Heather McGhee, president of Demos: When Sheryl Sandberg and Jill Abramson—women leading powerful institutions in male-dominated industries—ignite our most robust media conversations about gender equality, we feminists face a quandary. Of course feminists want women who are tantalizingly close to the top to break through, and of course we know that the paucity of women leading our institutions is a glaring symbol of enduring gender hierarchy. But women will not succeed in dismantling one hierarchy by climbing to the top of another. It’s not nearly sufficient for us to become leaders without forcing our institutions to value all who have been undervalued.
The vast majority of women, in America and worldwide, are ill-served by today’s economic paradigm. It is a paradigm that is founded on a steep hierarchy of value for everyone and everything (say, when a retail cashier’s hourly labor is deemed worthy of $7.25 and her boss’s $10,000). With hierarchy so essential to our economic system, it should be unsurprising that businesses exploit society’s undervaluation of women—as well as that of immigrants and people of color who are still mainly stuck at the bottom of our social and political hierarchies.
A business model that relies on suppressed wages at the female-dominated front lines of the growing low-wage economy will not be feminist when a woman breaks through as a CEO.
An emblematic case is in retail, one of the largest industries where low-paid women work, and the subject of a new report by my colleague at Demos Amy Traub. The gender inequity in the sector is immense: saleswomen at large retailers are paid $4 less an hour on average than their male co-workers, meaning a woman would have to work 103 days more a year to make the same wage as a man in the same job category. More than half of women in retail earn less than $25,000 a year for full-time work—even though the vast majority of women in retail are over 20 years old, a third have children and over a third provide half or more of their household’s income. Demos’s research shows that retail’s gender pay gap costs women an estimated $40.8 billion in lost wages annually, a total that will rise to $381 billion cumulatively by 2022.
A business model that relies on suppressed wages at the female-dominated front lines of the growing low-wage economy and soaring pay in the white male-dominated C-suites will not be feminist when a woman breaks through as a CEO.
Fortunately, women leaders can redefine success. We’ve calculated that raising the annual pay floor for a full-time worker to $25,000 would benefit over 3 million female retail workers and their families. Businesses could afford it—the largest ten retailers spent more last year than the cost of the raise simply buying back their own stock to inflate share value. A raise would also add to GDP through low-paid workers’ increased spending, boost worker productivity and, ultimately, the companies’ bottom line—as examples like Costco show. That’s changing who and what is valued. That’s our feminism.