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This Mother’s Day, Let’s Promise Her Equal Pay

New America Media, Commentary, Heidi Hartmann and Ariane Hegewisch Posted: May 10, 2009

Editor’s Note: Recent studies show that for the first time, more women are employed than men. But this statistic belies the fact that women continue to earn less than their male counterparts. Heidi Hartmann is the founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Ariane Hegewisch is the study director for workplace issues at IWPR.

Instead of flowers, this Mother’s Day, let’s celebrate the women who keep families together by giving them pay equal to men’s.

Women had to work almost four extra months to earn what men did in 2008. For full-time workers, women earn just $78 per week compared to $100 for all men. The difference is even greater for some women. African-American women earn only $62.20 and Hispanic women earn just $53.40 for every $100 earned by white men, who are the top earners.

Whether we look at jobs dominated by women, such as secretarial work or home health care, or jobs requiring more education, such as lawyers, pharmacists, teachers and nurses, in a typical week a woman working full-time makes less than a man doing the same job. Of more than 500 different occupations for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks earnings data, women’s median earnings are higher than men’s for doing the same job in fewer than five.

And while some women work in the highest paid professions, such as doctors, chief executives and computer and IT managers, overall the workforce remains sex segregated. Women, and especially women of color, are more likely to land the worst, lowest paying jobs, without health insurance, paid sick days or paid family care leave.

In any discussion of the gender pay gap, the word “choice” is bound to pop up. Some say women “choose” jobs that pay less, “choose” to have children or to interrupt their careers to raise them, or “choose” to work part-time. Up close, such “choices” look much more like responses to barriers.

Childcare is expensive and women’s typically lower earnings compared with their husbands’ make it more rational for mothers to stay home and take care of their kids. Twice as many women as men do part-time work “voluntarily” (that is, not because of cuts in hours by employers such as is happening in this economic downturn). Because part-time work in well-paid jobs is scarce, a shift to reduced hours for family care reasons often involves working below one’s skills and educational achievement. And when a child is sick, without legal protection against being fired for taking time off, mothers risk their jobs, and hence lose seniority when they must start over again at the bottom. Choice has precious little to do with it.

In any case, none of these factors fully explain the pay gap. The case of Lilly Ledbetter, who for years was paid less than equally (and less) experienced male managers at Goodyear, shows that discrimination is still blatant. The gap is also caused because women’s work is undervalued. For example, a truck driver typically earns twice as much as a childcare worker. Truck driving is a responsible job that requires some specialized learning. But so is caring for children.

Women’s earnings are crucial to their families, so the wage gap hurts the whole family. More than three-quarters of all children have mothers who work for pay. Almost one quarter of all mothers are the sole earners in their families.

Many observers have noted that more men than women are being laid off in this recession. Few have noted that women’s lower earning power is all that is holding up many families. Job losses have been much worse in “male sectors” of the economy, such as construction and manufacturing than in the traditionally “female sectors,” such as healthcare or education. Families who relied on two paychecks now must make do with one that is often lower paid, without benefits.

This Mother’s Day, policymakers should vow to make sure that women’s work is valued and paid the same as men’s. Mothers, and all women, need stronger laws to challenge pay discrimination and create employment protections for parents. That says, “We love you, Mom” more than any bouquet of roses.

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