Politcal Economy of GENDER

The Invisible Care Economy

The field of economics until recently has not focused on activities that occur outside of the market.  However many of these non-market activities, such as caring labor, are necessary for the reproduction of society.  Historically caring labor has taken place outside of the market place and has been performed mainly by women.  In 1997 employed married mothers engaged in 41 hours of caring labor towards children whereas married fathers engaged in 24 hours of caring labor to children.  (Field Guide)


Parents who provide caring labor by raising children are helping society reproduce itself by raising the workers of tomorrow.  Folbre and England (2000) argue that both the quality and quantity of care can be conceptualized as ‘public goods’.  Parents who engage in socially productive labor time by caring for their children are increasing the general level of social capital in society.  It is important to recognize that although all members in society enjoy the benefits of caring labor, the costs tend to be internalized by parents.  This issue is becoming increasingly relevant as the provision of care is moving away from unpaid labor and towards paid labor through market mechanisms. 


What is Caring Labor?

Caring labor can be difficult to understand as it includes both emotional and physical activities.  The term caring labor can be operationalized by examining the four distinct features of caring labor. 


MOTIVATIONS.  Caregivers are motivated by intrinsic factors such as feelings of obligation, responsibility, reciprocity, and altruism and even in some cases guilt.  Parents may provide care to their children out of partly altruistic motives but also a feeling of responsibility for their welfare.  In addition parents might provide caring labor due to an implicit social contract where it is understood that their children in the future will be responsible for taking care of them.  Motivations behind caring labor clearly employ engendered norms and internalized preferences where women tend to be socialized into feeling responsible and obliged to care for dependents.  Thus, the motivating factors for caregivers can reflect social norms and cultural practices especially those that are born unequally across groups such as women.


TYPE OF WORK AND HOW IT IS PERFORMED.  Caring labor tends to be person specific.  Personal interaction occurs between the caregiver and the recipient of care on an individual basis that has a time and relational dimension.  The caregiver and the recipient of care tend to know each other on a first name basis and over time often an emotional relationship develops based on nurturing, sensitivity, companionship and feelings of friendship.  The type of work involved includes both this emotional connection as well physical activities (such as giving an elderly person a bath).  Often in these situations the recipient of care feels as if the caregiver is ‘serving’ them.


WHO BENEFITS?  Caring labor tends to be provided to dependents who are mostly either the young (children) or the elderly.  The benefits of caring labor clearly have a generational dimension.  As children parents are responsible for providing care and as the parents become elderly the children grow up and are able to then care for their elderly parents.


BENEFITS TO CAREGIVERS?  The incentives to provide caring labor is not financial as caring labor is either unpaid or underpaid.  Caregivers receive emotional intrinsic benefits such as feelings of self worth and fulfillment. 



In the last 30 years there has been increasing numbers of women (especially white and middle class) who have entered the paid labor force.  This has severely impacted sectors of the economy, such as caring labor, where the burden of responsibility has fallen on women to provide these activities.  With increasing numbers of women engaged in paid labor there has been a shift to provide caring labor through the market.  This movement of provision of care to market has led to the UNDERPRODUCTION of caring labor.  Capitalist values of individualism, competitiveness and self interest have neglected the necessary collective provision of social services and public goods (Hartmann) Underproduction of caring labor is exacerbated by markets ignoring intergenerational and engendered costs that occur.  Further complicating this issue is that the recipients of care are not the ones paying (children don’t pay for their own childcare costs – though they might pay in the future in the form of an intergenerational transfer).  In addition, wages tend to be low in the caring labor professions which does not promote increases in quality or quantity of trained professionals.



Readjustment of societal norms to reflect the priority and importance that as a society we place on the provision of care services.


-As a society by valuing the provision of high quality care we can reflect this in paying higher wages to those individuals working in the market – care sector of the economy.


-Increase men’s responsibility in providing caring labor by increasing the quality and quantity of care from men.


-Support parents who withdraw from paid labor force to provide care.  Currently parents who withdraw from the paid labor market to provide caring labor are penalized financially.  Progressive social policy, such as lower tax rates, could help support parents who are currently internalizing the costs of caring labor.


Questions for pondering:


-What would happen to the market and state spheres without the care economy?

-What difference would it make if women’s invisible labor became visible?

-How does women’s activity in the care economy impact on their standing in the other spheres?


Gender Inequality Within the Labor Market


There has been an ongoing trend over the last century of increasing levels of female participation in the labor force.  In 1900, the number of working women was 5.3 million and by 1950, this had increased to 18.4 million and by 2001, the number of working women had risen to 66 million2.  Two generalizations can be made about women’s work in the U.S.: most women work in relatively low-skilled, low pay jobs; and among all such jobs, women are clustered into certain particular ones, and men into others.  Those jobs which are ‘women’s jobs’ pay less than unskilled jobs which are predominantly held by men.  The gender wage gap has been declining since the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963 but at a rate of a little over a third of a penny per year[1].  In 1963, women who worked full-time year-round made 59 cents on average for every dollar earned by men.  In 1986 women earned 64 cents to the dollar and by 2000, women had increased their earnings to 73 cents to the dollar. The National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) argues that the most recent narrowing of the gender wage gap has been due to a leveling off of women’s earnings and a decline in the real earnings of men.  When looking at gender inequality within the labor market it is important to try to distinguish between outcomes that are the result of employer’s decisions than those that are more broadly the result of social identity.


The Wage Gap By Education

From the National Committee on Pay Equity

The following are wage figures reflecting the median earnings in 2000 for full-time, year-round workers, 25 years and older:

                     H.S. Grad.  Bachelor's      Master's
ALL MEN              $32,493     $53,505         $65,052
White                $34,583     $55,269         $65,096
Non-Hispanic Whites  $35,601     $55,895         $65,306
Black                $27,454     $45,079         $50,642
Hispanic             $27,355     $42,834         $51,082
                     H.S. Grad.  Bachelor's      Master's
ALL WOMEN            $23,719     $38,208         $47,049
White                $24,578     $38,501         $47,138
Non-Hisp. Whites     $25,127     $39,115         $47,292
Black                $21,080     $38,021         $45,074
Hispanic             $20,860     $32,097         $45,768


-The wage gap is most severe for women of color.

-Of full-time workers, black women’s median weekly earnings ($429) were only 64% of the earnings of white men ($669) in the year 2000.

-According to the Census Bureau, in 2000, the median full-time earnings for Hispanic women were $20,527 only 52% of the median earnings of white men ($37,339).

-In one year, the average Hispanic woman working full-time earns $17,837 less than the average white man does. Over a 30 -year career, that adds up to $510,000!

(Conservative) Explanations of the Gender Wage Gap

-Economists have explained greater female participation in the workforce due to greater flexibility of work hours (allowing working mothers to balance family and work responsibilities) as well as high enough pay to cover the costs of childcare. 


-Economists have also explained the gender wage gap by a theory called ‘compensating wage differentials’.  This theory is based upon a notion that less desirable jobs are compensated at a higher rate.  Working women can choose between occupations that have higher wages but are more demanding and have more rigid scheduling constraints or occupations with lower wages but much greater flexibility.


Both of these explanations are critiqued well in the handout ‘Working Mothers face Double Bind Over Time and Wages’.  McCrate 2002 finds that working mothers are more likely to have rigid schedules as well as experience lower wages[2].  McCrate found that white men have the most job flexibility and single mothers were the least able to set their own working hours.  McCrate also found that workers who were usually able to set their own work schedules, arrive and leave when they wanted, were able to earn 16.6% more than workers with rigid work schedules. 


Handling the Arguments Against Pay Equity
Compiled by the National Committee on Pay Equity

Following are common claims that have been used in opposition to the concept of pay equity and responses to those arguments.  Before the session have a couple of these claims written up and go through responses with the class (encourage participants to give their own responses).   


Claim: The wage gap is a myth. Using the 73¢ figure is misleading because it does not take into account human capital differences such as education and experience.

Response: The Census Bureau reports that the median annual earnings of year-round, full-time working women are 73% of the median annual earnings of year-round, full-time, working men. For women of color, the median earnings numbers are more severe. Black women earn 64% of every dollar earned by white men, and Hispanic women earn 52%.  Economists do disagree about the extent to which the wage gap reflects labor market discrimination or other human capital factors such as differences among workers in education and experience. Recent studies show that between one-quarter and one-half of the gender wage gap remains unexplained even after taking such human capital differences into account. While earnings statistics don’t tell the whole story, they are important indicators of the progress we have made in wage parity and in economic opportunity—such as ensuring there are fair opportunities to earn more. Economists do agree that discrimination can play a part in determining differences in experience, job tenure, and other “explainable” factors.

Claim: The wage gap is partially explained by women leaving the workforce to rear small children or to care for other family members. In that sense, they do not invest as much in their human capital as men do, so they are less valuable to a company.

Response: It is true that some women choose to take time out of the workforce to care for their loved ones. We believe that this is a legitimate choice for women and men to make. However, the majority of women do not make this choice: Department of Labor statistics show that 65% of women with children under age six (10,375,000) are in the labor force and more than half of them work full-time.

In addition, as Ann Crittenden points out in The Price of Motherhood, “[m] others’ choices are not made in a vacuum. They are made in a world that women never made, according to rules they didn’t write.” If a wife earns less than her husband, it may make sense for her to be the one to leave the workforce. In addition, the workforce is still not a level playing field for women. The fact that women still face barriers to equal pay and advancement may also cause women to be more open to the option of staying home. Additionally, society still has not made it fully acceptable for men to take on the role of the “stay-at-home-Dad,” and men may not be willing to risk stalling their careers by staying home. 

Claim: Many women, planning to interrupt their careers at some point in the future to have children, choose occupations where job flexibility is high, salaries are low, and job skills deteriorate at a slower rate than others.

Response: We believe the idea that women choose jobs in which skills deteriorate at a slower rate (and thus means they can leave the workforce and come back without significant retraining) is an esoteric argument that has little to do with the every day decisions of average workers. According to the Department of Labor, the ten leading occupations for Black and Hispanic women include the jobs of cashiers, janitors, nursing aides, and maids. There is no data to support the argument that women are choosing these low-paying jobs based on the fact that they have a slower rate of skill deterioration.

Claim: When looking at the history of those earning professional school degrees, very few of the graduates of the 1950s and 1960s, who today would be at the pinnacles of their professions, were women. Women simply have not been in the pipeline long enough to have achieved parity with men.

Response: Saying that women have not been in the pipeline long enough does not tell the whole story. Even when studies control for the pipeline factor, wage disparities still exist.

Moreover, because of blatant discrimination before (and to some degree, after) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women and minorities had a hard time applying for many jobs. Some careers simply were not open to women and minorities. Thus, if you use the argument that women have not been in the pipeline long enough, you must acknowledge that the blatantly discriminatory practices of the past have played a part in determining that. So discrimination of the past still affects the current wages of women and people of color.

Claim: The market will correct wage discrimination on its own. If pay is too low, employers won’t be able to hire anyone, and wages will naturally rise.

Response: The market can play a role in reducing wage discrimination, but it will not provide a complete solution. The market has shortcomings, too. First, the market itself is not free from sex or race bias. If we had relied on market forces, for example, we would never have needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Second, if a company or a state is the largest employer, that employer determines the market and thus the wages. Third, we can examine the case of child care workers. While there is high demand for child care workers, the median earnings are drastically low—only $265 per week according to the Department of Labor. Because the people who need child care cannot afford to pay more for it, the market forces do not work in this instance. Some economists believe that, while market competition deters discrimination, employers with considerable market power are insulated from the negative effects of discriminating. Even Alan Greenspan has said that businesses too often practice racial and other forms of discrimination, which lowers productivity.

Claim: If women were only paid 73¢ on the dollar, then a firm could fire all its men, replace them with women, and have a cost advantage over rivals.

Response: That would be illegal under the Equal Pay Act. Even though the labor of women and minorities can be bought at a lower cost, companies are not always driven by the bottom line. We cannot ignore societal factors that influence hiring and promotion decisions and workplace behavior. For example, as author Deborah Swiss uncovers in her book The Male Mind At Work, which details 54 interviews with male CEOs and executives, many men say the old-boys network is still a very real part of the American workplace. The market does not always overcome the fact that, because of personal comfort levels, people may help those who are most like themselves. Some will pay more for the privilege to discriminate. 


Comparable Worth


Comparable worth directly addresses gender discrimination in ‘gendered’ occupations.  Comparable worth is founded on the principle that jobs that are equivalent in their demands, measured by such factors as skills and knowledge, effort, responsibility and working conditions, be paid equally.  Comparable worth policies raise the wages of jobs held predominantly by women until they equal the wages of comparable jobs held predominantly by men.  A broader pay equity program also raises wages in jobs held disproportionately by people of color to equal wages in comparable jobs held predominantly by whites.   Pay equity means that the criteria employers use to set wages must be sex and race neutral. 


The concept of comparable worth, also referred to as pay equity, was introduced in the 1970’s in a movement to address the inequities in pay between men and women.  The passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 tried to address discrimination towards women receiving lower pay for equal work.  However, the Equal Pay Act did not address the problem of many women being segregated into a few low-paying and devalued occupations.   

-A substantial proportion of school districts in the U.S. pay secretaries and teaching assistants considerably less than the cleaners.

-In Denver, nurses were found to make less than gardeners.

-In New York State, school nurses in the West Islip school district start at $27,000, groundsmen at $29,000.

-In 1996 the median hourly wage for a preschool teacher was $7.80 whereas for a bus driver it was $11.56 (FG)

More than half of all women workers hold sales, clerical and service jobs[3] (see Appendix B).  Studies show that the more an occupation is dominated by women or people of color the less it pays.  Part of the wage gap can be explained by differences in education, experience, skills and time in the workforce.  But a significant portion cannot be explained by any of these factors; it is attributable to discrimination.  In other words, certain jobs pay less because they are held by women and people of color.  In 1981 In American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees v. State of Washington (1981), the state of Washington was ordered to provide raises and compensatory back pay to female state employees, who were found to be earning 20 per cent less than their male coworkers. This decision was overturned on appeal but the case gave the comparable worth movement some publicity.


Arguments Against Comparable Worth

Compiled by the National Committee on Pay Equity


Following are common claims that have been used in opposition to the comparable worth and responses to those arguments.  Before the session have a couple of these claims written up and go through responses with the class (encourage participants to give their own responses).   


Claim: Comparable worth is dependent on tying compensation to job evaluation systems, which can be highly subjective.


Response: Job evaluations can be subjective, although many employers already use some kind of job evaluation system to weigh the value of different jobs based on objective criteria. Job evaluation ratings can be one of several criteria used for wage-setting. On the other hand, if a job evaluation is not used as one of the determinants for pay-setting, what tools should employers use that are not subjective?


Claim: Different jobs dominated by women and men cannot be compared. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.


Response: Apples and oranges can be compared. Certain attributes of each are comparable: calories and vitamins, for example. Jobs can also be compared based on their overall skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. In fact, many employers do just that – job evaluations have been a common management tool for more than 100 years.  In Los Angeles, for example, social workers were found to be comparable to probation officers in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. Even so, social workers were paid less. In a Portland pay equity study, the job of typist was found to be equivalent to water meter readers.


Claim: Implementing pay equity is costly for employers and will lead to job loss – especially among women. For example, following the introduction of a comparable worth system in Minnesota, unemployment in that state rose at a faster rate for women than for men.


Response: In Minnesota, the state legislature passed the State Government Pay Equity Act in 1982, which began the implementation of pay equity for state workers. The simple fact is that the total number of state employees increased from 32,383 in January 1982 to 35,643 in January of 1986. Women’s representation in state employment increased from 42% of employees in 1982 to 44% in 1986. Job loss has never been verified by Minnesota state officials.  Thousands of Minnesota women saw their earnings rise significantly above the poverty level. “In 1983, the base salary for a Clerk I working for the state of Minnesota was $11,922, only 17% above the poverty line of $10,178. Over the next four years, without the pay equity act, the base salary would have risen to $13,675, 22% above the then-current poverty line. However, with pay equity, that Clerk I took home $15,931, 42% above the poverty line.” (Wage Justice, Sara Evans and Barbara Nelson, University of Chicago Press, 1989.)  Furthermore, those economists who claim that wage adjustments in Minnesota had a negative effect on employment in predominantly female jobs also acknowledge the unlikelihood that anyone actually lost her job as a result of pay equity adjustments.


Claim: Isn’t it reasonable for some men to be paid more because they have dangerous jobs or jobs that demand physical strength?


Response: Sometimes. Working conditions and physical effort are two of the factors that are commonly looked at in a pay equity study. Other factors include (but are not limited to) skill and level of responsibility. All of these factors are important and should be reflected in the pay for a job.  With regard to physical strength and level of danger, we must acknowledge that women also work in hazardous and physically demanding jobs. Nursing exposes women to a variety of infectious diseases and requires lifting patients. For example, the Washington Post found that a nursing aide’s risk of serious injury is higher than that of a coal minor or of steel mill workers (The Hazards of Elder Care October 31, 1999). Lifting and moving patients can lead to back injuries, and workplace assaults by patients are a major risk. Of all serious workplace assaults in private industry in 1997, nursing aides suffered 27 percent of the attacks, compared with seven percent for security guards.


2 AFL-CIO Working Women Working Together: www.aflcio.org/women/index.htm

[1] The National Committee on Pay Equity: www.feminist.com/fairpay/

[2] http://www.epinet.org/press/releases/mothers050802.html

[3] From Division of Labor Statistics:  http://www.dol.gov/wb/