Women’s unequal lot: Lower pay reflects more than just salary discrepancies

The New York TimesApril 20, 2014 

I dropped in on my sister earlier this month. As usual, I was amazed.

I work a single job; she works three or four. There’s her paid one at an executive search firm, finding and screening candidates for corner offices in the retail industry. Then there are the others.

She spends many hours daily as a combined chauffeur, drill sergeant, cheerleader and emotional nursemaid for her two children and two stepchildren. During my visit, on a Wednesday night, our chat was interrupted repeatedly so that she could tangle with her son about an unfinished school essay or field questions from her daughter about softball.

She’s the vice president of her New Jersey township’s board of education, because she feels an obligation to better the community in which her kids live. And she’s hosting our family’s Easter celebration, when 20 of us will descend on her.

I could see the extra stress settling in. Like too many women, she frets that the smoothness with which she pulls off a holiday is a verdict on her character, her femininity.

Her husband’s a champ. He pitches in, lavishly. But the buck really does stop with her.

Although she’s had enormous professional success, being a woman has surely constrained her. She chose employment that allows her to telecommute frequently, a necessary aspect of her juggling act.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the positions she has held would have paid her more if she were a man.

But the disparities that she faces are so much more complicated than her salary. Decades into the discussion about how to ensure women’s equality, we have a culture that still places a different set of expectations and burdens on women and that still nudges or even shames them into certain roles.

There was too little recognition of that at the White House April 8, when President Barack Obama practiced the timeless political art of oversimplification, reducing a messy reality into a tidy figure and saying that working women make only 77 cents for every dollar that working men earn. He left the impression that this was principally the consequence of direct discrimination in the form of unequal pay for the same job.

Some of it is, and that’s flatly unacceptable.

But most of it isn’t. And the misuse of the 77-cent statistic could actually hurt the important cause of giving women a fair shake, because it allows people who don’t value that goal a way to discredit those of us who do, and because it gives short shrift to dynamics that must be a part of any meaningful, truthful, constructive discussion.

The 77-cent figure speaks to the earnings of all women and all men classified as full-time workers. But it doesn’t adjust for the longer hours that such men generally work. It doesn’t factor in the paychecks of the many men and women who are employed part time.

When all of that comes into play and hourly income is calculated, women make 84 cents for every dollar that men do, according to the Pew Research Center. Even that 16-cent difference, though, isn’t entirely about women earning less money for the same work. It’s influenced by many factors, including the greater percentage of women who slow down their careers because of child-rearing responsibilities and fall behind.

To wit: Among younger women, many of whom have yet to hit that pause button, the hourly “wage gap” is 93 cents on the dollar, according to Pew’s number crunching. Other analyses reach similar conclusions.

In the White House, women made 88 cents for every dollar that men did last year, according to a review by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and salaries there are determined by hierarchical rank, not managerial discretion. What created the gap wasn’t unequal pay for equal work; it was a concentration of women in lower positions.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, explained this as if it were some sort of exoneration, when it merely raises other, bigger questions. At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and elsewhere, why are so many women at the bottom?

Patriarchies, like old habits, die hard. In many arenas, we’re simply accustomed to being led by men. It’s our default, our fallback. With Stephen Colbert’s appointment to replace David Letterman, we’ve continued a period of intense shuffling of the late-night chairs, and each one that belonged to a man went to another man.

Chelsea Handler is ending her own show; the days when Joan Rivers was a guest host for Johnny Carson are long gone; and on the major networks around midnight, it’s a boys’ club. Women get to tuck in the children, but not the national television audience.

By suggesting that the chief culprit for women’s inferior earnings is discriminatory pay, the 77-cent figure lets too many men off the hook, not forcing them to confront their culpability as bosses who care too little for women’s advancement, as husbands who prioritize their own careers and as fathers who don’t participate fully around the house.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, the sociologist who examined the burden of working women in the book “The Second Shift,” told me that since its publication 25 years ago, men have improved – but not enough. Back then, she said, “If you put a woman’s paid and unpaid labor beside her husband’s, and they both worked full time and had kids under 6, she was working an extra month.” Now, she said, it’s an extra two weeks.

That situation, she cautioned, pertains largely to affluent women. For less affluent ones, the issue is often men who are entirely absent. Equal-pay legislation doesn’t begin to address what these women need.

If we’re concerned about them, if we’re concerned about all working women, we have to talk about child care, flexible hours, paid leave. We have to talk about gender stereotypes and whether they steer women into professions with lower compensation. We have to talk about the choices that women make and which of those they feel muscled into.

Obama acknowledged that much only after he dwelt on the 77 cents.

“We got to make it possible for more women to enter high-paying fields,” he said, going on to note, “Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have women at the helm.”

Being at the helm would probably push my sister over the edge. I checked in with her on Friday at noon, by which point she had driven her son to school, attended a board of education meeting elsewhere, returned to her son’s school for a conference and then gone to the doctor to deal with a case of conjunctivitis — in both of her eyes — and a sore throat. She had hoped, but failed, to get her broken eyeglasses fixed somewhere along the way.

“How can I place senior executives when I’m facing my son’s headmaster with glasses at a 45-degree angle on my head and pinkeye?” she said, with the kind of laugh that’s a sob in drag. “I look like a total hot mess.”

Or a cautionary tale. Or, to me, a superhero.

Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist.

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