Women’s Work: A Political Flashpoint and an Urgent Policy Imperative

by | Apr 16, 2012 | Fair Pay

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Women’s work. Last week, when Hilary Rosen used words she quickly admitted were poorly chosen, we were all reminded that it remains a huge flashpoint in our society. But there are some truisms that will hold even after the media frenzy and politically-motivated discourse subside.

First, America’s moms aren’t at war with each other. For a good part of our lives, most women are in the workforce. At other times, many women are stay-at-home caregivers. Most of us assume both roles at various points in our lives — and for several decades, many of us fill both of these roles, breadwinners and caregivers, at the same time. We all need and deserve respect.

Second, in this tough economy, women’s work is about not just family economic security over the long term, but also basic family economic survival right now. In 2010, nearly 40 percent of women were the primary breadwinners for their families, bringing home as much or more than their husbands — or providing solely for their families as single parents, and just under one-quarter more were co-breadwinners who brought in at least 25 percent of their families’ income.

Our jobs matter, and our caregiving responsibilities matter. And much more important than the rhetorical war around Hilary Rosen and Ann Romney is the urgent need to finally adopt policies that address the needs of employed women and their families, now and in the future. That means expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act so it covers more workers, adopting paid family and medical leave, and ensuring that all workers can earn paid sick days. And it means finally, once and for all, ending the gender-based wage discrimination that punishes women and families these days.

How bad is it? America’s women are paid just 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, which results in $10,784 in lost income each year. For women of color, the gap is even worse. African American women are paid 62 cents and Latinas are paid just 54 cents for every dollar paid to men, which means they lose $19,575 and $23,873 in critical income each year, respectively. And these gaps exist regardless of industry, education or personal choices.

The wage gap in this country is diminishing so slowly that it will take more than four decades for it to close. Yet, if it were eliminated, a woman in the United States could afford 13 more months of rent, 2,751 more gallons of gas, seven more months of mortgage and utility payments or nearly three years’ worth of family health insurance premiums. The loss of these basic necessities is no small matter for America’s families.

To paint a clearer picture of what these lost wages look like for households throughout the country, the National Partnership has released a state-by-state analysis of the wage gap. Although some states are closer to closing the gap than others, in no state are women paid equally. And the disparities for women of color are significant and often appalling.

In Wyoming, Louisiana and Utah the gap between men’s and women’s wages is more than 30 cents for every dollar. They make up the bottom states in our ranking of state wage gaps for all women. An analysis of the state gaps for African American women and Latinas shows that Wyoming, Rhode Island and Alabama have the worst gaps — more than 50 cents. The fact that women of color in these states are being paid half, or even less than half, as much as their male counterparts is truly appalling.

This week, we recognize Equal Pay Day — the day that marks how far into 2012 women have to work to match the total wages paid to men in 2011. You read that correctly: it takes women four extra months of work to catch up in wages to their male counterparts — and it’s hurting the nation’s families and our economy terribly.

That’s why we need Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help fight wage discrimination and establish stronger workplace protections for women in all states. It is critically important legislation that has been introduced in the current Congress. Its passage must be a priority for anyone who cares about women’s work and families’ well-being.

It’s time to move beyond posturing and political dust-ups to real policy changes that will help real families. We cannot afford to wait.</