Labor Day: Equal Pay, the Home Workplace, and the So-Called Glass Ceiling

In the United States, today is Labor Day.  While this might mean you’ve got a day off or are headed to a neighborhood barbecue, this national holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

There are few images that resonate better with gender shrapnel than the glass ceiling referred to in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Democratic National Convention speech and subsequently and symbolically shattered at the end of her speech.  Clinton says, “When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”  At the end of her speech, a symbolic glass ceiling up on the big screen shatters into millions of little shards.  This scattering of small bits of oppression represents gender shrapnel and begs some Labor Day analysis.

Today I want to talk about equal pay, the home workplace, and struggles to break the glass ceiling, even in the highest of jobs in the land.

We had the Equal Pay Act of 1963.  The fact that we still needed the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Fair Pay Act of 2009 should tell you something about how legislation can be both freeing (statement that, “Differences in pay that occur because of sex violate the EPA and/or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. In addition, compensation differences based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, and/or retaliation also violate laws enforced by EEOC”) and limiting (e.g. statute of limitations, even when the employee might not be aware of pay inequities due to secrecy surrounding employee salaries and benefits).

Doesn’t this make you wonder which acts we still need to legislate in order to ensure that Latina women can earn more than 54 cents on the dollar that white men earn, black women can earn more than 64 cents on that same dollar, and white women can earn more than 78 cents on that dollar (2013 statistics)?  Furthermore, how can we move the needle on the stagnation of black and Latino men’s wages as compared (controlling for other variables) to those of white men? (*See 2015 figures from the Pew Research Center.) The state of Massachusetts has passed a new law prohibiting employers from asking job applicants their salary history (reported by The New York Times on August 2, 2016).  This creative approach will be an interesting, and likely effective, experiment for other states to watch.

One workplace whose employees enjoy neither the benefits of equal pay nor glimpses through the glass ceiling is the home workplace.  According to a 2014 Pew Research Report, “The share of mothers who do not work outside the home rose to 29% in 2012, up from a modern-era low of 23% in 1999.”  The report details many complicated factors that explain these statistics.  In addition, it points out that, “One of the most striking demographic differences between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers relates to their economic well-being. Fully a third (34%) of stay-at-home mothers are living in poverty, compared with 12% of working mothers.”

These statistics also beg the question about unremunerated work in the home workplace, where mostly women are the primary workers.  When jobs of the home workplace are outsourced, they become paid jobs.  Some who enjoy economic privilege pay a pretty penny to have their children taken care of or driven to activities, their houses cleaned, and their clothes laundered.  Nevertheless, women who stay at home and carry out these duties are unpaid and receive no fixed vacation days or retirement benefits.  This is an incredibly precarious position for those living in poverty, and it is also precarious for married women who consider divorce or lose partners.  Furthermore, traditional workplaces tend not to value the experiences gained in the home workplace, and so women have trouble explaining “resume gaps” and having others value work experience gained in the home. Over the next eight years, we will need to think more creatively and proactively about how to value, both literally and figuratively, home work.

Even when women accede to the highest posts in the land, they encounter troubling obstacles.  The constant false equivalence made between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump demonstrates how little we consider and value women’s real, earned educational degrees, work experience, and accomplishments.  Even more dangerous are the violent rhetoric and images used against Hillary Clinton, ranging from “Lock Her Up” of the Trump rallies, to Trump’s own comment about what the “second amendment people” could do to Hillary, to the tweet of an image of a large, cloaked, male figure next to two nooses with the slogan “I’m Ready for Hillary.”  These threats reveal a deep preoccupation among parts of the U.S. populace about women operating in public spaces and their prescription for what should happen to women when they don’t “stay in their place.”  We should be particularly concerned about this use of sex-based violence as political practice.

I wonder, too, how this glass ceiling shrapnel has affected Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (See these pieces in The Economist, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, O Globo, and La Vanguardia.)  As women near the so-called glass ceiling, referred to by Buzzanell and Lucas as the “cement wall” for women of color, we must somehow be threatening a sense of the labor status quo that runs deep in our world.  So deep that successful women should pay for the sins of their successes?

As we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, let’s think about what progress we can make for people of color and women before Labor Day in many other parts of the world (May 1).

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