In early 2021, a short but notable article made some waves: Alongside child support and the usual alimony payments meant to compensate a stay-at-home spouse for time lost in the workforce, a divorce judge in China ordered the husband to back pay his (now ex-)wife for the household chores she performed during their marriage.
While many considered the sum laughable compared to what a professional maid would make for the same work, the decision was a landmark one. Conversations about whether and how to compensate women for the disproportionate amount of unpaid labor they do at home (as compared to men) have been gathering steam over the years, and for good reason: globally, women do about twice the amount of unpaid domestic labor — childcare, elder care, cooking, cleaning, etc — as men, and as a result, work more hours overall (paid + unpaid).
At the same time, the US was hitting a new milestone for the labor market: In January of 2020, women officially held more payroll jobs than men, at 50.04%. Which sounds great! Until you dig a little deeper and realize that it’s because we added more traditionally “women’s jobs” to the economy — ones that tend to pay little, not offer full-time hours or benefits, etc, like retail, education, and healthcare — while traditionally male-held jobs with better pay and benefits, such as manufacturing, were lost.
Roughly a quarter of employed women work in traditionally feminine jobs as of 2016. Eighty percent of those women make less than $11.50/hr, so it’s no wonder that around 40% of women in care work live at or below the poverty line. Which means that the tilt towards more women on payroll actually means more women in low-paying, no benefits jobs — not exactly what one might call “progress”.
If we didn’t realize it before, over the course of the last two years it has become obvious that we rely on care work for our society to keep running: jobs traditionally held by women are amongst the jobs that we relied on to get us through this pandemic, such as nurses and home aides — or the ones we desperately missed and had to rearrange our lives to replace, like child care workers and teachers.
So why don’t we value those professions more, and pay them accordingly? Because historically, people don’t really think of women’s work as, well, work — it’s simply what women are expected to do. Because of its similarity to the unpaid work that many women do for free, like child rearing or taking care of sick or elderly family members, jobs that rely on care work or domestic or emotional labor, such each teachers, home aides, housekeepers, childcare workers, etc are undervalued and underpaid.
Some people justify this by saying that care work and domestic labor don’t produce value — i.e. that they don’t make money. But a little deeper of a look at that argument reveals the cracks: as a society, we have long acknowledged that a woman staying home as a mother and house manager has value to her spouse’s ability to further his career.
Taking it even further, women who want to make money through careers and have the class privilege simply outsource their domestic and care labor to poorer women (usually women of color). The value being produced in these cases is directly reliant on the care work being done by others — without it, the breadwinner would have to be home, taking care of the kids and house, and no value would be produced at all.
So, how do we get equal pay for women? The first step is to start valuing and compensating women for the unpaid labor they do. Whether it’s something like China’s new marriage law, which entitles the party taking on more childcare and domestic duties to ask for compensation during a divorce, or government payments to stay-at-home parents, or something else entirely, we need to recognize just how important care work is to our economy and to our society.
Setting the foundation of valuing this kind of work when it is done in the home – mostly involving care-giving and emotional labor — will lead to it being valued when it’s done outside of the home.