Want To Really Empower Women? Start Paying Them The Same As Men.
On January 1st, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal to pay a woman less than a man. It’s little surprise that the Nordic country was the first to take this plunge. For the last nine years, the World Economic Forum has rated Iceland as the most gender equal country in their annual Global Gender Gap Report. This report combines the “relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics” to explore the size of gender disparity across the globe.
In 2017, the United States was rated number 48.
In a time when women’s issues have taken a national spotlight, the systemic financial disenfranchisement of women in the workforce merits great attention. As powerful men are being revealed as sexual predators, and extreme cases of injustice are being rightfully brought to light, we must not forget the daily endemic of discrimination that women face in every career field — of which sexual harassment is just one terrible element.
Consider the root of the #MeToo conversation. These stories, which cross all industries and unite women regardless of demographic, all start with the imbalance of power. A woman, in a professional setting, being abused and discriminated by a male colleague who holds more power than she does. Sometimes that power exists within the realm of a superior harassing a subordinate, as in the case of Charlie Rose or the recent allegations surrounding VICE Media. Instances like this highlight clear and concrete moments when power is used to elevate discrimination.
However, often this imbalance is murkier. A male colleague may rank lower in one’s career hierarchy, but his opinion is valued more (see Glenn Thrush’s alleged tendency to spread gossip about those who rejected his advances.) Or, a woman who is aware of the common backlash about reporting sexual harassment, and fears losing her job. Her financial stability and the pay disparity she will experience if she has to find a new job may come into play when deciding whether or not to come forward about abuse.
The gender pay gap — and in a more macro sense, gender inequality in the workforce — perpetuates the culture of discrimination that women in this country face every day. Until we dismantle the institutionalized disparity between genders (which is then compounded by the systemic racism also so prevalent in this country’s industries), our steps towards equality will be minimal at best.
A Cycle Of Discrimination
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, white women are paid approximately 76.9% of the salaries their white male colleagues receive. Black women are paid 65.4%, while indigenous and Hispanic women make 59.6% and 53.8%, respectively.
Any fight for equality must include financial stability, for it is economic support that sustainable empowerment comes from. And we’re not talking about the “empowerment” that comes from within, as many pseudo-intellectuals rave about in discussions like this. The restructuring of systems that are designed to benefit one demographic while burdening others is the way to move towards greater civil justice — regardless of whatever the latest coffee shop bro tells you. (And yes, that means boring, wonky actions must be taken, like fighting for legislation that makes it illegal to pay women less than men).
Without financial equality, high percentages of women are trapped in cycles of poverty that harm the most vulnerable factions of our society. Class mobility is stifled, and women have less power to make decisions that are in their best interest. When women are relegated to relying on male partners for financial stability, they lack the autonomy that every citizen deserves. This can also have damaging political ramifications, as seen in the recent Alabama Senate race:
This, of course, is not to mention the myriad of research that proves that when women are financially empowered, the economy flourishes. In addition to this indisputable fact, it’s important to remember that pay equality should be achieved for the simple fact that it’s right and deserved — not because it’ll benefit the patriarchal systems already in place.
When sexism is considered with economics, we begin to see a picture of why women contend with glass ceilings in so many industries. In our society, men are more likely to receive support when seeking higher education, promotions, etc. They systematically benefit from certain societal structures — allowing them to become financially empowered with greater ease than their female counterparts. Entire career fields are built on misogynistic foundations, aiming to promote a boy’s club of an institutional level.
As such, women face a greater uphill battle when seeking to better their financial station. They face scales that are tilted towards white men, forcing them to fight for balance before even getting a foot in the door of their chosen industry. This must be taken into consideration when exploring the disparity between the roles of men and women in our country, as well as the damages brought to light by the #MeToo movement.
Financial instability leads to less recourse when combating sexual harassment, and combating sexual harassment can lead to less financial stability. It is a vicious cycle of discrimination and disempowerment.
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Protect Women, Protect All People
Let’s go back to how this harms the most vulnerable members of our society — for what good is a society that does not protect the poor, the sick, the children?
Nearly half of the workforce is made up of women, and the importance of women’s salaries on the economic stability of families is steadily increasing. The IWPR found that if women received equal pay, the “poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half, falling from 8.0 percent to 3.8 percent.” Around 25.8 million children would benefit. It’s worth emphasizing that children face some of the greatest ramifications from growing up below the poverty line, from cognitive difficulties to higher rates of incarceration.
This, once again, is compounded when one considers how disproportionately these ramifications impact women of color, who are already heavily disenfranchised by institutionalized racism which further tilts the scales out of their favor.
Another complication regarding families and the gender pay gap is that when women exist as the primary caregivers for children, they are often relegated to careers that have more flexible hours in order to raise said children. These jobs can pay less or lack stability. There are even legal cases where it has been proven that if a woman becomes a mother, her career advancement options are minimized.
Coincidentally, men’s career options tend to grow when they become fathers.
In certain areas of the country, lack of access to daycare facilities creates child care deserts, where women may be forced to leave the workforce or take part-time jobs in order to compensate for the insufficient care. When women take time off of work for child care, they are often punished for the loss of human capital. Returning to work may knock them down a pay grade, as gaps in one’s resume generally devalue a person’s capital.
Demolishing the gender pay gap would “likely lead to more equitable sharing of child rearing” benefiting both the economic and emotional standing of American families.
For single women, pay equality would slash the poverty rate by over half. A note for certain Republicans, this type of decline in poverty would minimize reliance on those public programs you seem to hate so much — Medicare, food-stamp programs, etc.
Workplace discrimination is rampant and damages half of the population. How can a society expect to function in a healthy manner if it is built in such a misguided fashion?
The answer is, it cannot — which is what we have been seeing over the past year. As women rise up to break the silence about the injustices they’ve suffered, they are shedding light on the greater systemic inequality that exists at the crux of this moment.
So if we want to really empower women, if we want to really smash down doors that bar women from the rooms that men have always been allowed to enter, we’ve got to go at it from a structural mentality. Discrimination against women is institutional, which means the solutions must be institutional as well.
The systems and industries that make up this country weren’t made for us women. But — in the fashion of all historic movements — we’re going to make them work for us. Just watch.