A couple decides that they are ready to start a family. They both work in the same field, same experience and qualifications, but the man in the couple earns 16 percent more annually than the woman.
They would both like to be able to stay home with their child after the birth but can afford for only one of them to do so. Eliminating the higher salary doesn’t make financial sense so, together, they decide that the mother will take a step back from work to become the child’s primary caregiver.
The couple chose to start a family. They chose the timing. They chose which parent would stay home. And yet, too often when the gender pay gap is discussed in our country, the “choice” to take time away from paid employment to care for a child, or for that matter an ailing family member, is attributed to the person taking the time off — most often, this is the female in a heterosexual relationship.
Saying that one makes a choice implies that there were multiple viable options and for women, that frequently is not the case. That “choice” to be the stay-at-home-parent will have lifelong financial repercussions for this woman, which are compounded by the many layers of explicit and implicit bias that she will face in the workplace and society. If she becomes a single mother through divorce or death of her spouse, her future and that of her child becomes even more difficult. That is true even if both parents are alive and the father is paying child support.
Included in nearly all discussions of why the gender pay gap persists is mention of the “choices” a woman makes, but how many of those were truly choices? Baked into most women’s professional experiences will be considerations of her age (is she in her child-bearing years and will she really be here in the long term?); does she have children (how much time will she need to take off for sick kids, their doctor and dentist appointments, school field trips, etc.?); and many other gender-based concerns.
Now, these questions are no longer allowed to be asked in job interviews, but the information isn’t difficult to ascertain, for assumptions to be made, or for the undercurrent of implicit bias to enter into the equation. Even once employed, women are promoted less frequently than their male peers and concerns about their existing or potential family obligations often factor into those decisions.
This isn’t some intentional victimization of women. In fact, I don’t see women as victims at all. I’m constantly blown away by the strength, resilience, talent and skills of women who I encounter. I don’t think most employers make decisions based on the goal of holding women back.
But I do believe that there are cultural and structural hurdles that women need to clear to succeed that are far less frequently encountered by men. Then again, in a secondary-harm sense, those hurdles do have a negative impact upon men as part of families and members of the larger economy. So-called women’s issues are not just women’s issues.
Women who are paid less for doing the same jobs as men cannot contribute as much to their family’s economic health. Pay inequity and “choices” families make regarding who takes a step back from their work to care for children mean that less is being contributed to Social Security and, when possible, to retirement investments.
These issues, among others, are significant contributing factors to the disproportionate number of older women who live in poverty. This pay inequity means that men who would very much like to play an equal or primary role in their children’s upbringing also can’t make a choice unencumbered by salary disparities. And then there is the stigma that many men face who do take time off or scale back their professional lives to spend more time taking on child-rearing responsibilities.
Additional issues that disproportionately create hurdles for women are the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence and abuse. The majority of women who experience workplace sexual harassment will leave their job within two years and take a position where they will earn less or have less responsibility.
Domestic violence can result in increased medical expenses, legal expenses and time lost from work, not to mention the toll that physical and emotional harm take on productivity. Economic abuse, which is a very real and devastating form of domestic abuse, can prevent women from owning property, controlling their paychecks and accruing savings, in some cases preventing them from working at all, and creating a tremendous obstacle to leaving the abusive relationship.
So, where do we begin to fix the problems?
I would encourage everyone to read the new, data-rich 2019 status report by Change the Story called “Women, Work and Wages in Vermont.” It’s available at changethestory.org and is a treasure trove of data and analysis integral to understanding and breaking down barriers to women’s financial stability and success.
Some nuggets that I found shocking:
• Families on the whole set more money aside for college tuition for sons than daughters.
• The pay gap begins at home, where sons’ allowances are nearly double that of their sisters.
• Women hold two-thirds of all college debt in the U.S., which makes the wage gap even more harmful; women must borrow more to finance their educations and repay those loans with less income.
• For every hurdle placed before cisgender, white, non-disabled women, one still higher is placed in front of women of color, LGBTQ folk and women with disabilities.
Another outstanding new resource is the Workplaces For All website (workplacesforall.vermont.gov). It is one of the positive outcomes of Vermont’s 2018 sweeping sexual harassment legislation that provided funds to the Vermont Commission on Women to create the site. It’s a resource for employers, workers (all classifications of workers, not just employees), bystanders, company executives and managers and generally anyone who cares about creating fair and respectful workplaces for all.
Although we might have different approaches to reaching that destination, I hope that goal is one we all share.
Lisa Senecal is co-founder of The Maren Group, a writer, and chair of the Vermont Commission on Women. A Vermont native, she lives in Stowe.