Have you heard the one about the CEO who sits down to eat with two workers, one male and one female? The table holds a plate with twelve cookies. After scooping eleven onto his own plate, the CEO turns to the male worker and says, “Watch out for that woman. She’s going to try to take a bite of your cookie.”
More and more women are demanding their fair share—not through a drop in pay for men, but through changes in how work and family time are valued. The result will be a boon for everyone, except those whose pockets bulge as a result of discrimination.
Wal-Mart’s top executives and those at other big corporations who’ve weighed in on the current class action suit would like us to believe that women’s lower pay is a figment of feminist imagination. If it does exist, they say, it’s the result of simple coincidence, or of choices women make.
A key argument in this line of thinking is that women trade income for flexibility. They want more time to spend with their family, so they choose jobs that pay a little less in return for greater access to time off.
There’s just one flaw in this reasoning: the lowest paid jobs are the least flexible.
Ask Kiara, who puts labels and bar codes on magazines. She’s performed this job for two and a half years, all of it as a temporary worker. When the workload slows down, she’s sent home. If the bus is running a little late, she may be taken off the schedule as punishment and not put back on for several days.
Sometimes she’s taken off the schedule because the magazine factory says they don’t need her, even though she’s already paid for child care and bus tickets.
“If they send me home, more money is coming out of my pocket than coming in,” she explained. Yet from week to week, managers can change her shift and her hours. This makes it really hard to spend time with her two children. When her schedule changes, Kiara said, “I have to drop what I’m doing to go make some money to make our lives better.”
Her pay? About half that of the permanent workers.
The temps are disproportionately female.
So are part-time workers like Lisa. She works thirty hours a week, not by choice—her hours as a clerical were cut to save on benefits.
And what do Kiara and Lisa and millions of other low-wage workers do when they’re sick? Take some aspirin and go in anyway, because they can’t afford to lose the day’s pay or be taken off the schedule. They do this until the pain gets too bad—as it did for Alexis, a food packager who wound up in the hospital with gall bladder surgery and a host of bills that almost got her evicted.
But when their kids are sick, it’s a different story. Women still bear the primary responsibility for caring for children. And whether their jobs involve tending the elderly or serving food or packaging it or ringing up purchases, three-fourths of low-wage workers—again, disproportionately female—have no paid sick days they can use for themselves or their children.
The price is more than a few day’s pay. For many women, following the pediatrician’s orders costs them their job.
Work can’t lead to higher pay if it doesn’t last. And it can’t last if it jeopardizes kids.
Pay equity will require a number of solutions, starting with the most basic: stop allowing higher-ups to pay women less or pass them over for promotions.
Which means an end to chief executives defending themselves by saying, “But I didn’t tell district managers to discriminate!” Instead, judges and government agencies need to be asking, “What steps did you take to make sure they did not?”
Still, that’s only one solution. We need to revalue the work women do so that those employed to care for young children and damaged families are compensated similarly to those who care for cars and computer chips.
We need to make it possible for all workers who have caregiving responsibilities—including for themselves—to have paid time off for routine and preventive care, and affordable leave to care for a new child or a serious personal or family illness.
We need to establish equity in pay and benefits for part-timers and temps. And we need to remove barriers from collective bargaining—union workers have the lowest gender wage gap.
Who will benefit? Women, of course. But also men whose families will have more money and whose own working conditions will be improved as a result.
It’s time that those who bake the cookies start getting more than the crumbs.
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