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We've Waited Long Enough For Equal Pay

Tamara Draut

It’s Equal Pay Day! —the day demarcating when women have worked long enough to match the pay received by men during the previous calendar year. Yes, women need to work an extra three months to close the pay gap with their brothers, uncles, nephews, husbands and co-workers.

Thanks to the researchers at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, we know that men are paid more for doing the exact same jobs as women—and that any job that is performed primarily by women pays less than a similar job performed primarily by men. Home health aides earn less than janitors. Secretaries earn less than construction workers. Elementary school teachers earn less than computer software engineers.

Women’s work is still undervalued, and women of color suffer a disproportionate share of that legacy. The paychecks of women of color are undercut by both the gender and the racial wage gap, resulting in many of the lowest-paid jobs being disproportionately performed by women of color: home health aide, child-care worker, and nursing assistant. Women of color, both native-born and immigrant, are bound together at the bottom of America’s wage hierarchy, despite the fact that many of these jobs carry an enormous responsibility—developing and caring for people.

Work primarily done by women is too often invisible to our nation’s policymakers—especially work done by women of color. As jobs in the caring and serving professions continue to grow robustly, it’s time we commit to equal pay for equal work—and for similar work. Let’s have a conversation in which those opposed to fixing these inequities must explain: why should a parking attendant earn more than a child care worker? Or a landscaper more than a home health aide? Or an elementary school teacher less than someone who codes?

Nearly twice as many women as men work in jobs paying wages below the poverty line. In fact, 5 of the most common occupations for women—home health aides, cashiers, maids and household cleaners, waitresses, and personal-care aides—fall into that category, compared to just 2 of the most common jobs for men (again, hat tip to IWPR researchers). With the exception of waitresses, these jobs are either primarily or disproportionately done by women of color.

Equal Pay Day, coming on the heels of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, is a good time to ask the question: What happened to the promise of Section VII, the provision of the Civil Rights Act that would provide equal opportunity in the workplace, regardless of race or gender?

I answer that question in my book, Sleeping Giant: The Untapped Economic and Political Power of America’s New Working Class—paperback comes out April 17, 2018. What follows is an excerpt from a chapter about the legacy of exclusion in our economy and how it very much shows up in our pocketbooks today.

In a deeply researched and quantitative assessment of the drive to desegregate America’s workplaces, Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey tell the story in Documenting Desegregation of substantial progress despite stubborn and durable privilege. In the years immediately following the Civil Rights Act, from 1966 to 1972, major gains were made among black men, black women, and white women—but, importantly, not at the expense of white men, who actually got a major bump up the advantage ladder. As black men and black women made big gains into working-class jobs, white men got propelled upward into even more managerial positions. Working-class jobs became more integrated, with more black women and white women working together than before, and more black men and white men working together on an equal-status basis. But at the top, white men still had the perch all to themselves, rarely interacting as equals with anyone besides other white men.

The hardened gender segregation began to unravel in the 1970s, as pressure from newly formed feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) forced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and thus employers to enforce the sex provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Between 1972 and 1980, both black women and white women earned their way into the professions, with black women actually outnumbering black men in professional occupations. White women were the biggest winners during this era, gaining access to both managerial and professional occupations at much higher rates than either black women or black men. Black men made substantial inroads into higher-paying working-class jobs, while women remained largely locked out of those jobs. Overall, white women benefited more from Title VII, securing jobs that once were held by mostly white men in the professions.

By 1980, 16 years of organized activism and formal federal oversight had resulted in remarkable gains for black women, black men, and white women. But progress ground to a halt in the 1980s, with only white women advancing over the next 3 decades. At the national level, our political debate became increasingly racialized, particularly around the issue of affirmative action. Conservatives successfully recast affirmative action as “reverse discrimination,” and when they secured electoral advantage, they were able to transform this rhetoric into action. Upon winning the presidency, Ronald Reagan quickly knocked the teeth out of federal enforcement, slashing the budget of the EEOC and the office responsible for federal contracting. He appointed Clarence Thomas (now a Supreme Court justice) to head the EEOC and ordered a near stoppage to enforcement of the law. Class-action lawsuits by the EEOC, the easiest way to secure remedies for discrimination, dropped from 1,106 in 1975 to just 51 in 1989.

Today progress has stalled on all fronts. The integration of black men into jobs formerly held only by white men advanced rapidly in the 1970s, but this halted in 1980 as factories were being shuttered in favor of cheaper labor overseas. White women made significant gains in the 1980s but stalled out in 2000 as well. Black women made the least progress of the 3 groups after the Civil Rights Act. In her book Opportunity Denied, Enobong Hannah Branch describes black women as being “between a rock and a hard place,” explaining that “the occupational advancement of black men occurred because of male privilege, and the occupational advancement of white women occurred because of white privilege. However, black women had no point of privilege by which they could advance.” By 2005 it was still the case that black men and women, especially black women, rarely worked in the same job in the same workplace as white men. As a result, in order to achieve completely integrated workplaces in the private sector, more than half of all workers would have to switch jobs.

On this Equal Pay Day, let’s re-commit to creating an economy that values all labor, from all people. We’ve waited long enough.