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Pay Equity: A North Star for our New Normal

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Nancy Reichman

CWC Research Director

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A couple of weeks ago, a federal judge rejected the U.S. Women’s National Team’s claim that they had been systematically underpaid by the U.S. Soccer Federation in comparison to the U.S. Men’s National Team. Claims about unequal treatment in areas like travel and team staffing will proceed to trial next month, but this—this—was the ruling against one of the U.S.’s most beloved sports franchises in a post-Me Too moment of women’s empowerment.

Unlike last year when the four-time Women’s World Cup-winning squad first filed their equal pay lawsuit with tremendous public and celebrity support, this month’s ruling received relatively little notice. Sadly, it’s not surprising. After all, we're in the midst of a devastating global pandemic with enormous consequences for the well-being of our friends, neighbors, and loved ones. The fate of a lawsuit, even one filed by a seemingly unstoppable sports team, is not at the forefront of our minds.

Still, as a scholar of and activist for pay equity, the relative silence around the U.S. Women’s soccer case reminds me that we are distracted. We aren’t channelling our courage toward or thinking hard enough to identify policies and, even more importantly, practices that give each of us—regardless of gender or race—a fighting chance in the face of a pandemic.

But, as I see it, shining a pay equity lens on the “new” normal emerging from this pandemic can illuminate new pathways and new opportunities. Traveling these paths will require us to think differently, acknowledge the crucial importance of human connection, and the vital creativity that comes with empathic conversation. So, let's apply that lens.

Equal pay for equal work has been a rallying cry of activists for decades and has been enshrined in law through the Equal Pay Act since 1963. But equitable pay is much more than a legal rule about equal wages. Pay equity is achieved when there is equal opportunity to earn a fair wage. It requires fairness and transparency in setting wages. It is possible only when we dismantle the systemic barriers that constrain people from achieving all they might achieve and - most importantly - when we value the work women do in a way that acknowledges the central importance of their contributions to maintaining our families and our communities. 

Building a future that changes dynamics so that women are no longer systematically disadvantaged requires that we attend to those factors that we already know are inequitable, and that are being exacerbated in this moment of crisis. Women, and particularly women of color, tend to be over-represented in jobs that pay less - are less valued. These less-valued jobs are the very jobs that are now described as “essential.” Not only do women of color comprise over half of the country’s nursing assistants and almost half of its home care aides, but for every dollar a full-time white male employee earns, a woman of color earns a fraction, according to the Center for American Progress.

It doesn’t seem like that 1963 law is having the desired effect.  

Earning gaps between men and women are also linked to the very real challenges of managing work and family when policies and practices assume that ideal mothers and ideal workers cannot co-exist in the same human body. Before COVID-19, we learned that women were more likely than men to adjust their time at work when they have children and are more likely to work part-time than men, in part, because of childcare. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s recent analysis of total earnings across 15 years (2000-2015) for all workers who worked in at least one of those years found that women’s earnings were 49% less than men’s earnings in 2015. This is a clear reflection that women lose when they take time off from work even under “approved” parental leave policies. Despite evidence that men are taking on more care responsibilities during the pandemic, women continue to shoulder the burden of unpaid labor in the home.

These motherhood penalties — 8-18% reduction in wages depending on the number of children — are common in American workplaces and contribute to the gender wage gap. Research shows that women are paid less when they have children, regardless of their job-related experience, reflecting a bias that women who are mothers are less committed workers. As I wrote in my last blog, there is every reason to expect that without a concerted effort to prevent it, motherhood penalties will become exacerbated in the post-pandemic workplace. 

Post-pandemic realities will add to the challenges of fusing work and home. Whether or not they re-inscribe or break through existing patterns of inequity depends on our commitment to the principles of pay equity. Consider these likely scenarios: 

•   Parents will be asked to come back to work even as schools remain closed or operate under some hybrid of in-person and remote learning. School systems around the country will stagger schedules - one small group of students on Monday and Wednesday one week, and Tuesday and Thursday the next.

•  The virus will take an increasing toll on the mental health of our children requiring new forms of treatment and care.

•   COVID-19 infections will have long-lasting health effects, creating new and unexpected care needs.

What all of these have in common is that work routines will be disrupted in new and uncertain ways. Workers will require flexibility in order to attend to the repercussions of the pandemic, and “accommodation” will be the norm for everyone. To support the complex and often conflicting schedules that will most certainly become part of our post-pandemic routine, we need to radically reimagine the ideal worker as someone who is devoted to their job and available 24/7.  Instead, imagine if the ideal worker is the person who artfully navigates  the multiple obligations of work and home while still maintaining their sense of personal balance. 

Legislation focused on paycheck fairness and policies like paid family leave and paid sick days that support workers and allow them to care for their family without fear of losing a paycheck, will be critical to reimagining the relationship between work and home in ways that no longer discount women’s work. Implementing policies like these will not go the distance in dismantling gender-based inequity unless they are also accompanied  by a fundamental shift in how we understand, talk about, and support the relationship between work and home. 

Imagine with me: What if childcare were recognized as essential? A pay equity lens helps ensure that such recognition translates into reward.

Activating  principles of  pay equity — opportunity, fairness, transparency, and rewards commensurate with contribution — into how we reframe the relationship between work and home allows us to flip old routines sideways and to meet new challenges head-on and with a bias for a just future. 

To move beyond the punditry and conjecture and put our principles into action, we need to be willing to roll up our sleeves and engage in deep reflection — the kind that makes room for courageous and creative imagining. Critically, we must do this in community with our employers, co-workers, neighbors and families.

These are the principles woven throughout CWC’s Equity Labs. These are the practices we invite participants to engage, develop, and enact in their own lives, homes, and workplaces. 

To learn more, check out our website, or reach out to me: Nancy.Reichman@du.edu.

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