when it comes to gender don’t always consider this issue, or don’t do it well. Women still make less overall than men do for the same work. But they also lack opportunities for higher paying jobs, and are more likely to be employed in lower-paying jobs. This is an important issue to confront when talking about wage equality and employment statistics.

Part of the reason rough data shows a wage gap is not just because women don’t make as much as men for doing the same tasks, but because women are employed in more low-wage settings.

Deeper Still...

But it doesn’t end there. Because you can’t talk about wage gaps without talking about the racialisation of these gaps.

Most people citing basic statistics on gendered wage gaps are giving a broad picture; men make $798 to women’s $638, on average, per week (as of 2008 statistics), for example. That is significant. However, there’s more to it than that; for every $654 the average white woman makes per week, her Latina sisters are making $501, and Black women are making $554. This is illustrative of a huge racial wage gap; to be a woman of colour is to make less money overall not just than men in general, but also white women.

One of the reasons for that is the sexism that means women don’t get equal pay for equal work, and the racism that results in lower wages for women of colour doing the same work as white women. Despite legislation intended to prevent such discrimination, it's still a problem in workplaces across the US, and at all levels, from dishwashers to executive officers.

Housekeeping: Gendered and racialised labour. (Photo by Flickr user Cult Gigolo, Creative Commons license.

In addition to the gendered disparities in terms of types of work performed discussed above, there are also significant racial gaps. Hitting BLS statistics again, 42% of white women in the workplace were in managerial roles in 2011. Contrast that with Black (34.1%) and Latina (25%) women. Meanwhile, 31.2% of Latinas in the workforce were involved in service occupations, compared with 19.9% among employed white women.

It makes such a nice visual, doesn't it?

When people start throwing wage and salary statistics around, it can be easy to start drowning in a sea of numbers. Especially in an era of fast-moving soundbite 140-character media, gross simplification is a very common issue. It’s easier to say, for example, that a woman makes 86 cents for every dollar a man earns, without interrogating or examining those numbers more closely.

Equal pay for equal work is only part of the equation -- and it’s notable that the Romney campaign has resisted requests for comment on the Lilly Ledbetter Act -- it’s also important to acknowledge that women tend to dominate low-paying jobs, and that women of colour, particularly Black and Latina women, make even less than their white counterparts and are even more heavily represented in the service industry. Without addressing the institutional factors that play a role in the kind of work people perform, equal pay protections simply won't be sufficient.

And that is definitely not President Obama’s fault.