This weekend, known feminist rabble-rouser Hanna Rosin published an article on Slate declaring that the gender pay gap we all fret about is, actually, not real. My husband sent me the link thinking I was going to lose my mind. But really, as soon as I saw the piece title, I thought “I bet I know where she’s going.”
Rosin makes use of lit reviews and analysis of the information that conjured the statistic that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. When controlled for numbers of hours worked, age, education, and union affiliation however, that number broke down. Turns out, women aren’t doing so badly when all factors are controlled. While we’re not at 100%, we’re at about 91%. In fact, women have been becoming more educated than their male counterparts for a while now. There is mostly good news here. But what about those 9 percentage points?
“The big differences are in occupation and industry. Women congregate in different professions than men do, and the largely male professions tend to be higher-paying,” Rosin aptly explains.
This research, and Rosin’s wrestling with it, perhaps unsurprisingly resonated with this social worker and freelance writer. I have the kind of career that elicits comments such as, “Well, you don’t get into that for the money” or “Bless your heart. We need people like you.” If I get the feeling that the person commenting has the wrong idea about social work, I’ve been known to respond, “No, I think you misunderstood me. I’m not a volunteer. I am educated at the Master level and work in a licensed profession. I am trained to work in politics and policy, as a resource broker for others, and in psychotherapy and mental health diagnostics.” I find that this is news to most people.
But to Rosin’s point, I think the comment, “We need people like you” is particularly interesting. Why, exactly, are most people “like me” also women? I have attended task forces, coalitions, and summits of mental health professionals to find that all the social workers are women, while the psychologists are usually about evenly split, but the psychiatrists are mostly all men. As the pay scale rises, the number of women drops. Most teachers? Women. Childcare providers, domestic employees, housekeeping staff? You guessed it.
Last week, a blog post, “Just a Nurse,” made the rounds on social media. The writer reflects on her place in the medical community, and the credibility she garners. When asked “Are you a doctor?” she would reply, “No, just a nurse.” But then the writer carefully considers her training, her subsequent knowledge set, and her daily work.
“ I am often in a room with a small child on a ventilator, multiple intravenous medications infusing through central lines keeping the vascular system constricted or dilated. I monitor blood gases and adjust ventilator settings accordingly. If the blood pressure goes too high I adjust the medications related to these values. I keep my patient adequately sedated and paralyzed, for their safety, without over medicating them. It is often my responsibility to determine this balance.”
No “just” about that to me.
If women are valued primarily as nurturers in our cultural context, it isn’t shocking that some of us gravitate to and feel more naturally talented in caretaking roles. And, given that we are the bodies that can house new life, and feed new life for months after birth, our careers often take a different trajectory than those of men. And I don’t think any of these are the problem. The problem is that word: just. You just gestated new life, and fed it with your own body? You just control a room of 30 first graders all day, despite their various behavior problems, learning disabilities, and unknown family life? You just find ways for refugees to obtain housing, English language skills, employment, and medical care four months after they land in the States?
Put that way, it sounds pretty ridiculous.
This is part professional identity and pride, yes. It’s also part of the work still left for the feminist movement. And just as past feminist gains have been good for everyone, regardless of gender, changing the deeply ingrained value structure placed on our professions will raise status , wages, and benefits for the men performing this jobs as well.
Rosin ends her article by saying, “you have to leave room at least for the option of choice—that women just don’t want to work the same way men do.” I believe that extends to any of us who took a career knowing we would not be buying a lakehouse with our Christmas bonus. We have to redefine success to mean fulfillment.
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