The Wage Gap Reproduces Traditional Gender Roles

domestic labor

Image via Youtube

Happy International Women’s Day! Shoutout to the women organizers who are leading the revolution–Black trans women, the women of Black lives matter, Indigenous women, Latina and Chicana women, Muslim and Palestinian women, Asian women, migrant women, radical white women, queer women, women around the world who are fighting patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and all the systems of violence and exploitation that use abuse and aggression to keep women globally from owning their labor, their bodies, and their choices.

I thought today would be a good time to make space for myself to write about some of the women’s issues that have been on my mind since I moved to the Bay Area two years ago. For multiple reasons, which I’ll discuss below, being here–away from the activist communities I was lucky enough to embed with in Syracuse–has pushed me to develop my feminist consciousness, because feminist thinking allowed me to forgive myself for some of the choices I made, to see the larger structural forces that brought me here and have shaped my time here so far.

Warning: personal writing ahead. 

So, to give some context (aka to catch you up on the last four years of my life): almost exactly four years ago, my partner and I lived in Michigan. The plan was that I would start my PhD the following fall, and he would join me then or soon after. But then an international tech company discovered his brilliant engineering brain and offered him a job doing hardware development in the Bay. So from Michigan, we headed to opposite sides of the country, and developed a new plan: I’d do my coursework in Syracuse and, as soon as possible, join him out West to write my dissertation. Obviously I would move, not him, since he had the high-paying tech job and I was just a graduate student. Obviously, right?

Two years later, after four semesters of incredibly hard work, I moved out to the Bay. To the South Bay, to be exact, to the suburbs, to a rented house with a yard and a garage and silent streets and at least enough taquerias in walking distance to live by. And very quickly, I fell into a deep depression. I missed my friends in Syracuse, I missed my activist community, I missed my very identity, and I felt super guilty that my partner was paying the lion’s share of our rent, even though that had been the agreement. Even though I’d supported myself on my student stipend in Syracuse, by Bay Area standards I was destitute and, by the logics of capitalism that say you are what you earn, I felt totally and utterly worthless.

The way I helped myself feel more worthy was through housework. I did the dishes, I did the grocery shopping, I schlepped our laundry to the laundromat. I’d been advised by my professors not to work out here to save time for my writing, so I stayed away from demanding jobs and cobbled together some tutoring gigs that pulled in about as much as my stipend had been back on campus. In fact, I’ve written about these feelings before, in a blog post from two falls ago, from soon after I arrived.

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A “Wages for Housework” flyer from 1975, via the Barnard “Women in the Workforce” Collection

Often when we talk about the wage gap, we think about the ways that it diminishes the possibilities of women vis-a-vis the men they work with: a man gets a certain salary for his work, his female equal gets paid less–and eventually, he gets promoted, not her, and maybe, eventually, she leaves. But what I want to think about here is the ways that the wage gap operates within relationships, especially given the ways that men’s work is always valued above women’s–so that, taken across the whole country or the whole world, in heterosexual couples with both partners pursuing their vocations, the man will usually earn more. Under capitalist logics that say the most money is the most important, that means the man’s career will always be valued more, that his work will determine where a couple lives, how it spends its time, which member does more domestic labor, and so on.

Given how skewed engineering hiring is toward white men (seriously google anything about hiring in Silicon Valley), since I’ve moved to the Bay, I’ve met tons of smart, educated, under-employed women who (like me) left their vocations to follow their male partner’s higher-earning potential and are un- or under-employed as they look for new work. Like me, these women share a strange, glassy-eyed, second-wave-feminism-needing sense of guilt at their (our) inability to enjoy being provided for when that comes at the cost of pursuing one’s vocation. But who wants to be the reason their partner turns down a job at XYZ tech behemoth? Isn’t that the opportunity of a lifetime?

I want to share some articles that developed my thinking on this subject:

First, Claire Cain Miller’s “As Women Enter a Male-Dominated Field, The Pay Drops” in the NY Times (2016) is an important place to start, because it immediately counters the idea that men outearn women simply because they are smarter and so do more valuable work. In fact, this article discusses a recent study that shows that when women enter a profession previously dominated by men, the pay goes down. In other words, when women do the exact same job men do, they get paid less for it. Thus, women’s work is demeaned not because it is less valuable but rather it becomes less valuable when women do it. This study directly counters a Lean-In feminism that says women just have to work harder by showing that lower pay follows women and not the other way around.

In this incredible collection of Resources for Marxist Theory, Paul Smith’s “Domestic Labor and Marx’s theory of value” taught me to see how my domestic labor was and is productive of my partner’s wage-earning labor. That is, he can’t go to work unless he is fed, has slept, has clean clothes to wear, and so on. (More fully, his labor also depends on the domestic labor of those contract workers at his office who also clean and cook without receiving the same workplace benefits he does.) This article helped me understand that–especially if my living here improves the quality of my partner’s work because he is happier, better taken care of, lives in a cleaner home, etc.–I am actually entitled to his earnings (like my subsidized rent) because I did part of the work that made his work possible.

Finally, several pieces on lesbians, housing, and the wage gap have challenged me to think more critically about the ways that being partnered with a male and his earning power have affected me. Uri Friedman’s “Why Do Lesbians Earn More Than Straight Women,” in the Atlantic (2010), considers several theories for the earning discrepancy between gay and straight women. Among the suggestions that lesbians aren’t constrained by gender roles or concern for judgment by men that may limit straight women from thriving in male-dominated work-environments (including negotiating for promotions and higher pay), scholars also suggest that lesbians work harder to get their just desserts because they can’t rely on a man’s earnings to support them. This implies that just knowing there is a man around who is paid well lower’s women’s incentives to pursue higher-paying careers or negotiate for raises and promotions.

Meanwhile, Amin Ghaziani’s “Lesbian Geographies” in Contexts (2015) discusses some of the geographical phenomena that shape where gay female couples live, and why. Again, one of the points in this article is that, with their lower earning power compared to straight or gay male couples (because lesbians out earning straight women doesn’t mean two lesbians generally earn more than a straight or gay male couple), lesbians get priced out of gay neighborhoods they created when gay men move in, and also often live in smaller towns with comparatively lower rents than happening urban areas.

Because I tend to distance myself from my feelings and work my way back to them through intellectual investigation, these readings and others have been critical in allowing me to forgive myself for the guilt and aimlessness I’ve experienced over the last two years.  These readings have helped me see how systemic misogyny has shaped my sense of dispossession of my own life and my own choices and how I need to emotionally divest from relying on my partner if I want to build the life and the career I know I am capable of and that I deserve.

(I also need to remind myself, too, that despite feeling aimless or underworked, in fact in the last two years I have indeed passed my qualifying exams [with honors ;)] and written a dissertation.)

I recognize, too, that my predicament is a uniquely privileged one and does not speak for the millions (billions?) of women whose labor and earning are instrumental to their own and their family’s life and survival, for whom descending into triviality is not an option and may sound like a vacation. But I also want to own my experiences and my feelings and forgive myself for the ways that sexism tried–and failed!–to limit me and to slow down my progress. One of these days soon I’m gonna be Dr. Brown. I dedicate this blog post to all the women who were made lesser than they could have been by a system telling them that their full self-actualization was unnecessary, redundant, inconvenient, or unattractive.

Happy International Women’s Day.

sisters question

via the Women’s History Network by way of the See Red Women’s Workshop

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