Today is Equal Pay Day, the day in 2016 until which American women must work to make the same amount of income their male counterparts earned by the end of 2015. Or at least, it’s Equal Pay Day for the “average” woman, who earns roughly 79 cents for every dollar the average man makes. By contrast, African-American women earn 60.5 cents and Hispanic women earn 54.6 cents for every dollar a man earns.
The widespread usage of the 79 cents figure corresponds to a public dialogue around equal pay that focuses on women who earn salaries much higher than the minimum wage—women who work in offices but are excluded from C-suites. But, while it is true that the gender wage gap is larger among women with more education, women who have an advanced degree will also earn much more over a lifetime than those with less than a high school diploma. And the white, middle- and upper-class women who comprise the bulk of female office workers have radically different work experiences than low-income women.
The latter group of workers, often women of color and recent immigrants, earn very low pay with few opportunities for upward mobility. These disparate experiences among women raise the question of how to create an inclusive equal pay movement that both acknowledges the very real discrimination that professional women experience in the workplace while also ensuring their own advancement isn’t achieved on the backs of other women.
Unfortunately, the common focus on getting women access to high-paid and male-dominated fields—through encouraging women to “lean in”—obscures the fact that, for the many women who earn poverty wages and work without essential labor protections, equal pay won’t come any time soon.
Many of these women workers are people of color employed in care work. Women are over-represented in all sorts of care work, from professional jobs in teaching and nursing, to low-wage positions as nannies and home health aides. Care work—defined as any paid or unpaid role in which a worker cares for another person—can include cooking and cleaning as well as emotional labor like nurturance. A unique feature of this work is that it has historically been performed by family members, but is increasingly part of the labor market as more parents work outside of the home. But its growth in the labor market has been polarized, with large increases in low-wage and high-wage positions, but very little growth in the middle.
This trend has led sociologist Rachel Dwyer to hypothesize that job polarization in the labor market as a whole, characterized by a paucity of good middle-class jobs and growing income inequality, is a result of disparities in care work. This distribution is driven by the entry of more women into the formal workforce—often in care sectors themselves—who increasingly require the care work of others to balance career and family. Unsurprisingly, most of the high-wage job gains in care work have gone to white women, while most of the low-wage gains have accrued to non-white women, especially African-American women and Latinas. This phenomenon has reinforced racial divisions in the labor market and increased inequality among women, as seen in the discrepancies in the gender pay gap by race.
To move closer to gender equality, we must find mechanisms for empowerment of women in the formal workplace. Efforts towards workplace justice for all are already ongoing for many organizations, including those catering largely to moderate- and high-income women, like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Still, centering issues that affect women of color, undocumented women, and those in low-wage care work jobs—and especially those who fall into all three categories—poses an ongoing challenge. Unlike pay equity for middle-class and high-income women, feminist advocacy that intersects with poverty and immigration policy is more complex, more prone to controversy, and sometimes just less sexy. Positive progress, like the recognition by NOW that immigration justice is a feminist issue in partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, show that mobilizing mainstream women’s groups on a more diverse set of issues is possible.
And yet, a feminist revolution that lifts up all women—especially those who are most disenfranchised—will not trickle down from highly visible professional women alone. Policy actions to fairly value and compensate women’s work outside the office, especially in the domestic sphere, is ongoing in many states and beginning to draw greater attention from policy researchers. Still, while labor organizations are turning a critical lens to care work, popular feminist discourse dominated by educated white women too often obscures the issue.
Acting to increase representation of low-income women and women of color in mainstream feminist circles is also a responsibility shared by all of us. This can take many forms, whether it be avoiding selecting candidates for internships or jobs who are recommended by people in your network, or making a concerted effort to hire underrepresented women to write for your publication or speak at an event. Even further, all feminist advocates can support common-sense policy reforms to alleviate pay discrimination, like the EEOC proposal to amend employer reporting and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Collective action is a tall order for a group as large and diverse as working women, so we recommend another simple individual step: when you receive a promotion, a pay raise, or a bonus, share that added wealth with the women who work minding your children at daycare, making your coffee in the morning, and cleaning your home. Generous tips can go a long way towards alleviating the material hardship of low-income women, and a wage increase, even further. For women employed in care work jobs, employer generosity may be the only way to get a raise, even if your state or municipality enacts a higher wage floor. While organizations like the American Association of University Women may have excellent resources on how to negotiate salary for a college-educated woman, similar strategies for low-income women are substantially less feasible, if available at all.
So, when you’re leaning in at work—this Equal Pay Day and every day—don’t forget to also pay it forward.