Lady business with equal parts lady and business.
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 seventy-seven 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.
By now you have definitely seen it: the Cadillac ad for its first hybrid car that has a hard on for America’s work ethic. “Other countries,” actor Neal McDonough says while strutting through his perfectly landscaped yard alongside his in-ground pool, “they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café, they take August off. Off.” Quelle horreur! And he explains that Americans, from Bill Gates to Ali, aren’t like that. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers,” he says. And he implies we do it for the glory, but also for the stuff, like a luxury car: the latter is “the upside of only taking two weeks off in August.”
But McDonough, or this hyper-capitalist alter ego, is dead wrong. Americans should absolutely take August off. It will, in fact, lead to more stuff—among other things.
Americans don’t take August off, but most people probably don’t even take two weeks during that month. Twenty rich countries have a national guarantee that workers can get some vacation time. Thirteen also make sure workers get at least a few paid holidays off. The United States, on the other hand, is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t have either requirement. About a quarter of Americans don’t have any paid vacation or holidays at all, a share that is growing—although I would guess that the luxury-product-buying, power-suit-wearing character McDonough plays in the commercial does get paid vacation time, as these benefits are disproportionately the purview of the rich. The average American worker gets about ten days of paid vacation and six paid holidays a year—that’s just over two weeks every year—which is less than the minimum required in nearly every other country. And of those who get paid vacation, they leave more than three days, on average, unused.
We also don’t ensure that workers can take other kinds of paid time off, like sick days or family leave or even a weekend. And we certainly aren’t slacking in the hours we work each week, either: we’re number eleven out of thirty-three developed countries for weekly hours worked.
What are all of these hours getting us? Certainly, we are one of the richest countries in the world. But all this time spent on the job without taking some time off to decompress isn’t necessarily why. It can be incredibly counterproductive. Henry Ford’s famous 1920s revelation that shortening the working day and the workweek would lead to better productivity is still true.
Ford found that productivity diminished after workers put in eight hours a day, five days a week. And as Daniel Cook of Lost Garden has found, working more than sixty hours a week produces a small productivity boost, but it doesn’t last: after three or four weeks, it actually ends up hurting output. Other studies have found the same thing: you can push yourself into overwork for a short time and produce more, but eventually it will wear off and come back to bite you. Taking small breaks can also help people better focus and perform.
Taking a vacation has a similar effect. When accounting firm Ernst & Young studied its own workers in 2006, it found that for every ten hours of vacation an employee took, his or her year-end performance ratings would improve by 8 percent. More vacation time also correlated with lower turnover. Former NASA scientists had the same experience: they found that people who take vacations see an 82 percent bump in job performance when they get back. And longer vacations are more important for refreshing than just taking a few days off. Shutting down for a whole month isn’t sounding so crazy, is it?
Individual companies don’t just see a monetary gain from pushing employees to take some time off, though. The whole economy benefits. That’s because people on vacation tend to spend their money on plane tickets, hotel rooms, restaurants and sightseeing, instead of holding on to it all while working away at their desks. If American workers took their unused vacation time—remember, only about three days—and traveled, leisure spending would increase by nearly a trillion dollars, according to Oxford Economics. Even if only some people traveled, however, it would add $67 billion in travel spending. The total economic impact beyond the leisure industry would be $160 billion in business sales and $52 billion in additional income.
Think what the increase from a whole month off would look like. Think of all the stuff that we could buy with that extra income and economic growth.
Beyond stuff, of course, there is the improvement in quality of life. We are a stressed-out country. Half of both working mothers and fathers are stressed about juggling work and family. A month off in the summer has the added benefit of lining up when most students aren’t in school, allowing parents to spend a solid chunk of time with their children. It wouldn’t solve the whole problem—there are plenty of other vacations parents wouldn’t necessarily be able to take off for, and then there’s the everyday struggle of coming home from work to the demands of feeding, cleaning and clothing everyone in your family—but it would give working people some breathing room.
Heck, maybe some people would use that month to dream up the next innovation in automobiles or space travel.
Read Next: Bryce Covert on why men must lean out
In an essay for Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks writes that she hates Sheryl Sandberg. Not because she has nice hair or is wealthy, but because she has urged women to “lean in” to their work. Brooks describes taking this advice, leaning in to every opportunity inside and outside the workplace, and ending up utterly exhausted and, in her words, miserable. After briefly contemplating a move to Santa Fe to make crafts for a living, she says she came to an epiphany: “Ladies,” she writes, “if we want to rule the world—or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions—we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.” She declares there has to be “a movement” and her rallying cry is thus: “Women of the world, recline!”
But targeting women with that battle cry isn’t going to bring about the transformation that she craves. The problem is that too many women already lean out—and that far too few men do the same. We need to start by asking men to recalibrate if we’re going to revolutionize the workplace.
Brooks has put her finger on something important: asking women to lean in in today’s world is a bit like asking Atlas to help you move in to a five-floor walk-up. Americans work too much, plain and simple. A Harvard Business School survey of professionals found that 94 percent work fifty hours or more a week, and nearly half put in more than sixty-five hours a week. Out of thirty-three developed countries, Americans are eleventh in how many hours they put in each year, beating out Japan, Germany and plenty of other developed peers.
We also stand out from our developed neighbors in how little time off each worker is ensured. We are the only advanced country that doesn’t guarantee every worker some paid vacation time. We are the only one out of twenty-two developed countries that doesn’t guarantee every worker a paid day off when they get sick. We one of just three countries out of 178 that doesn’t guarantee a new mother can take paid time off when her baby arrives, not to mention fathers.
Brooks also nails it when she notes that “in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out” given that they are “still expected to work that ‘second shift’ at home.” Women are no longer waiting at home with dinner cooked, house cleaned and a cocktail at hand—nearly half of all families have two working parents, and another quarter have a single working one. But someone still has to cook that dinner and clean the house, not to mention watch the kids when they’re home from school or, if they’re infants, all day long.
And that someone is still by and large a woman. Men have upped their share of the chores—they now spend seven hours a week on childcare and ten on housework, up from just two and a half and four hours, respectively, in 1965—but women still spend twice as much time with children as fathers do, and they now put in more hours on that task than the 1960s woman.
Given this contradiction—putting in more hours in the office while still doing the bulk of the work at home—many women already lean out. Nearly a quarter of married mothers don’t work so they can stay home, compared to less than 1 percent of fathers. Fewer women have been entering the labor force, in fact, because of our pathetic workplace policies. In 1990, American women’s labor force participation rate was 74 percent, which netted us a sixth-place rank among twenty-two developed countries. Two decades later, that percentage has only increased to 75.2 percent, while the other countries are at nearly 80 percent—dropping us to number seventeen.
Women are also more likely to change the arc of their careers to take children or other caregiving into account. They are more likely to go part time and cut back on hours—more than 40 percent of women with children have reduced their hours to care for someone, compared to 28 percent of fathers.
Telling women to lean out, then—not to take every opportunity, be aggressive and aim for the top—is not revolutionary. It’s what many women either choose to do or are forced to do in the face of a workplace that has yet to come to grips with the idea that workers have lives outside of the office that need tending to.
What would be revolutionary, on the other hand, would be to target men and, while women are leaning in, ask them to lean out. That would mean men cutting back on their hours, going part-time, telecommuting and otherwise adjusting their jobs to focus on things outside of work. Then they could spend even more time with children—something 46 percent wish they could do—as well as relax in a La-Z-Boy recliner, something Brooks longs for. Her movement begins with women and “bring[s] our husbands and boyfriends and male colleagues along, too,” but it needs to flow in the opposite direction. Men have to lean out before women can relax more without sacrificing something.
But we don’t just have to ask men kindly that they please stop working so much and wait for them to comply. There are policies that could reduce everyone’s work hours and make leaning out gender neutral. One small step would be to change our overtime rules so that more workers have to be paid time and a half when they put in more than forty hours a week, thus re-normalizing the nine-to-five work day. We need to pass far more paid leave policies. A much broader change, though, would be to simply cap work hours. That may sound crazy, but it’s illegal for an employer to make workers put in more than forty-eight hours a week in six of the top ten most competitive countries. Somehow, we need to make more time for children, friends and reclining chairs.
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The car industry is no bastion of female empowerment, so it was groundbreaking to see General Motors appoint Mary Barra as CEO in December. She is the first woman not just to run the company, but to run any global carmaker. But on the heels of that historic news came something sadly less surprising: her current pay package is less than half of what was given to the man who just vacated the role. True, as the company has pointed out, she may well get more when shareholders vote later this year on her long-term compensation package, but her base salary and short-term package are lower than the man’s before her. And she is in no way the only female executive to be paid less than the men around them.
After President Obama mentioned the gender wage gap in his State of the Union by citing the average figure that women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes, some conservatives have once again pushed back at that figure, and with it, the notion that there is a discrimination-created wage gap. True, that seventy-seven cents figure includes many different factors, including wage penalties women may accrue for taking time off to take care of kids, for instance, not just employers simply paying women less. But to see discrimination at work, all you have to do is look to the top.
Barra’s pay package is lower not because she’s a newbie who might have taken years off from her career to care for family members. Barra has logged thirty-three straight years with the company, most recently serving as senior vice president of global product development. Her predecessor, Don Akerson, on the other hand, came to the job with zero years of experience in a car company, although he had sat on GM’s board since 2009. In response to a question about Barra’s lower base pay, a company spokesperson told me Akerson got more because he was also named the chairman and because he had been a CEO before—just not at any car companies. Barra, in dedicating her career to the carmaker, hadn’t gotten the chance yet.
Women who reach the top can’t be accused of lacking ambition. Not surprisingly, the few who make it—women still represent less than 15 percent of CEOs at the country’s largest companies—are extraordinarily ambitious, more so than their male peers. They haven’t opted into lower-paid jobs—they’re at the very top. They haven’t decided or been forced to put family before career, or at least not so much that it stopped them from reaching the pinnacle of their organizations.
Yet the highest-paid female executives at S&P 500 companies make 18 percent less than men in the same position. The gender wage gap among CEOs, in fact, is 69 percent, a bigger gap than that average for everyone. Barra isn’t the only one. Heather Bresch, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company Mylan, makes 33 percent less than what the average chief pharma executive can expect. Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, makes 24 percent less than the average in the food industry.
What can explain this gap? These women have climbed to the top of their companies. They have worked hard and reached high. Why do they deserve to be paid less than the men who did the same? I can’t see any other explanation for it than discrimination. And there’s good reason to think discrimination hurts other women’s pay: When it examined multiple factors that might explain the disparity in pay, the Government Accountability Office couldn’t explain a 20 percent gap between women’s and men’s earnings, saying that it’s likely discrimination is at fault.
Pay gap skeptics often cite different work histories, women ending up in lower-paying jobs, and the fact that young women see a smaller gap as reasons to doubt the 77 percent figure. But it’s worth noting that even these factors represent discrimination, although it is on a societal level, not the employer level. The work women are more likely to perform—think care work, teaching, service jobs—pays a lot less than what men tend to do. In fact, male-dominated fields pay nearly $150 more each week than female-dominated ones. This is not only thanks to society’s telling women they aren’t the stuff of engineers but a devaluing of the work women do. Women are the default caretakers in a society that still doesn’t realize that most families feature two working parents or a single one, but our policies present working parents with impossible choices: Go back to work too quickly after the arrival of your new child or suffer financial hardship while on unpaid leave? Risk your job or your pay to take a day off to care for a sick kid or find someone else to care for him? Pay for incredibly expensive childcare or have a parent leave work and stay at home? No wonder women feel pressure to interrupt their careers to care for children—someone often has to. Women even get more college degrees yet earn less than men with the same educational credentials.
The gender wage gap is complicated, and throwing around the 77 percent figure can sometimes mask the various factors that go into it. But it’s impossible to rule out discrimination as at least one, if not the biggest, cause of it when the women who reach the top are still valued less.
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First it was Senator Marco Rubio: marriage is “the greatest tool” to lift people out of poverty. Then it was Ari Fleischer: the best way to fight income inequality is by “helping the poor realize that the most important decision they can make is to stay in school, get married and have children—in that order.” And then on Sunday it was Ross Douthat: “one of the biggest boosts to opportunity comes from having married parents.”
Conservatives are lately doing some thinking about poverty and income inequality, but the answer they seem to keep landing on is marriage. True, being married certainly is associated with financial benefits. The poverty rate is about five times higher for single parents than for married couples, which can have a significant impact on children’s well-being and future prospects. But to turn that from a statistic to a solution, the next leap would be to push for the government to push people into marriages. Unfortunately for conservatives, the government is terrible at getting people together.
In seeking to push people toward marital bliss, the government uses a carrot and a stick: incentivizing some couples with spending on pro-marriage counseling programs while attempting to penalize others who don’t marry by denying them tax benefits. Neither of these attempts to rig the marriage market work.
Take marriage promotion. In 2002, the federal government poured tens of millions of dollars into a project called Building Strong Families, which offered more than 5,000 unwed couples across the country group sessions on relationship skills and support services to boost marriage rates. It cost an average of $11,000 per couple. Yet three years later, an independent review of its efficacy found that it was a flop. It had no effect on whether the couples got married or even whether they stayed romantically involved. In fact, the couples who took part in the program were slightly less likely to stay together or live together than those in a control group.
Another review found slightly more optimistic but not promising outcomes. Researchers analyzed the relationship between state spending on Healthy Marriage Initiatives—relationship education programs—and how many married adults lived in the state. The positive association they found all but disappeared when one outlier, Washington, DC, was taken out of the results. In short: all this spending has done little to boost marriage.
But even if these programs were effective at pushing couples together, they might not help single mothers. Low-income single mothers’s relationships are much more likely to be highly unstable and low-quality. And there is often little benefit from getting married: in a recent study, Ohio State University Associate Professor of sociology Kristi Williams analyzed more than thirty years of data and found “no physical or psychological advantages for the majority of adolescents born to a single mother whose mothers later married.”
And that’s if they stay married. Just because a single mom ties the knot doesn’t mean the union will last. A nationally representative study of more than 7,000 women found that two-thirds of single mothers who married ended up divorced by the time they were ages 35 to 44. That leaves them worse off: single mothers who never marry are in better financial shape than those who marry just to end up single again.
If spending on pro-marriage campaigns is the government’s carrot enticing couples toward getting married, it uses the tax code as the stick, ostensibly tailored to make marriage financially rewarding and staying single more expensive. Yet while the majority of couples see a marriage “bonus” from the ability to file jointly, that doesn’t hold true for everyone. Putting two people’s incomes together can sometimes trigger higher tax brackets than if they filed separately. In 1997, when the Congressional Budget Office last issued a report on the topic, 42 percent of couples got a penalty, although changes since then have lessened the problem. These penalties hit couples who earn similar amounts of money, particularly at the bottom and top of the income scale. Low-income couples—the very people the government has nudged toward marriage—are the most impacted, as they are more likely to make different decisions based on incentives or costs. Given these complications, as Anne L. Alstott argues in a paper for Tax Law Review, “joint filing is an exceptionally poor tool for encouraging people to marry and stay married.”
But if the tax code succeeds at incentivizing any marriages, it is also mostly pushing people toward one outdated family formation: a breadwinner and a homemaker. Couples who have similar incomes are the most likely to incur the penalties, but as the Tax Policy Center explains, “Couples in which one spouse earns all of the couple’s income never incur a marriage penalty and almost always receive a marriage bonus.” Fewer and fewer families are likely to take advantage of that bonus, then. Just one in five families features a stay-at-home mother and a father who earns the money. On the other hand, the percent of families that rely on women’s income just hit a record high.
It might sound complicated to extricate the government from all the ways it has invested in marriage. But it doesn’t have to be. Instead of joint filing as an ill-advised attempt to reward marriages in the tax code, all earners could file individually with one income tax schedule for everyone, thus undoing the penalties many married couples face while treating unmarried couples and single people equally. Rather than throwing money at marriage promotion campaigns that don’t have much of an impact, the government could instead put it toward policies that can help single parents survive. Williams found that low-income women need greater access to family planning. Once they have children, single mothers need better access to health insurance and high-quality childcare, a stronger welfare system, and paid leave for a new child or to care for ones who get sick. The lack of these policies make American single mothers the worst-off single parents among developed countries.
These policies also have the added benefit of meeting people where they are. The share of people who decide to get married has been steadily shrinking for a half century, while the number of people who never get married has been growing. Forcing a hard stop or even a reversal of these trends is unlikely. But our policies don’t need to penalize people for the different decisions they make. Being single doesn’t need to be a financial death knell.
Watch Next: Michelle Goldberg explains why marriage does not alleviate poverty.
Plenty of worthy policy changes that would help working people balance the demands of the workplace with home have been proposed in Congress. Universal preschool. Paid family leave. Paid sick days. But this is not a Congress that gets a lot of things done. It passed the lowest number of bills in decades last year, at just fifty-seven.
So it’s important to take note of something President Obama could do right now, on his own, that could have a huge impact on the work/family conflict: update our overtime laws.
As Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, explained in The New York Times this weekend, employers are required by the Fair Labor Standards Act to pay certain workers time and a half—one and a half times their regular wage—in overtime pay after they put in forty hours of weekly work. But the threshold for which workers are covered by this requirement needs updating. It’s currently $455 a week, which is $23,660 a year, and as Eisenbrey notes, $2 a week more than the poverty line for a family of four. That means a whole lot of middle-wage workers who make more than that don’t get any extra compensation for working extra hours.
And Americans put in a lot of hours. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is in the top fourteen of thirty-three countries in the number of hours we work. Given that about half of all families with children have two working parents—just one in five has a stay-at-home mom and a breadwinner dad—that leaves few hours to spend taking care of children, elderly parents or each other.
Enter the overtime requirement. Eisenbrey proposes lifting the cap to cover those who make $970 a week or less, or over $50,000 a year. That affects not only low-paid service and construction workers but also white-collar workers—and begins to normalize paying for over-time in professional settings. Eisenbrey picks this number because it would bring the threshold in line with its historical value of $240. But since in 1975 it was 1.6 times the median wage, and today’s median wage for forty hours of work is $670, $970 is actually on the low side—the threshold could go above $1,000 a week and be consistent with historical norms.
While Eisenbrey pushes for an update because it “would make overtime pay more expensive, creating an incentive for employers to spread work among other workers” in an economy in desperate need of more jobs, he doesn’t mention the impact it would have on those working more hours than they want to. The norm in many jobs, particularly professional ones, has become to work fifty-plus hour weeks. Some workers feel like they have to put in sixty or more hours, raising the question of whether they ever eat a meal with their loved ones. If it became more expensive to keep workers around after forty hours, however, even for just the lower paid staff, it would reintroduce the nine-to-five norm where everyone wraps up and goes home when the clock chimes five.
This might sound like a scary thing if you’re a job creator. But as Eisenbrey writes, if an employer wants to avoid paying overtime, he can hire new workers to do the extra work at the base rate, one of the original law’s objectives. It’s also not unheard of for governments of developed countries to curb work hours. In six of the top ten most competitive countries—Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom—it’s illegal for an employer to make her workers put in more than a forty-eight-hour workweek. Not to mention that forty hours a week has been found to be the “sweet spot” for workers’ productivity. Just ask Henry Ford.
The beauty of working less is that it is a gender-neutral way to change the workplace to better suit the current shape of American families. Our model assumes someone is at home to cook a meal, clean the house, care for a parent, watch the kids when they get home from school and do anything else that isn’t paid employment. But that’s not true for a growing number of families. While women are still the default when it comes to who takes on the care work, the stress of this dilemma reaches both genders. If everyone worked less, everyone would have more time to devote to the other things in life that need attention.
Read Next: Bryce Covert on the rise of female labor leaders.
In his State of the State address yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made a passing reference to preschool, saying that it is “time to fulfill the state’s goal” of providing all-day pre-K to all children in the state. He failed to mention of how to do it or how to pay for it. There had been rumors that he would propose a universal preschool program funded through the state’s budget, but he quashed those hopes well before the speech. The question of how to fund a preschool program is likely to put him at odds with newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a promise to make high-quality preschool available to the city’s children by raising taxes on the wealthiest earners.
This fight could be thorny for Cuomo, who has painted himself as a social progressive at the same time as he tacks hard right on economic issues. In his time in office, he has made big news for pushing through the legalization of gay marriage in the state, pushing a Women’s Equality Act that brought together legislation to close the gender wage gap, help the victims of domestic violence and protect the right to an abortion, and recently for proposing to legalize small amounts of medical marijuana, among other things.
These are all great. But none of them costs the state money. Universal pre-K would. So here’s a test: Cuomo says he is a staunch supporter of women’s equality. But would he spend money on it? Because sometimes it takes money to achieve social goals. He has long tried to keep economic and social issues separate, but they can’t be so neatly divided. Preschool, and childcare more broadly, is one of those issues that expose the way they overlap and interact.
High-quality preschool has certainly been proven to have many benefits for children. What gets less airtime is the benefit it would have for working parents, and specifically mothers. The United States lags far behind other countries in how many children are enrolled in preschool, and the cost of childcare in a center or someone’s home is huge, clocking in at more than median rent in every state and more than the cost of public college in many. In many heterosexual families, couples look at the cost of care and compare it to their incomes—and usually match it dollar for dollar with what the woman makes. Many women look at that equation and end up dropping out of the workforce. One study has found that mothers with regular childcare arrangements are twice as likely to stay in their jobs as those without. Their wages often drop if and when they head back to work, thanks to skill stagnation or their returning to a lower position than they would have had. About 10 percent of the gender wage gap can be explained by differing time spent working.
Preschool would help to halt and even reverse this trend: a fully funded, national early childhood education program would boost women’s employment rate by up to 10 percent. So if Cuomo really does care about the gender wage gap, as he says he does, this is an important piece of the puzzle.
But one way or another, you have to spend money to create a high-quality, universal preschool program. One group estimated that it could cost $4 billion to create one in New York. De Blasio is willing to put his money where his campaign promise is with his tax on the wealthy, which is expected to bring in about $530 million a year, enough to cover the $340 million price tag for the city. Cuomo, on the other hand, made his quick preschool reference in the State of the State amid a big, concrete plan to lower taxes. He just unveiled a $2 billion package of reduced taxes for businesses, renters, property owners and upstate manufacturers. In his address, “He mentioned the word tax or taxes about 40 times, mostly to make the assertion that he had managed to drive them down,” The New York Times reports. That $2 billion means $2 billion less in revenues that the state could use on early childhood education.
Some women’s rights issues come at no cost. Enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion in New York State is revenue-neutral, even if it might require reserves of political capital. But if you want to address the gender wage gap or the work/family dilemma, it will take something more.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on how de Blasio can craft a progressive school policy for New York.
Last night, Twitter made a change to what happens when a user blocks another user. Originally, when users were blocked they could no longer see the other’s account and visa versa. But while the new policy still kept the feature that hid a blocked user’s tweets from the person who blocked them, it allowed the blocked user to see the other’s account if it was public. “If your account is public, blocking a user does not prevent that user from following you, interacting with your Tweets, or receiving your updates in their timeline,” the company stated. That meant that potential stalkers or harassers could retweet their victims’ tweets into their own stream, opening up the victims to potential blowback from a harasser’s followers.
After a wave of outrage against the policy change, Twitter later reversed course, saying, “We have decided to revert the change after receiving feedback from many users,” adding, “we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe.”
When it made the original change, the company explained that it was to fix the fact that users can tell when they’ve been blocked, which it said meant there was “antagonistic behavior where people would see they were locked and be mad.” As Ashe Dryden pointed out, “This is dictating an abuse victim’s safety based on how upset their abuser feels.” As Zerlina Maxwell explained in her petition to get Twitter to reverse its decision, “I am very concerned because stalkers and abusers will now be able to keep tabs on their victims, and while there was no way to prevent it 100% before, Twitter should not be in the business of making it easier to stalk someone.”
It’s not necessarily a coincidence Ashe and Zerlina are women. Women are more likely than men to experience stalking and harassment, and women on the Internet experience a high volume of this abuse. There’s plenty of tales of personal experience, but also hard evidence, like a study that found that chat users with female-sounding usernames were 25 percent more likely to get threatening or sexually explicit messages. As Zerlina noted, she is often the victim of online rape and death threats. Women know what they need to be better protected from its effects.
And this might help explain why Twitter didn’t see the backlash coming. It, like many other tech companies, is a male-dominated company. Just two of its twelve executive team members are women, and they were not likely involved in the decision: they are its vice president of human resources and the general counsel. It just added its first female board member last week, a sign of its recognition that diversity is important but that there is so much father to go. This maleness is counter to its user base: the majority are women, which is true for social media in general.
Twitter’s mistake seems like one it could have seen coming. Someone might have been able to put themselves in the shoes of those who experience harassment and stalking and realized that getting their tweets retweeted into an abuser’s stream opens victims up to even more abuse. It has also taken other big public mobilizations to get the company to make changes that could help users who are the targets of threats. Given that women are more likely to these targets, it might take having someone of that gender in the room to come to these realizations ahead of time. This is one of the many benefits of having a more diverse team: you get more diverse opinions, reactions, and ideas.
Twitter is far from the only company suffering from a lack of women making the decisions; women are a small percentage of the chief executives of the country’s largest companies, for example. Yet there’s a large body of evidence that more women in leadership roles at companies means better financial performance. And Twitter’s experience last night illustrates that it isn’t necessarily just about the dollar figures. A workplace that has employees of all genders, races, sexualities, classes, religions, etc. means a better chance to bring different ideas to the table—and different perspectives that can stop a bad decision before it gets made.
Read Next: Jessica Valenti on Michigan’s anti-choice bill.