Lady business with equal parts lady and business.
Imagine you’re a single mother working a minimum-wage job with a toddler at home. You don’t make enough to cover all of your family’s necessities (a minimum-wage income isn’t enough to even afford rent), so you have the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and WIC to help you afford food. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to get Section 8 vouchers to help cover rent. You’re also fortunate enough to be one of the 26 percent of poor families with children who qualify for welfare assistance, but that runs out by mid-month.
So when your diaper supply also runs out mid-month, where can you turn to help you afford that incredibly basic necessity? Not SNAP, nor WIC, nor most other programs. They won’t let you spend benefits on diapers. Your daycare center won’t take your toddler without some, so you’re forced to stay home with him. You do what Shanique Brown did: she skipped work and constantly asked her son if he needed to go to the bathroom while she “cried and cried.”
A lawmaker in California wants to change that and has penned the first-ever bill to address diaper need, which would give families on welfare with children under two $80 a month to cover diapers. That would mean mothers who can’t afford diapers—30 percent of women across incomes and demographics say they’ve faced this problem at some point—won’t have to resort to stretching dirty diapers, risking infections and rashes, or go hat in hand to friends and family.
Sounds pretty logical, no? But every time the fact that mothers struggle to afford diapers—not just low-income ones, as the survey linked to above indicates—crops up, the same reaction can be counted on: “Why should I subsidize the choices of a woman who had a baby she couldn’t afford?” (Thoughts to this effect have dogged the lawmaker who introduced California’s bill.)
This isn’t an idle question among trolls, however. This idea, that poor women who want to be mothers shouldn’t be subsidized, has driven public policy. Take welfare reform, which implemented work requirements as a condition of getting cash assistance and, while it promised to help mothers with childcare, has dropped the ball. Worse, while benefits are meant to rise for each child in a family—given that the family will need more resources to cover another person—sixteen have capped benefits at a certain number of children in the idea that it will discourage poor women from having more.
Never mind that the caps don’t seem to have that impact, but do end up pushing poor moms further into poverty.
Worse is the fact that these policies and the reactions to diaper assistance are both based on faulty, if not completely incorrect, premises. The welfare queen, the boogeyman held up by President Reagan as a woman who drives a Cadillac and commits extensive welfare fraud, was a myth, but it hasn’t stopped many after him from expanding the caricature to describe women who supposedly have more children to get more benefits. Before welfare reform, just 10 percent of the families who got welfare had three or more children. Today, average family size is the same whether a family gets public assistance or none. Your family probably looks a lot like a family on welfare.
This is true despite the fact that poor women have a much harder time getting the contraception they need. In 2012, 20 million women needed publicly funded contraception, but just 6.1 million were served by publicly funded clinics, meeting a mere 31 percent of the need. So poor women get it both coming and going: we penalize them when they don’t want to be mothers and then penalize them when they do want to have kids.
While low-income women get punished for having children, however, we still think of ourselves a country with strong family values that upholds the virtue of motherhood. Remember how quickly Democrats had to scramble to reaffirm that Ann Romney’s role as a stay-at-home mother over her husband’s career was the “most important” job during the 2012 campaign? Or the ads for the 2012 Olympics declaring that being a mom is “the best” job? We endlessly defend the choices of the middle- to upper-class women who don’t work and instead parent. We even subsidize higher-income parents through the tax code, giving the middle, second highest and highest income brackets nearly $30 billion through the Child Tax Credit. Republicans want to expand it further so that the wealthy get more.
But when a poor mother or a mother of color wants to have children and needs a small, small thing like help buying a diaper to make it all work, we recoil from her need. We have no right to dictate how many children a poor or a rich woman can have, and we owe it to all mothers to ensure that they have a simple thing like a diaper when they do.
You’ve probably heard the name Shanesha Taylor at this point. She’s the Arizona mother who was arrested for leaving her children in the car while she went to a job interview. Her story went viral thanks likely to a truly heart-wrenching, tear-stained mugshot. Taylor, who was homeless, says her babysitter flaked on her and she didn’t know what else to do while she went to a job interview for a position that would have significantly improved her family’s financial situation.
You may also have heard the name Debra Harrell. She’s the South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a park alone while she worked her shifts at McDonalds. It’s the summer, so Harrell had had her daughter play on a laptop at her McDonalds location until the laptop was stolen from their home. Instead, she let her daughter go to the park with a cell phone for emergencies.
Neither of these are ideal situations for children. Being locked in a hot car can cause heat stroke, and thirty-eight children die from it every year. About 58,200 children are abducted by non-family members in a given year, many of them from parks. Considering there are about 74 million children in the country, both of these events are relatively rare, and neither Taylor’s nor Harrell’s children were actually harmed. But a slight danger remains.
Whose fault is it that these children were put in these situations to begin with? These weren’t mothers doing drugs or other dangerous activities and neglecting their children; they were both mothers trying to hold down jobs to provide for their children while stuck swirling in a Catch-22. Can’t work or interview without childcare, but can’t afford childcare without a job that pays enough to cover the ever-increasing cost. Taylor and Harrell are both holding up their end of the deal: don’t rely on public assistance, go out and get work to provide for your children. Our country has reneged on its end of that deal: we’ll help you pay for someone to watch your children if you go to work.
In the mid-1990s, President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law that changed welfare in America profoundly. One of the major changes welfare reform brought about was the work requirement. Now, even women with young children were required to be working, or looking for work, in order to receive benefits. In a radio address after signing the bill, Clinton promised that if poor people went to work, “we will protect the guarantees of health care, nutrition, and child care, all of which are critical to helping families move from welfare to work.”
We broke that promise. State and federal childcare spending last year fell to the lowest level since 2002. Much of the money available for childcare comes to states through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or today’s version of welfare, but TANF hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1996. It’s lost a third of its value since then. The money spent on childcare has declined from a high of $4 billion in 2000 to $2.6 billion in 2013. That means fewer and fewer children get subsidized care. The number of children served by subsidies is at the lowest level since 1998. In Taylor’s home state of Arizona, childcare spending has been axed by 40 percent, dropping 33,000 kids. In Harrell’s, it was cut by more than 30 percent, dropping 2,500 children.
We’ve also taken the rug out from under any mothers who might need assistance because they can’t find work or the work doesn’t pay enough. In 1996, welfare reached 72 percent of poor families with children. That had dropped to a mere 26 percent by 2012.
So when a homeless mother needs to go to a job interview or a mother making less than $8 an hour needs to go to work, what options have we given them? Few, if any.
(That doesn’t even to get into the fact that Harrell may wrestle with erratic schedules, finding out when she has to be at work a week ahead of time or less and making it challenging just to find childcare, let alone afford it. Or that Taylor may face a long time without another job interview in an economy with an unemployment rate for black women currently at 9 percent, compared to the overall 6.1 percent rate, and the next one may not pay enough to cover care.)
Both of these women are now out of jail. Taylor’s charges are likely to be dropped and she is also close to getting her children back, while Harrell’s case is pending but she’s been reunited with her daughter.
Yet both are still being punished. Taylor’s charges will only disappear if she completes not just parenting classes, but substance abuse classes despite drugs not playing any role in why her kids were left in the car. The message is that she is a “bad” mom because she tried to get a better job without a babysitter. Harrell has lost her job at McDonalds, which means she now has time to be with her daughter but no income to cover care if she tries to get interviews for another one. And in Harrell’s case, her neighbors were quick to cast blame on her, tsking her for daring to think she could leave her child in a public park because she might get “snatched.”
Low-income mothers of color are trying to fulfill their end of the bargain. But they face multiple roadblocks, many of which we’ve set up in front of them. No one should be surprised when they end up making choices we don’t think are best.
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Call it the Sheryl Sandberg theory of feminist progress: help more women get into the tippy top of the company pyramid and change will spread to the bottom ranks. You could also call it trickle-down feminism: focus on equality at the top and the rewards will flow downward. There are some real life examples that show this doesn’t always pan out. Take Marissa Mayer reducing flexible scheduling after she became the first female CEO at Yahoo, or Sandberg herself, who didn’t realize pregnant women needed reserved parking lots close to the building until she was pregnant.
But a new study quantifies just how far the effects of putting women in leadership can, and can’t, go. Marianne Bertrand, Sandra E. Black and Sissel Jensen examined what happened after Norway instituted a quota in 2003 that required public companies to make their boards at least 40 percent female. The quota did get many more women onto corporate boards, and it may have helped boost their pay, as the wage gap between male and female board members fell.
Additionally, it may have helped increase the number of female executives at these companies. While the researchers couldn’t look at the exact genders of those in the C-suite, when they looked at the gender makeup of the five most highly paid people at the companies they found that more female board members begot more women in that group. “[A] higher share of female directors may increase the chance that a female employee…is one of the top five earners,” they report. Women who joined a company’s board were also more likely to end up among its top executives.
The march of progress, however, mostly stops there. An increased number of women on a company’s board had no impact on increasing women’s ranks at any other wage levels below the very top. And not much else got better for the lower-downs. “We also see no improvements on gender wage gaps…and find no evidence of changing work environments,” the researchers write. Generally, they found no evidence that increasing women’s representation on boards boosted female employment overall or employment for women with business degrees or children in particular. They also didn’t find evidence that seeing more women at the top spurred younger women to get a business degree or go into the field.
So does this mean quotas are a public policy failure? Not at all. That’s not what quotas do. The study shows that quotas increase women’s representation among top leadership and even narrow their pay gaps. But to believe that setting aside a certain share of seats that the top for women will mean that everyone below them does better is to believe change can come more easily than it does.
Quotas, instead, serve to bring gender equality to one specific area: positions of power. We can never say we live in a country rid of patriarchy while women hold less than a quarter of all political offices, 5 percent of CEO positions and less than 15 percent of executive officer positions, and less than 17 percent of board seats. And change isn’t coming voluntarily. Women have held about the same share of executive officer roles for four years and the same share of board seats for eight. Countries that have quotas, or even just strongly suggested goals, are making much faster progress.
There are a variety of reasons why individual women in leadership don’t signal broader change. Patriarchy still has a very firm stranglehold on our society, and trying to loosen its grip can prove to be too hard a task for a woman all on her own. (In fact, research has found that it takes at least three women on a company’s board to make a real difference.) Individual people are also flawed and have limited perspectives—had Sandberg never become pregnant, she may not have realized what pregnant women at work need, as many well-meaning male bosses likely don’t. And women are put into these roles to do their jobs and often to focus on shareholder value, not to stage a gender revolution, and those two things can sometimes be in conflict, as with Mayer and her belief that telework was hurting Yahoo’s work culture.
Still, we could use a quota, or at least a strongly suggested target to make equality at the top move faster. That doesn’t mean it would transform things for everyone else. There’s plenty of other of work to do to bring about gender equality in the workplace. But it would start to dilute the white male cabal currently running our largest institutions.
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It’s summer, and it’s hot, so women are now plunged into the murky waters of dressing appropriately for work, while not wearing so much clothing they’ll get heat stroke. Some, like a reporter who was thrown out of a courtroom for having bare shoulders, will cross a vague line and get penalized. When women dress themselves for a professional setting, from prominent politicians to eager interns, they’re trying to conform to an unspoken set of rules that were crafted with men in mind in the first place.
The gender policing of clothes was even stricter before it was widely acceptable to have women in the workplace at all. In 1960, Lois Rabinowitz, a secretary who went to a courthouse to pay her boss’s speeding ticket, was ejected for wearing slacks and a blouse. As Gail Collins relates in When Everything Changed, women were arrested for walking around in slacks on the street at night. For any women who did work, the professional dress code was “stockings, heels, gloves, and hats.” But really, women weren’t supposed to have careers, and they weren’t supposed to wear pants: the lines were very clear.
Women can now wear pants without fear of retribution, and women who work have become the norm. But clothes are still a tricky issue. In the 1970s, when women started making more inroads into the workforce, they had to figure out how to adapt men’s business attire, namely suits, to their bodies. At first they wore big bows in place of ties. Women in the ’80s donned suits with enormous shoulder padding. This was the age of the power suit: “a suit that exaggerated a woman’s shoulders, giving her a more aggressive and masculine silhouette,” as defined by Vogue. Office attire was meant to make women look more like men in suits, rather than to find a kind of dress that was both professional and feminine.
Today, clothing companies seem to have figured out how to design suits and work clothes for women’s bodies. But women’s choices still come fraught with tripwires they might not even know are there. Is your clothing too brightly colored? Do you leave the collar of your shirt out of the suit jacket or tucked in? Skirt or pants? You should wear heels, but not stilettos. You shouldn’t look frumpy, but don’t dare show cleavage. Don’t “dress like a mortician,” but also avoid your “party outfit.” Wear a nice suit, but not always an Armani one.
Not to mention the invisible line separating dowdy and slutty. Hillary Clinton, whose fashion choices never cease to fascinate us, is a living example of how difficult it is to chart these waters: for so long chastised for dressing in sexless turtlenecks, she got an entire article written up the one day she showed a very small amount of cleavage.
The fact that women are faced with an unclear dress code while men know what they should wear—a suit if it’s a formal workplace, dress shirt and pants if it’s business casual—is one more sign that the workplace has still not totally dealt with the fact that women will be half of the inhabitants. That we endlessly discuss female politicians’ fashion choices and single out female employees for their clothing faux pas marks them as aliens entering someone else’s territory—they are an other, an outlier, and their clothing is one more reminder of that fact.
Our fashion choices aren’t just frivolous. They have a big impact on how we’re perceived. A study in 1985 found that female interview subjects were significantly more likely to be viewed favorably for hire if their clothes were seen as more masculine. “[F]emale applicants’ clothing is an avenue for influencing the selection decision for management positions,” authors Sandra Forsythe, Mary Frances Drake, and Charles E. Cox concluded. Forsythe followed up with a study in 1987 that found that more masculine clothing conveys more masculine managerial traits. The perception of a woman in her workplace can be influenced by everything from how much makeup she wears to her hair length.
Even more fraught choices face women of color or with lower incomes. As Juliana Britto wrote at Feministing, many women of color feel the need to buy bigger clothes or ones that don’t make them look too sexy so that they can conform better to white bodies. And it’s not just enough to have professional clothes, but new, expensive looking ones so that they don’t come off “tacky.”
There are plenty of more obvious and perhaps more detrimental ways that the modern workplace still hasn’t adapted to the entry of women (and thus two working parents). Few workers get paid family leave for a new child or paid sick days to care for an ill kid. Childcare is still prohibitively expensive and yet often of very poor quality, so it’s unclear what parents are supposed to do now that June Cleaver isn’t home. And women keep coming up hard against the glass ceiling.
But it’s a telltale sign that we still haven’t figured out what they’re even supposed to wear to the workplace. Just 16 percent of parents think it’s best for children to have a mother who works full-time. Have we accepted the idea yet that women are going to work either out of necessity, passion or both? If so, we might want to come up with some clearer ideas of what they should put on in the mornings.
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The realization came to me later than it should have: getting a job is not the same as applying to college. After I graduated, I assumed for a long time that the work world operated the same way as the school world. If I wanted a job, I would comb through hundreds upon hundreds of job postings. If there were jobs that sounded interesting and I seemed to have the right qualifications, I would send in a cover letter and resume, then wait for a call to come in for an interview. About 98 percent of the time, a call never came.
Little did I know that by the time a company posts a job listing, in particular a journalism job, it’s often already all but filled and the posting is an HR formality. The people getting the jobs weren’t following the instructions as laid out on the “Work for Us” section of companies’ websites. They were having informal meetings with friends of friends.
School was all about following the directions and reaping the rewards. Getting ahead outside of school, I eventually figured out, meant figuring out rules that weren’t written down.
This real world lesson is a harsh one for girls especially. On the whole, we excel in school. We have for one hundred years. We nearly always get better grades. We are better behaved. Tell us to do our homework, raise our hand and sit still, and girls are much more likely to obey than boys. We’re also now attending college and completing degrees in higher numbers than young men.
This has some observers—from conservative Kay Hymowitz to centrist David Brooks to contrarian Hanna Rosin to mainstream David Leonhardt—worried that there is a boy crisis. If today’s boys are falling behind on self-control as well as grades, while women race ahead and get more degrees, will tomorrow’s flounder in the workplace?
But while we socialize girls to be better students, we do little to prepare them for a workplace that is not an even playing field. They leave school, a world full of clearly laid out rules and rewards, and move into a workplace that is tilted against them from the very beginning. Young women fresh out of college will make less than their male classmates in their first job, no matter what school they went to, major they chose, grades they got or job they took. That wage gap will continue to grow as their careers advance. They’ll make less than men in virtually any job they pursue. Even if they decide to go back to the structured world of academia and gain an extra credential like an advanced degree—something that the on-paper rules tell us should help them advance—they’ll still make less than a man with the same credential.
And that’s just when it comes to pay. Advancing up the ladder, which should be easier than asking for more money, is just as tricky. In my first jobs, I assumed that if I worked hard, I’d get promoted. And at some jobs that has been true. In others, I’ve been denied the boost even when I did the work. Studies have found that even when women do everything right, they more often than not won’t advance. The research organization Catalyst reports that among MBA graduates who hadn’t taken any breaks from their career paths—highly ambitious individuals—women were more likely than men to seek skill-building experiences and training as well as to make their achievements known by asking for feedback and promotions. But even so, twice as many men advanced to a senior executive level as women. As the organization notes, “[W]hen women used the same career advancement strategies as men, they advanced less.”
Women may not even be able to get hired into the jobs they want just because of their gender. When prospective employers only knew someone’s gender, they were twice as likely to hire a man for a job in mathematics, assuming that the women would perform worse on a test problem without even seeing the results. This is despite the fact that women perform just as well on solving a simple math equation. If women decide to instead become their own bosses and start businesses, they’ll get less backing from investors even if they give the exact same pitch as a man. Study after study after study shows that men get the benefit of the doubt, doubt that is heaped in extra portions on women.
Women of color are facing even more daunting odds. When we talk about well-behaved girls excelling in school, we leave out the racial achievement gap as well as the fact that black children are far more likely to be harshly disciplined in school. Nearly 40 percent of black and Hispanic girls won’t graduate from high school on time. Black students overall are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white ones, and more than one in ten black girls receives an out-of-school suspension. All the challenges that women face are compounded by the racial economic barriers, starting with a larger wage gap with men and even a gap with white women.
Women today still have to contend with everything from the glass ceiling to the glass cliff. But we call them “glass” because, while they are measurable, they’re still invisible. It takes a while to bump into them and figure them out.
And what of boys who struggled in school? While Leonhardt sees a connection to fidgety boy behavior and the long decline in male wages, he doesn’t offer up any research to tie them, nor mention that women’s wages have also stalled for about a decade, which means the gender wage gap has soldiered on. “[I]n an economy that rewards knowledge,” Leonhardt worries, “the academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles.”
And yet the struggles don’t actually seem to stay with them. “Move fast and break things” is a mantra in Silicon Valley, but it also does well for entrepreneurs, who are more likely to have broken the rules as teenagers—and also to be male. Those entrepreneurs end up making lots of money later in life. Boys may be making mistakes and getting in trouble while they’re in school. But then they’re unleashed into a world that assumes the best of them even when it shouldn’t. Take the story of Lucas Duplan, the 22-year-old white male CEO of the failed startup Crinkle. He raised $30 million, but has floundered without even putting out a product. As Zoë Schlanger relates in Newsweek, he was funded not because his idea deserved the money but because he got the benefit of fitting a certain mold: as one former employee put it, “He sells the vision of what every investor wants, which is a 20-year-old, white, male Stanford computer science major.”
There are certainly behavioral and academic skills learned in school that translate well into the workplace, ones that young girls seem to master more easily than their male classmates. But those skills still can’t contend with an economy that remains hostile to women just for being women. If the workplace truly were a meritocracy that looked like the meritocracy of grade school, it might be worrisome that boys are falling behind girls in sitting still. Until then, we might need to start educating girls earlier on what lies ahead after graduation day.
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There’s a video that recently made its way around the Internet. In it, supposedly unsuspecting people join a video call to interview for a job as “Director of Operations.” Then the person doing the interviewing starts describing the job. It requires “mobility…that you must be able to work standing up most or really all of the time.” The hours are “basically twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” with no breaks and no vacation—and the workload increases on holidays. It “requires excellent negotiation and interpersonal skills” and the company is looking for “someone that might have a degree in medicine, in finance and in the culinary arts.” All this has to be done “with a happy disposition” and the job will “pay absolutely nothing.”
Guess who already holds that job? Your mom!
The video is just an ad for cardstore.com, trying to shill for cards children can buy for their mothers this Sunday. But while it merely aims to inspire schmaltzy feelings about the sacrifice our mothers make for us, it also highlights the very real, backbreaking, time-consuming work it takes to be a parent.
That’s inside the home, but moms are doing hard work outside the home, too. A recent report found that if women hadn’t flooded the workforce between the late 1970s and 2000s, economic output would be about 11 percent smaller. While women generally increased their hours during that time, mothers really gave it their all. The typical mom increased the number of hours she worked each year outside of the home by 150 percent between 1979 and 2000, and the share of mothers working full time, year round went from less than 30 percent to 46 percent by 2007. Yet today’s mothers spend more time on childcare than the mothers of 1965.
So women are doing two kinds of work that benefits us all. On the one hand, given that they are still the majority of primary caregivers, they are the ones putting in that thankless, unpaid work to raise children. That produces future workers who will fuel the economy as well as future taxpayers who will support public programs. One paper found that while parents pay less in net taxes than childless adults, the future tax contributions of their children mean that the average parent contributes $200,000 more in taxes via their kids. Then mothers, by and large, go to work for paid employment and help fuel the economy that way.
And what thanks do they get for all of that paid and unpaid work? During that time period from the late 1970s to the 2000s, while women were increasing their work hours, other developed countries were passing family-friendly policies like paid family leave and affordable childcare. The United States, on the other hand, is one of just five countries across the entire globe that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. The country ranks at number twenty-one among developed countries for the percentage of GDP spent on preschool, and spending on childcare assistance has hit a decade low.
It shouldn’t be surprising, given the failure to keep up with policies that adapt the workplace to two working parents, that America is getting left behind when it comes to labor force participation. American women’s rate of heading to work peaked around the mid-1990s to early 2000s. Meanwhile, other developed countries have boosted women’s labor force participation far past our 75 percent to an average of nearly 80. Economists have pinned the source of our slowdown on that public policy failure. Women took on their burden and went to work, but the workplace turned a stony face and refused to accommodate them.
It’s always nice to take Mother’s Day to thank your mom for the time and effort she put into raising you—and, let’s not forget, the likely hit she took to her wages. But if cards serve as the only thanks we can give our moms for putting in a crushing number of hours working inside and outside the home, and in the process creating growth and prosperity for the rest of us, we are definitely ungrateful children.
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Today’s women spend more time in paid employment but still come home to the second shift. On the typical day, nearly half of them will do housework, but just 20 percent of men will do the same. And women put more time into scrubbing the toilet or doing the laundry—three more hours each week than men. Men carve out three more hours of leisure time. Even mothers who work full-time will still put in a week and a half’s worth more time on household tasks than their male partners each year. When the division of household labor falls along gender lines, where can we turn for an explanation?
There’s a school of thought that women take on more of the childrearing work—moms spend twice the time on childcare each week that dads do—because they are biologically inclined to be caregivers. And it’s true that the female body is the one equipped to carry a pregnancy and breastfeed and that these experiences can create bonds, although there is also evidence that giving dads the time to be present during the earliest moments causes a bond that gets them more involved with their children later on.
But there’s no biological determinant for housework. No gender is physically predisposed to want to do the dishes or take out the trash. This drudgery is necessary—at least if you like eating off of dishes that don’t have old food on them or living in a house that doesn’t smell like the dump. But chores rarely bring the joy and fulfillment of parenting.
At least one cause of the housework gap can be traced back to childhood chores. A variety of studies have found that girls are asked to do more work around the house than boys. One study found that girls did two more hours of chores a week while boys got twice as much time to play. This dynamic carries a lesson for both genders: girls learn that housework falls on their shoulders, and boys learn that girls will clean up after them.
The gendered disparity doesn’t end at time and effort, either. Girls may do more housework, but they don’t get as much pay for it. Sixty-seven percent of boys get allowances, but just 59 percent of girls do. The study finding that girls do two more hours of chores per week also found that boys are 15 percent more likely to get an allowance for doing them. And when they do get paid for it, girls will get less. The lesson: boys are doing something special to be rewarded when they do a load of laundry or mow the lawn, while girls are doing something “natural” that doesn’t require remuneration.
There’s evidence that we carry these experiences as we age. One study found that boys who grew up only with sisters are 13.5 percent more conservative in their views of women’s roles compared to boys who grew up only with brothers. The researchers speculate that because their sisters are given the housework, those boys tend to assume domestic chores are women’s work.
There’s another school of thought, of course, that women just have higher cleanliness standards. “Men are dirty pigs who don’t care!” the thinking goes. But this too is at heart a social construction that culture inculcates in both genders. Marketing messages illustrate the point: only about 2 percent of commercials featuring men show them cooking, cleaning or running after kids, while the majority of commercials featuring women are selling home products like cleaners or furniture. The same study that produced these numbers found that men who view commercials with a male character in a nontraditional role are more likely to favor domestic goals—but few are getting that exposure.
Instead of assuming that women want cleaner homes, remember that they face higher expectations around cleanliness, a judgment that doesn’t impact their male partners. As Jessica Grose has written, she “worried I would be judged for the beef jerky wrappers.… Somewhere lodged within me was the message that it was my responsibility.” Think back to the little girls being handed chores without pay: the cleanliness of the house is your responsibility, we tell them. By the time they are welcoming guests into their own homes, they’ve internalized the guilt for the dust bunnies in the corner.
And any woman who wants to change this dynamic confronts another problem. What man has been called a nag? But when women ask that their husbands pitch in more, they run the risk of conjuring up this old label. A nag is just a person making a request that annoys the requestee. Women are told by parents, advertising agencies and a host of other societal forces that they are responsible for making the house clean, and when they push back, they are slapped with a pejorative. No wonder they spend so much more time tidying up. It might be more exhausting to try and have it any other way.
There is, perhaps, a glimmer of hope. Men seem to be doing more cooking than they used to. In one survey of 900 men, nearly half said they go grocery shopping; 46 percent are responsible for cooking all of their household’s food. Cooking is one of those tasks that comes with a satisfying reward at the end—a delicious meal. But men’s embrace of the kitchen may also be thanks to cultural messages that gourmet chefs are manly: think Iron Chef, Ace of Cakes, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, or nearly any other male-led Food Network show. Is there a way to make wiping a counter or a window manly? Perhaps that holds the key to getting men to get off the sofa and vacuum under it.
Until then, however, housework will be the burden women bear that is perhaps the most obviously inexplicable. If there is any clear sign that society molds the way each gender views unpaid work, it’s household chores. There’s just no good reason for why women are the ones required to take out the broom and the sponge.
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April 8 was Equal Pay Day, the day by which women will have theoretically worked enough to catch up to what men made the year before. In honor of that, the Senate voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at giving women a little more power to fight wage discrimination, which Republicans unanimously blocked. While some Republicans claim they care about the wage gap and just object to what they see as burdensome regulation, other conservatives have been calling the idea of the gender wage gap itself into question.
It is a fair question to ask what causes the gap. While it’s true that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes when they work full-time, year-round, it’s also true that this figure can obscure various factors that aren’t purely discriminatory. Work experience plays a role. Industry and occupation play a role. Education can play a role.
In trying to figure out how much of the wage gap is discrimination and how much can be explained by other factors, nearly every statistician conducts regression studies that take measurable factors into consideration by holding them constant and seeing what’s left over. From government agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office to women’s advocacy groups like AAUW to economists like Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, a similar group of factors are held constant to find the “unexplained” gap, or the murk where bias would rear its head if it does exist. One of those constant factors is race.
At first blush, this makes sense. All of these researchers are striving to compare the most apple-like of apples to apples—a woman and a man who look as identical as possible and therefore should be paid the same. Therefore, they compare a woman to a man with the same job tenure, seniority, occupation, marital status and race, or in other words, measurable differences. Discrimination will crop up when everything they can measure is stripped out but a gap remains.
But that means that race gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. It’s ends up in the “explained” category. In the study by Blau and Kahn, for example, they list their six controlled factors and note that 2.4 percent of the gap is explained by race. On the other hand, 41.1 percent of the gap remains unexplained, the part that is “potentially due to discrimination,” according to their paper, but not a part that includes racial disparities.
We know that race dramatically shapes wages—that’s part of why it gets lumped into the explained category. Using Census information, the National Women’s Law Center found that African-American men make 73 percent of what white men make, on average, and African-American women make 64 percent. The numbers are even lower for Hispanics: men make 61 percent of white men’s earnings and women make just 54 percent. Men of color even make less than white women.
So, yes, taking this measurable difference into account will surely help explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? There may be some mitigating factors shaping the racial wage gap as well, but there’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. Race may be factored into calculating the wage gap, but it’s pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination. It’s treated as a given.
Even some of the factors that sound objective and explainable could conceal discrimination. In economists Blau and Kahn’s study, the most recent to focus on measuring discrimination, occupation or the jobs women end up in, accounts for more than a quarter of the wage gap. One could see this as a choice, and some women may gravitate more toward teaching elementary school instead of college students. But there are plenty of barriers that keep women from top-earning occupations. And even when women do similar work compared to men, they often make less. Maids are paid less than $10 an hour at the median, but janitors are paid more than $12 on average. Low-skill women’s jobs pay nearly $150 less a week than men’s, on average, while high-skill women’s jobs pay $471 less. It may be hard to determine how much this determines the wage gap, but clearly it’s biased that society values work less when women perform it.
For their part, Blau and Kahn realize that some factors they hold constant may mask discrimination. They write that “if some of the factors controlled for in such regressions—like occupation and tenure with the employer—themselves reflect the impact of discrimination, then discrimination will be underestimated” in their study. Race isn’t terribly murky, though. There’s no objective explanation for why black women make less than white women. And when we divorce that fact from the larger conversation about the wage gap, we fail to challenge the fact that women of color are experiencing multiple forms of bias.
Read Next: The GOP offers the same tired excuses for opposing equal pay.
If you read blogs, then you have almost certainly seen the back and forth between two sharp writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine. Their conversation began in reaction to comments made by Representative Paul Ryan, in which he said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Coates’s initial response was to point out that Paul Ryan is not alone in these views: President Obama, too, exhorts young black men to pull up their pants and put their noses to the grindstone. Chait countered that "centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on" has in fact left "a cultural residue" on the black community. The conversation has turned into a provocative conversation about the nature of racism and its role in shaping culture. You should read all of the back and forths—Chait’s response, Coates’s rebuttal, Chait’s rebuttal to the rebuttal, and Coates’s (so far) final word. I won’t do either of them justice by summarizing.
In his most recent response, Chait chides Coates for being “profoundly pessimistic” about the persistence of racism in America. Of black Americans, Coates writes, “America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis.” Coates argues that white supremacy was not some brief nightmare that we have since woken up from, but “one of the central organizing forces in American life,” past and present. Chait labels Coates’s outlook “grim fatalism," and argues that our history is one “mainly of progress,” pointing out that slavery was ended, lynching was ended, legal segregation was ended, and then we elected an African-American president. Since the end of segregation, he writes, “most social metrics relevant to black prosperity have turned sharply upward,” such as the closing of the achievement gap, lower black poverty rates, falling rates of homicide against black people and more black police officers. The implication is that the progress made disproves that the situation is still grim.
Andrew Sullivan has also joined in, first calling out Coates for his “profound gloom” and then writing of his “concern that [Coates’s] depression about the state of America was weakening his usual strengths.” That gloom, he writes, “seems—no, is—out of place.”
Both (white) writers are sending the same message to Coates: Buck up! Look at all the progress that has been made! That must mean that white supremacy is no longer an invisible hand guiding all interactions in our society—or at least, not such a powerful one.
I’ve often been put in the same position. Obviously, racism and sexism function differently—but people have used many of the same tactics to argue that racist and sexist systems no longer exist. Patriarchy, or the system in which men receive an unequal share of power and acclaim by default, has been pronounced dead. In that particular piece, Hanna Rosin argued that feminists are “cling[ing] to the dreaded patriarchy” and that we are irrationally attached to “the concept of unfair.” In previous work, Rosin has marshaled as evidence not just an end to the patriarchy, but a beginning of a matriarchy, the fact that for a while during the crisis more men were unemployed than women and that, in her view, women are more suited to the new economy. She also sees women making “every important decision—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live.”
Other data has excited the patriarchy coroners, such as the fact that women are getting more college degrees than men, women dominate the job categories projected to grow fastest over the next decade, and one 2010 study found that single, childless urban women between 22 and 30 earned more than their male counterparts. Never mind that women make less than men at every degree level, on the whole not only make 77 cents for every dollar men make when working full time but have stalled out in gaining on them, those jobs they dominate pay terribly, and they make less than men even in female-dominated occupations.
Chait similarly marshalls data to argue that African-Americans are better off now than they have been at any previous time in history. And indeed, the challenge today for people fighting old systems of oppression is that the very obvious forms they used to take have mostly been done away with. Slavery was ended. Women were allowed to vote and own property. Segregation was outlawed. Companies are no longer allowed to fire women because they get married. It is hard to overstate the importance of each of these milestones and the changes they brought to oppressed people’s lives and our society as a whole.
But the progress gets some people so excited that they think we’ve sprinted past the finish line when we’ve simply advanced a few miles in a very, very long race. Redlining, the way white supremacy kept black Americans from accumulating housing wealth that Coates has documented so well, is no longer legal, but housing discrimination still exists, just in a more subtle form. Similarly it is ostensibly illegal to pay women less than men for the same work but they continue to make less in every job and industry. These systems are no longer on the surface, but they still lurk just below, molding the geography of our economy and systems of power.
Things have certainly gotten better, and many people have become more accepting of, say, black and white people marrying or women leaving the home (and children) and joining the workforce. But the wound of past prejudice, rather than being cleanly sutured, still oozes and festers. And the problem with declaring it fully healed is that the work needed to keep making improvements won’t get done. Wiping our hands and walking away from white supremacy or the patriarchy as problems we have solved means that they are enabled to continue operating with greater freedom. None of these problems will be easily fixed, but I can guarantee we won’t even start if we think they’re in the past.
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith’s take on the Chait-Coates controversy
I was a bright and precocious child—or a nerd, or a teacher’s pet, depending on whom you asked. I loved reading more than TV. I took science classes as an after-school activity for fun. Things at school came easily to me.
Except when they didn’t. When I was confronted with a challenge I couldn’t immediately solve, my whole world crumbled. It didn’t take long. Just a few minutes of grappling with something unfamiliar could leave me sobbing and declaring I would never try it again. That may be why I tried and quickly tossed aside piano lessons, ballet classes and basketball teams in turn.
And I never quite shook that habit. When I arrived at college, a small fish in an enormous pond, I received less than perfect grades for the first time in my life. What many might shrug off as meaningless in the grand scheme of life shook my foundations. Did I deserve to be there? Was I smart? Have I gotten everything wrong? Maybe I should have stayed in a smaller pond that would be easier to dominate, I thought.
This reaction to getting lower grades is, apparently, not unique to my perfectionism and me. Women have overtaken men in college attendance. Yet they end up being just about 30 percent of the people who graduate with economics degrees and 41 percent of those from science and engineering programs.
And a pair of studies diagnose one source of this leaking pipeline: these disciplines grade on a tough curve, and as women’s grades fall in economics or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, their likelihood of ditching those classes rises. Catherine Rampell, who draws the studies together in The Washington Post, worries this means women are self-selecting out “because they fear delivering imperfection in the ‘hard’ fields” and urges women “to overcome our B-phobia.” She concludes, “Rinse yourselves of the intoxicating waters of Lake Wobegon, ladies, and embrace meaningful mediocrity.”
It is troubling that women might be pulling themselves out of a whole area of study because they fear lower grades—a metric that rarely follows students into their professional lives. Yet while Rampell’s tough talk might work for some, it ignores the fact that women are brought up to rightly fear failing. Women have been taught to be B-phobic.
In a series of studies in the 1980s, psychologist Carol Dweck looked at how bright fifth graders handled challenging materials. She found that girls quickly give up when given something new and complex. Boys, on the other hand, see it as a challenge and are more likely to try again instead of throwing in the towel. In writing about this study, Heidi Grant Halvorson, says, “The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty—what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn.” Bright girls lost confidence quickly, and researchers found it’s because they think their abilities are something innate and immutable. Boys think that can gain abilities by trying harder.
Why? Because parents and teachers tell girls that they are “good” or “smart,” which “implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t,” Halvorson writes. Boys have a much harder time following direction, though, so the feedback they get is about effort—asking them to try harder or pay more attention.
This isn’t just something we signal to bright girls and boys taking on challenges. Boys will be boys, right? They may mess up a lot in grade school but we know they’ll turn out fine in the end. High-risk entrepreneurs—a group that is heavily male-dominated—are more likely than the rest of us to engage in illicit activities when they’re younger, but it pays off later when they earn more.
But girls need to dig within themselves to excel. They are rewarded when they control themselves and follow the rules. What of those who can’t find it within to behave perfectly, though? At an early age, we signal to girls that they have sole ownership of their failure.
And there is no second chance, because these girls grow up into a world where they find out that their innate talents have to be twice as good. That’s why when Janet Yellen is “always meticulously prepared” and thinks logically and carefully—not by the seat of her pants—she is deemed to be not good enough. Women get better grades, but they are offered lower starting salaries when they graduate. For every degree they earn, a man with the same credentials will make more.
This is particularly true of these male-dominated science and math fields. Without a prospective employer knowing anything about you, if you are a woman you are half as likely to get hired for a job in mathematics because you’re expected to perform worse on a task that, statistically speaking, you’re equally likely to do well on. You have to beat a man to join him.
If the world demands that you work twice as hard to get half the reward, why would you handicap yourself by starting out somewhere that makes it harder to shine? When the chances of getting ahead are lower just because you wear a skirt and not a suit, you seek out any advantage you can get.
This may mean that women self-select out of risky undertakings or environments that dish out fewer rewards. And Rampell is right that this is a big problem. Higher risk can bring higher returns. These “hard” fields that award stingy grades pay really well (although, of course, women in these jobs still make less than men).
But ours is not a society that wants women to take risks and it is unforgiving when they don’t beat the odds. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, “’twice as good’ ultimately means half as many arrive.” The other half who are left behind may be just as good. Some may be failures. We don’t get to see them because they are discarded so much more readily than the white, straight, privileged men who automatically have our faith.
If we want women to take on bigger challenges, we have to tolerate their failures. Girls need the chance to try harder the next time. Women need the chance to prove their worth without having it weighed at half of a man’s. Then perhaps we can be more tolerant of getting a B grade.
Read Next: Across economic measures, women still suffer from gender discrimination.