Dec 21, 2020

Alison Lamagna: What women really want for the holidays: a better future

This commentary is by Alison Lamagna, who is director of Programs & Gender Equity at Vermont Works for Women, with support from Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women; Jessica Nordhaus, director of Change the Story VT; and Meg Smith, director of the Vermont Women’s Fund.

No, it’s not a Peloton, or a spa certificate, or a new toolbox, although those would probably be nice, too. This year, women are ready for the gift of economic security. Namely, for occupations traditionally held by women — and so clearly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic as essential to all of society’s well-being — to be accordingly valued and compensated.

The term “essential workers” has been on repeat in news media, workplaces and around kitchen tables just as much as “pivot,” “new normal,” and “Zoom-bombing.” In the face of this crisis, it has become abundantly clear that the essential occupations that make our day-to-day lives run and our state’s economy tick are jobs like early childhood educator, teacher, healthcare worker, nurse, and grocery store clerk — all occupations where 50% or more of the workforce is women.

The New York Times recently reported, “Over half of workers designated essential in the United States are women; their jobs are typically paid well below the median hourly wage.” According to Change the Story VT, 81% of tipped workers in Vermont are women, and women are a disproportionate share of Vermonters who make less than $11 an hour. So, if we recognize how indispensable these jobs are, why is it that they still remain some of the lowest-paying occupations in Vermont and in the U.S.?

We know the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women as well, further compounding barriers to economic stability and having severe implications for women during the recovery phase. The Vermont Commission on Women’s Covid-19 dashboard indicates that women filed 74% of unemployment claims in October 2020. And, unemployment numbers do not account for those women leaving the workforce due to loss of child care or having to cut back hours. In October, National Public Radio reported that women are leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men because of the pandemic.

To address these inequities, what we need is a total paradigm shift in how we value work. We need policies and economic recovery plans that center women and essential workers as the backbone of our economy. Recently, a New York Times article described a new law in New Zealand that utilizes the concept “comparable worth.” This is not exactly a new idea and there are examples in Canada and the U.S., but the concept has lost traction in the last couple of decades.

The comparable worth approach goes beyond demanding equal pay for women doing the same exact jobs as men — it demands equal pay for jobs that are equivalent. It acknowledges occupational segregation and aims to eliminate pay discrimination against women in female-dominated occupations, which are paid less. It also acknowledges that one factor in determining wages is the “social beliefs about the relative value of a job,” which are influenced by gender norms and biases like racism and sexism.

In practice, it looks like this: If two different occupations — one in a male-dominated field, and one in a female-dominated field — have the same physical and mental outputs, require the same levels of alertness and sensory demands, and the same level of problem-solving skills or interpersonal skills, then they should be paid equally.

Now, what about an economic recovery plan that centers women and essential workers? For that, we head to Hawaii. The Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women released a plan on April 13, 2020, with numerous suggestions based on data for how women need to be centered if our economies are to recover from the pandemic and thrive.

They aptly identify that, “rather than rush to rebuild the status quo, we should seize this opportunity to transition to an economy that better values the work we know is essential to sustaining us and address the harms and gaps in health care, ecological social and economic policies laid bare by the epidemic.”

Most notably, they support women’s increased access to social entrepreneurship and capital outside low-wage sectors (particularly in green technologies and prevailing wage jobs) through specific gender and racial equity programs, instituting universal paid family and medical leave and universal publicly funded child care, and incorporating gender-based violence prevention in the immediate response and long-term recovery.

So, what does this all mean for us back on the home front in Vermont? Are we willing to take a different approach, applying all of the lessons gleaned from this challenging time to change the way we think about work and how it is compensated? Are we willing to honor and value the work we have finally come to recognize is and always has been the backbone of our society and our economy –— “women’s work”?

This holiday season, let’s give women — and all the workers who are essential to our communities — the gift of a better, more equitable future.

Click here to read this OpEd on VTDigger's website.

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