The Myth of Equality
If women were equal, they would be seen, heard, and their stories would be told equally. As of 2020, women make up 7 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of Nobel Prize Winners, and only 24 percent of “heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio.” Women reported 37 percent of news stories and this trend is also true in the “democratized” digital media. In film, women represent 31 percent of speaking characters, 23 percent of protagonists, and 21 percent are filmmakers. In sport, “Despite progress, women still continue to be excluded… and are paid far less than men in wages and prize money globally.” Their self-expression, ideas, and personhood remain visible at fractions of the men’s, why?
There are a myriad of reasons as to why women are not seen and heard in these professions, and undeniably many of them have to do with the unalienable characteristic of being female. This is not to say that sexism is necessarily rampant or intentional, but that society has not yet found a way to allow women to coexist in work outside the home. In high school and college, on average women out perform men. In their early careers, women too outperform their male counterparts. It is not until the middle of their careers that we see a shift. Kindly, conservative psychologist, Jordan Peterson, said that because women tend to be more agreeable, they are less inclined to be cut throat in their path to the pinnacle of their careers. He also said that successful women on track to become administrators, partners, and CEOs are often also married to successful men who make the same or more than they do so money is usually not a object and the choice to stay home and care for their children seems wise and obvious.
Women do make choices that contribute to their own invisibility and lower income, but the notion that this is a free choice rather than a restrained and economic one is simply not true. When one searches the internet for information on the gender pay gap, the top two hits are sponsored from two organizations that seem at odds with one another: the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). In his scathing article about recent pay-gap research by the IWPR, John Phelen of FEE claimed that pay gap research is poor social science because it takes the average male and average female salaries. He said looking at the data this way does not account for choices women make, asserting that women on average work 7 hours a day to the 8 the average male worker puts in. He said that anyone who works less than someone else should expect to earn less. Proudly, Phelen claims that a Harvard study confirms what he and Peterson assert, namely that women choose to earn less. Harvard researchers examined data collected from the highly unionized and regulated Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), where wage differences between men and women were virtually unthinkable. Phelen said, “Workers are promoted on the basis of seniority rather than performance, and male and female workers of the same seniority have the same choices for scheduling, routes, vacation, and overtime. There is almost no scope here for a sexist boss to favor men over women.” Here is Phelen’s analysis of the study:
They find that male train and bus drivers worked about 83 percent more overtime than their female colleagues and were twice as likely to accept an overtime shift—which pays time-and-a-half—on short notice and that around twice as many women as men never took overtime. The male workers took 48 percent fewer unpaid hours off under the Family Medical Leave Act each year. Female workers were more likely to take less desirable routes if it meant working fewer nights, weekends, and holidays. Parenthood turns out to be an important factor. Fathers were more likely than childless men to want the extra cash from overtime, and mothers were more likely to want time off than childless women.
His conclusion is actually very similar to those of IWPR, but they claim that, “Women’s ‘choices’ are not necessarily choices.” Families at the peak of their professional careers are also often raising children and this family choice has a disproportionate impact on the woman’s career. The Center for American Progress explains:
Today, many families with young children must make a choice between spending a significant portion of their income on child care, finding a cheaper, but potentially lower-quality care option, or leaving the workforce altogether to become a full-time caregiver. Whether due to high cost, limited availability, or inconvenient program hours, child care challenges are driving parents out of the workforce at an alarming rate. In fact, in 2016 alone, an estimated 2 million parents made career sacrifices due to problems with child care.
Child care challenges have become a barrier to work, especially for mothers, who disproportionately take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities when their family cannot find or afford child care. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Center for American Progress, mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to report that they had personally felt the negative impact of child care issues on their careers.
Why is it difficult for young families to find childcare? This is one of the most needed and underpaid professions in society. Childcare workers, almost all women, on average earn the equivalent of a cashier or food service worker. In fact, across the board jobs traditionally held by women are lower paid, also contributing to the gap. How is it that jobs in such high demand are not paid well? There seems to be a societal value that the work women do is valued less. There is a long history of this, after all the majority of women’s work used to be unpaid. A good wife maintained a spectacular home, immaculate, with hearty meals, and healthy, curious children. This job was a 24-hour job for which women earned no monetary compensation. Women were supported by their spouses in a society that had no substantive plan for when the spouse died, left, or failed to provide. When women sought careers outside the home, jobs were advertised as “women’s jobs” and could overtly be paid less as a result.
Women routinely requested equal pay, but were denied because of comparisons to similar jobs within that field, a comparison that is flawed and perpetuates the wage gap. When jobs are compared between comparable “male” and “female” fields, however, the pay gap is significant. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research compared elementary school teachers, the most common female occupation, to software developers, the most common male occupation. Both jobs require similar degrees, risks, and burdens. On average elementary school teachers made $982 a week, while software developers made $1894, not to mention that female software developers make $200 less than their male peers on average.
Women’s work is undervalued and this gap is not only seen between fields, but most notably and flagrantly within fields. IWPR concluded in their expansive study and research into the data of more than 125 occupations that, “Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in occupations predominantly done by women, occupations predominantly done by men, or occupations with a more even mix of men and women.” This was true between men and women of the same race as well. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the US national soccer teams, where the women earn substantially less than the men. The argument is that the women’s game generates less revenue than the men’s. The US women’s team actually earns a higher percentage of revenue earned than the men do, but the women argue that the commitment and labor is equivalent and should garner equal pay. The argument is about value: how do we as a society value the people who work in it? When people put in equal effort, risk, and time, shouldn’t they be paid similarly?
In the last quarter century, despite feminism, mothers stay home at essentially the same rate because childcare is an enduring problem society has not yet solved. Many lament the declining “American family” and the fact that young Americans are increasingly choosing not to have children, but the cost of living continues to rise and many families depend on two incomes. Additionally, while dad’s stay home more frequently than they did in the 1980’s, only 7% of dads stay home. A huge part of this decision is economic. PEW Research saw a huge surge in stay at home parents, especially dads, in the wake of the Great Recession due largely to the fact that they couldn’t find work that could offset the cost of childcare. The stagnation of stay at home parenting could reflect both the continued desire of many parents make the care of their children their life’s work and also how few options parents have for support.
It would be unfair to blame the patriarchy for biological aspects of child rearing, but after recovery and breastfeeding, there seems little reason the pressure and responsibility of child rearing could not be shared between parents. Gloria Steinem regularly stated in her essay, “The Importance of Work,” regularly reminded everyone that we all had two parents. In the US, only 9 percent of workplaces offer paid paternity leave and 76 percent of fathers return to work within a week of their child’s birth leaving new mothers to fend for themselves. After birth, doctors recommend a whole slew of limitations on women’s activity, especially women who give birth by cesarean section. After the birth of a baby, fathers are caregivers not only to their children, but to their recovering wife. The average woman is not cleared for normal activity by her doctor for between six to twelve weeks. I was one of the unlucky women who also underwent a rare emergency surgery six weeks postpartum prolonging my recovery. My husband’s employer had no paternity policy and although he was allowed to take two sick days to stay with me and our baby in the hospital, I was certainly not recovered after those two days.
The assumption often made is that there is little a man can do to help with the clear biological aspects of a baby’s first months of life. This is a concept mothers I know call the “default parent.” I remember vividly when my son was born the nurse saying that it was time to feed him. No amount of reading or birth class can prepare someone for the moment that a foreign being is pushed toward your nipple with the expectation that something will happen. I remember feeling like a fraud and being shocked when it actually worked. For the next few months I was indoctrinated as default parent with the hourly expectation that I could resolve anything that upset the baby despite the fact that my husband was also present. This baby was just as foreign to me as to my husband, but yet he and everyone else expected me to know what to do.
The biological aspect of womanhood cannot be understated and society has yet to find a solution that doesn’t put the pressure either on women or their spouses. Up until 2019, Ironman faced criticism for allowing fewer female professionals to compete at the world championship. Their defense was that the field of professional women was smaller and that their allocation of spots was proportional. Why were fewer women competing? One answer is that the peak of Ironman performance is around 35 years old, also the time when many women were having babies. Women who compete in Ironman had to schedule their career around having babies in ways men did not. Ironman had a very limited maternity policy and therefore professionals like Mirinda Carfrae, Rachel Jastrebsky, Meredith Kessler, and others had to re-qualify as a professional within months of having a baby. Jastrebsky did Ironman Lake Placid 11 months after childbirth only to learn afterward that she was pregnant with her second baby. Women, not only in sport, at the peak of their careers often face choices men don’t about pursuit of family and career.
Should society help families? If we want people to have children, yes. And we should want people to have children and have the means to raise them well. Finances are the leading cause of divorce and poverty is inexcusably tied to single parenthood. The rearing of our neighbor’s children should be our concern because it has disastrous impacts on the psychology and prospects of the children as well as the economy at large. The Atlantic addressed the plight of single parents, especially mothers in a 2015 article:
Single-parent households (which by and large are headed by women) have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960. Now, 35 percent of children live in single-parent households… But while the numbers are growing, the amount of help available to single mothers is not.
The lack of resources and rising numbers of single parents should alarm everyone. The American Psychological Association explained that poverty has adverse academic impacts due to the toll poverty driven stress and anxiety wreck on children’s minds affecting everything from memory to concentration. Dropout rates among this portion of the population are over four times higher than children living above the poverty line. Behavioral problems like impulsiveness, anxiety, ADHD, depression, and violence are seen at higher rates in children raised in poverty.
If poverty and discrimination are not sufficient, there is also a darker side of the inequities women face usually at the hands of men: violence against women. The UN found that 35 percent of women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, a figure that can vary by country substantially, with some countries reporting up to 70 percent of women. In the US the data is similar. The CDC asserts that one in four women experiences sexual violence by a partner, compared to one in ten men. An intimate partner kills half of women who are murdered. While sexual violence with non-partners is relatively similar between women and men, rape victims are much more likely to be women. One in five women in the US have reported being raped, while one in thirty-eight men have, and a high percentage of both genders were raped before adulthood. The CDC explains that the trauma of sexual violence is long term, impacting the quality of ones life emotionally and financially. They said:
The consequences may also be chronic. Victims may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, experience re-occurring gynecological, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and sexual health problems.
Sexual violence is also linked to negative health behaviors. For example, victims are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity.
The trauma resulting from sexual violence can have an impact on a survivor’s employment in terms of time off from work, diminished performance, job loss, or being unable to work. These disrupt earning power and have a long-term effect on the economic well-being of survivors and their families.
The CDC recommends solutions to issues of sexual violence and intimate partner violence that include social programs, but mostly curbing the cultural norms around violence, empowering, supporting, and trusting women, as well as education reform.
Kelsie Eckert is the founder of Remedial Herstory. She is a history teacher and host of the Remedial Herstory podcast.
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The history curriculum in schools is insufficient in their representation of women’s contribution to past events. This blog aims to address that. While teachers want to include women’s history, they have not had access to the training, modeling, and resources to do it effectively. Women make up fifty percent of the global population, and yet are in a small fraction of events discussed in school. Women’s choices have been harrowing, infamous, and monumental, and yet their stories are so rarely associated with mainstream history. Ask your average high school graduate, or even college graduate, to name 20 significant men in history and the list flows easily. Ask that same person to name 20 women and the names drag, if they come at all. This case in point leaves us with conclusions like, “women did not do as much” or “women’s stories were not recorded.” These assertions justify our own indifference to the history of half the human race, and could not be further from the truth.