This year’s Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, drew the attention of the national media this summer as she flubbed up a response in the question-and-answer portion of the Miss America pageant. Powell’s response to the question, “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does it say about society?” was inarticulate and nonsensical, eventually ending with the unfortunately phrased declaration that we need to “create education better.”
Although Miss Utah entertained America with her cringe-inducing gaffe, she missed an opportunity to discuss an important issue. The question references both a Pew Research study released in May that discovered the increase in female breadwinners, as well as the oft-cited statistic that women still make an average of 77 cents for every dollar made by men. These are important and relevant statistics that deserve lip service beyond a meaningless demand that we “create education better.”
What does this say about society? It shows that our societal impression of the average American family is out of check with reality. The most common argument made for why we don’t need to care about the fact that women are still on average paid less than men is that the wage gap decreases when you control for factors such as job choice, time taken off, and college major. The argument is that women freely choose to take time off in order to raise children or naturally gravitate toward lower-paying fields, and that’s okay because women and men are fulfilling different but equally respectable roles in society.
This line of reasoning, however, makes far less sense when we are no longer talking about a traditional two-parent family where the husband brings home the bacon and the wife takes care of the kids. As the Pew study demonstrates, women aren’t just taking jobs to occupy themselves or to bring in a little extra cash; they’re taking jobs to support their families. If more women are taking on the breadwinner role, then there’s probably more to the story than the idea that they choose to bring it upon themselves.
It’s not just about different choices that different people make. Women face institutionalized pressures to gravitate toward lower-paying fields or to be less assertive when trying to get ahead in their careers. Some workplaces don’t offer leave, making it difficult for working mothers to succeed at their jobs. The issue can’t simply be reduced to the fact that women choose to go into different fields or choose to leave their jobs to raise kids.
This raises obvious societal implications. It says that we still need to do a better job of recognizing the reality of women working as a legitimate option and not merely an unfortunate backup plan. Foregoing a career in order to have children is a perfectly reasonable choice for women to make but not a necessary end that everyone should strive toward. Women certainly can choose not to be breadwinners, but the idea that they always should is an outdated mindset that arose during a time when society also believed women to be incapable of having careers.
Even once we as a society shed this antiquated belief, we must explore the reasons other than outright discrimination to not be satisfied with the status quo. The wage gap amounts to an average of $11,000 per year, and when women lose that money, families lose that money. When the main argument against those trying to change the wage gap is that we shouldn’t care and it doesn’t matter, the prevalence of households dependent on women’s incomes gives us a very clear reason to care.
Care we must. We must take proactive steps to reduce the wage gap. We should pass legislation such as the national Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close loopholes that engender workplace discrimination. Regardless of how widespread workplace discrimination is, workers should have the tools to combat it when it does arise. We should work to get more women into STEM fields, as these tend to be higher paying and are currently dominated by men. We should increase the minimum wage, since women tend to disproportionately hold minimum wage jobs. We should try to increase salaries for valuable jobs that are traditionally female and traditionally underpaid, such as teachers. We should work to create more affordable childcare options. And we should try to establish workplace policies that better accommodate working mothers so that women do not fall behind in their careers when they choose to have children.
So, what do these statistics say about society? They say that the wage gap is not simply a result of autonomous choices that women make. And they say that we as a society need to work to eliminate it.
Stephanie G. Franklin ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Dunster House.