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‘Women’s Work’ Can No Longer Be Taken for Granted

Last week, as Americans were obsessing over the results of the presidential election, a New Zealand law aimed at eliminating pay discrimination against women in female-dominated occupations went into effect. The bill, which takes an approach known as “pay equity,” provides a road map for addressing the seemingly intractable gender pay gap.

Unlike “equal pay” — the concept most often used to address gender pay disparities in the United States — the concept of “pay equity” doesn’t just demand equal pay for women doing the same work as men, in the same positions. Such efforts, while worthwhile, ignore the role of occupational segregation in keeping women’s pay down: There are some jobs done mostly by women and others that are still largely the province of men. The latter are typically better paid.

But if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it is that what has traditionally been women’s work — caring, cleaning, the provision of food — can no longer be taken for granted. “It’s not the bankers and the hedge fund managers and the highest paid people” upon whose services we’ve come to rely, said Amy Ross, former national organizer for New Zealand’s Public Service Association union. “It’s our supermarket workers, it’s our cleaners, it’s our nurses — and they’re all women!”

It has also taught us how poorly these jobs are compensated. Over half of workers designated essential in the United States are women; their jobs are typically paid well below the median hourly wage of a little over $19 an hour. (Median hourly pay for cashiers is just $11.37; for child care workers it’s $11.65; health support workers such as home health aides and orderlies make $12.68.)

Instead of “equal pay for equal work,” supporters of pay equity call for “equal pay for work of equal value,” or “comparable worth.” They ask us to consider whether a female-dominated occupation such as nursing home aide, for instance, is really so different from a male-dominated one, such as corrections officer, when both are physically exhausting, emotionally demanding, and stressful — and if not, why is the nursing home aide paid so much less? In the words of New Zealand’s law, the pay scale for women should be “determined by reference to what men would be paid to do the same work abstracting from skills, responsibility, conditions and degrees of effort.”

What is at stake is not just a simple pay raise but a societywide reckoning with the value of “women’s work.” How much do we really think this work is worth? But also: How do we decide?

The idea of pay equity is at least a century old. A 1919 draft of the International Labor Organization’s constitution, which formed part of the Treaty of Versailles, cites “the principle that men and women should receive equal remuneration for work of equal value.” The I.L.O.’s Equal Remuneration Convention, which went into force in 1953, has been ratified by 173 member countries (the United States is one of 14 holdouts). Still, the gender pay gap remains a feature of nearly every economy on earth.

The movement for pay equity gained momentum in North America in the late 1970s and 1980s, when provinces across Canada began passing pay equity laws and several U.S. states with strong labor movements, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Hawaii, undertook pay equity evaluations for public employees. (As a result, in 1982, clerk typists in Minnesota saw their monthly pay increased by $267, to match that of a delivery van driver, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity’s website.)

But the movement, in the United States at least, lost much of its momentum just a few years later, when a 1985 ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a judgment by a Federal District Court that would have given female Washington state employees substantial raises based on a pay equity study. Judge Anthony Kennedy, who would later go onto the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion, in which he argued that the Washington state pay equity plan required the state to “eliminate an economic inequality that it did not create,” thus interfering with the free market for labor. With that ruling, alongside other legal setbacks courtesy of conservative judges appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and the broader ascendance of free-market thought, the movement lost its legal leverage. By the early 1990s, the pay equity movement was faltering.

Read entire article at New York Times