Do We Really Want Equal Pay?

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The other day a little girl asked Hillary Clinton whether she'd be paid as much as a man if she were elected president, a frustrating reminder that the gender-based wage gap persists, even for women at the very top of the game.*

The line you hear, over and over, is that among full-time workers, women are still paid 77 cents for each dollar that men make. But for many women of color the gap is much bigger. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “In the 20 states with the largest number of African American women working full time, year round, pay for African American women ranges from 49 to 70 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men in those states.” As low as 49 cents for each dollar pocketed by white men. And that’s just the disparity in paid work. In countries across the world, women do more work than men — much of it for no compensation at all.

But as an activist goal, the demand of "equal pay for equal work" has never seemed less radical. In an era when inequality is rampant and wages are stagnant, the demand for equal pay seems willfully ignorant of the fact that equal pay with men won't help the working poor, who aren’t paid a living wage regardless of gender. Even for professional-class women, "equal work" increasingly requires so many hours that the price of "equal pay" is too high, especially for women with health concerns or caretaking obligations.

Detractors often acknowledge that there is indeed a wage gap, then chalk it up to women’s choices. They add caveats to that 77 percent: “But we need to know how much of that is because of choices that people make over working hours, what job they do, the flexibility they might prefer over pay and so on, and then see what’s left which might be the result of direct discrimination,” writes Tim Worstall in Forbes. As if needing flexible hours or taking a job in a field traditionally dominated by women are acceptable reasons to make less money. As if women’s labor is worth less.

Most of us — myself included — have been thinking far too narrowly when it comes to why we’re really enraged by the wage gap. It’s not that we’re frustrated at making so little progress toward pay equality. It’s that we’re playing a game we can’t ever win. Even if women are paid equally to men in their occupations, “equal pay for equal work” is a way to make the best of a bad paradigm, a world in which most of us aren’t paid enough and everyone works too much. If you waved a wand and granted all women equal wages to men, it still wouldn't solve what I consider to be the worst labor problems in the modern workforce. That no one can live on America’s minimum wage, even if (and it’s a big if) they work as many hours as humanly possible. That without meaningful subsidies, child care is prohibitively expensive. That working hours per week, even for salaried workers, have ballooned. That women still take on a disproportionate amount of labor that is completely uncompensated.

Last month, three feminist women of color — Bardot Smith, Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear, and Yeoshin Lourdes — started a hashtag, #GiveYourMoneyToWomen. Their suggestion was that, rather than spend your money to try to elect the right politicians or support charities, we should send it directly to women who need it. They began tweeting links to PayPal and Square Cash accounts, and asking men to send them money. “For me the goal is a drastic cultural shift, to where what we’re doing is normalized,” Lourdes says in a conversation between the three women at Model View Culture, “so that all of women’s contributions command direct access to resources and without question. This is how things always should’ve been.” It is a way of questioning what sort of work we consider worthy of compensation. Their radical suggestion is that women be paid for all duties they are expected to perform for free: providing emotional support, putting up with catcalls, turning unintentional insults into teachable moments — the list goes on.

The hashtag was also a critique of predominantly white feminists who equate equality in the corporate world with overall equality. To focus on leaning in and breaking the glass ceiling, says Chief Elk-Young Bear, is to “actually subsume yourself more into patriarchy, more into these institutions, mimic the systems that have created the disaster world we live in.”

It’s easy to focus on a number like 77 percent — which is rage-inducing on its own — and ignore the thorny and interlocking problems that contribute to it. I care about short-term solutions like fixing workplace culture and figuring out how to negotiate better. I’m glad Obama created that task force on the pay gap. But our goal shouldn’t just be wage parity. It should be a reexamination of how people are expected to work, and how they are compensated for it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Equal Pay Day rather than Women's Equality Day.