What Do We Mean by 'Equal Work'?

A closer look at the gender wage gap

When my mom entered the workforce in 1973, women earned about 57 cents for every dollar earned by men. When she was named Budget Director for the Massachusetts House Committee of Ways and Means in 1980 (the first woman in history to hold this position), she was paid thousands less than the man who held the job before her. Things are slowly improving: The White House reports that for every dollar earned by a man today, a woman will earn 77 cents. (According to some sources, the number is 84 cents, but everyone agrees that this gap is real.) It gets worse when broken down by race and ethnicity: Black women earn 64 cents to a white man’s dollar, and Latina women earn 56. This “wage gap” arises from a combination of outright discrimination and the systemic devaluation of traditionally female roles.

Plain old sex-based discrimination is alive and well in Americans’ salaries, as evidenced by data that demonstrates the differences in pay for people working the same jobs. In a very timely example, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team received a $2 million bonus for winning the World Cup last Sunday. Last year, the U.S. Men’s Team earned $8 million after losing in the first knockout stage.

Within male-dominated professions, sexist discrimination can be egregious: In the tech industry, women working as technical directors are likely to make $40,000 less than men in the same jobs. And within female-dominated occupations, pay discrimination also continues. More than 70 percent of teachers are women, yet female educators still earn only about 87 cents to a male educator’s dollar. Women secretaries make 83 cents to a male secretary’s dollar, and female nurses are paid $5,100 less than male nurses in similar positions.

These gaps are real, and they are big. You can take a really great vacation with five thousand dollars. And with forty, you could pay for a year of college.

The oft-cited 77 cents is a limited statistic though, as it obscures the reality that many women occupy different, lower paying jobs than men. Sometimes they choose these jobs; often they are the only jobs available to them. “Women’s work” is consistently undervalued in America, a truth that is represented by the pay gap between historically female professions and historically male ones. We also consistently undervalue the work that is most often done by women at home. Some estimates show the total value of a homemaker at over $96,000 a year, after adding up the cooking, cleaning, driving, laundry, and child-rearing that they perform. Women who work outside the home also do more than their fair share of these tasks, performing a total of five more hours of housework per week than their male partners.


Today’s popular feminism encourages women to go into STEM fields, to run for office, and to enter other fields that have traditionally been hard for women to break into. This is an admirable and worthwhile goal, but in order to truly raise the status of women and achieve gender equality, we must also respect and celebrate the roles that women have played in the past. That means raising the status of the "caring professions" such as nursing and teaching, and fighting for more rights for blue-collar women.

The legacy of discrimination against women in traditionally female professions has profound implications for many issues facing society today, including labor rights, education reform, and healthcare. Those who work inside households almost always work outside unions—the labor movement has barely attempted to organize nannies and maids. This failure to organize hurts workers: 23 percent of domestic workers are paid less than the state minimum wage, and 65 percent do not have health insurance. Education reformers often lament low teacher pay, but it is rarely discussed as a legacy of teacher’s salaries being considered supplementary second incomes. Women began to dominate the teaching profession in the mid-nineteenth century, and their recruitment was a solution to a budget problem. As reformers in the 1820s pushed for universal education, female teachers were recruited as a cost-saving measure because they could get away with paying them about half as much as men.

The entry of women into historically male-dominated professions has been positive, but it's a limited solution to pay equity. As a society, we must also celebrate and recognize the important work that women have been doing all along, raise the social status of these jobs and lessen the stigma of "women's work" as a barrier to male entry. When more men choose to enter caring professions or even embrace traditionally feminine roles working at home, progress towards gender equality will happen more quickly. The work that women have traditionally been doing will always need to get done, and valuing “women’s work” will mean progress for all.

Megan O. Corrigan ’16 is a History concentrator living in Winthrop House.