John W. MillerJuly 26, 2021

Editor's Note: The Moral Economy is a new series that tackles key economic topics through the prism of Catholic social teaching and its care for the dignity of every person. This is the seventh article in the series.

The gender pay gap, persistent and global, is an evident structural economic injustice—and despite widespread agreement that it deserves immediate remedy, it is proving annoyingly difficult to solve.

For almost 60 years, since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, it has been illegal in the United States to pay men more than women for doing the same job. And yet in 2020, women earned 82.3 percent of what men did in all jobs combined. Put another way: In the United States, women, who make up about half of the population, earn only 40 percent of the gross domestic product. And in the last 25 years, the gender pay gap in the United States has shrunk only eight percentage points.

This economic discrimination hurts almost every family, since many families have grown reliant on the salary earned by working women. Almost three-quarters of mothers in the United States are employed, either full-time or part-time, compared with about half in 1968. And single parents are more likely to be women.

The gender pay gap, persistent and global, is proving annoyingly difficult to solve.

Advocates for working women have won policy victories such as the expansion of child tax credits,better early childhood education and more family leave. But wider economic trends, including the gig economy, the male-dominated high-tech revolution, deindustrialization, aging societies and the decline of unions, have conspired to keep the gap intact.

And it is not just in the United States. The global gender gap in “economic participation and opportunity” is 58 percent, according to the World Economic Forum, which calculates it will take 135.6 years to repair, according to a 2021 report. “There isn’t a single country that doesn’t have a gender wage gap,” said Ariane Hegewisch, an author and program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Covid-19 pandemic made things worse. Five percent of all employed women lost their jobs, compared to 3.9 percent of men, according to the International Labor Organization. “LinkedIn data further shows a marked decline of women’s hiring into leadership roles, creating a reversal of 1 to 2 years across multiple industries,” the World Economic Forum wrote in its 2021 report on the issue. And the Covid-19 pandemic has made women more uncomfortable than men about asking for a raise, according to a new survey.

For modern interpreters of Catholic social teaching, there is little question that women deserve equal pay. It has not always been so.

For modern interpreters of Catholic social teaching, there is little question that women deserve equal pay and a chance to build prosperous careers that align with their desires for family and home life. It has not always been so. “Rerum Novarum,” the seminal 1891 papal encyclical on the dignity of work, explicitly said that women should be working primarily in the home, but Catholic thinking has evolved, Kate Ward, a professor of theology at Marquette University, told me. “Pope Francis even talks about how it can be O.K. for women to work and men to stay home,” she said.

From a Catholic viewpoint, work done in the home to take care of people “is fundamentally more important,” said Dr. Ward. The Catholic solution to the gender pay gap requires affirming women’s right to equal pay while pushing back against a purely capitalist impulse. “We’re affirming women should be treated equally in work,” said Dr. Ward. “We’re not just saying that women should become better capitalists and have fewer families” and children.

But in the United States we have built a system that most often offers the greatest financial reward to people, male or female, who prioritize career over home life. “The U.S. is the best country for women who work like men,” Ms. Hegewisch told me. “But it’s one of the worst high-income countries for women who want to work and spend time with their families.”

Pure capitalism has a hard time compensating anybody who does work in the home. Women do as much as ten times the work of men in homes, according to the OECD. That is why child tax credits or the prospect of a universal basic income offer so much hope.

Women do as much as ten times the work of men in homes.

“Otherwise, it’s most often women who do the unpaid work that subsidizes the rest of us getting off cheaply,” said Christine Firer Hinze, a professor of theology at Fordham and author of Glass Ceiling and Dirt Floors: Women, Work, and the Global Economy. The modern Catholic social tradition affirms that it is better for a parent to be in the home with children, but the language, Dr. Firer Hinze argued, need not be gendered. “In fact, in the most recent catechism, the argument for living wages does not refer to gender,” she pointed out. Simply put, men need to do more.

“Why is it taken for granted that women must earn less than men? No! They have the same rights,” said Pope Francis in a 2015 speech, calling the practice a “pure scandal.” In “Fratelli Tutti,” the latest papal encyclical, Francis wrote that “the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.”

The church, as Francis hinted at, bears some responsibility. It “is one of the original bosses,” said Zach Johnson, executive director of Call to Action, which advocates broad reform in the church. “Labor practices have a lot of the kind of hierarchy pioneered by the church,” he said.

A persistent problem

From an economic point of view, why is the gender gap so persistent?

A generation ago, women were less educated than men, which limited their career possibilities. That is no longer true. The discrimination is no longer between men and less-educated women doing the same work. Instead, the discrepancy is often related to the value American society puts on different types of work, specifically between sectors dominated by men, which are typically better compensated, like high-tech work, and those that, in part because of gender norms, attract more women, like nursing and caring for aging people.

A generation ago, women were less educated than men, which limited their career possibilities. That is no longer true.

In highly paid cloud computing, for example, women make up only 14 percent of the work force. In engineering, 20 percent. And in data and artificial intelligence, 32 percent. The most egregious difference in pay and status “have to do with jobs that are paid less and keyed as ‘feminine,’” such as child care, food service and hospital aides, said Dr. Firer Hinze. “The farther you get from bodily fluids, the more money you make.”

And unlike a generation ago, many of the jobs that women do are less likely to be unionized. “Nurses can be resistant to unionization because they’re told it’s caring work, you do it out of love,” said Dr. Ward at Marquette. “Because it is commonly women who do that work, they receive this message that you do it out of love, but fair pay and fair breaks aren't living up to this standard of love.”

The capitalist economy punishes anybody who takes time away from a capitalist career, and those people are more likely to be women. Forty-three percent of women have had at least one year with no earnings, almost twice the rate of men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And women, often because of the need to take care of children or aging parents, work more part-time jobs than men in all but 73 of the countries surveyed by the International Labor Organization.

The origins of the modern gender pay gap lie in the industrial revolution. As people came off the farms to work in factories, men grabbed the plum positions in steel mills and assembly lines. “Most families assigned an available female—wife, daughter or sister—the task of organizing the household and stretching the limited incomes of the wage earners,” writes Alice Kessler-Harris in her excellent study Women Have Always Worked: A Concise History.

The origins of the modern gender pay gap lie in the industrial revolution.

There is a long history of noticing, and arguing against, wage discrimination. In 1869, a letter to the editor of the New York Times said that “very few persons deny the justice of the principle that equal work should command equal pay without regard to the sex of the laborer, but it is one thing to acknowledge the right of a principle and quite another to practice it.” In the U.S. Treasury Department, 500 women worked, but they made only around half as much as male colleagues. “Many of these women are now performing the same grade of work at $900 per annum for which men receive $1800. Most of them, too, have families to support; being nearly all either widows or orphans made by the war.”

During America’s two world wars, when women were summoned to work in factories while men shipped off to war, women were paid well, partly because labor was short and partly because there was value attached to those jobs, which men would resume when they got home.

In this century, as the feminist movement pushed women to be paid equally, another force has been heading in the opposite direction. That force is deindustrialization in the West. As factory towns turned into hospital towns, steelworking jobs became nursing and service jobs, like caring for elderly people. Societies that used to make things became societies that took care of people who are old or sick.

No easy solution

Like all structural problems, there is no easy solution to the gender pay gap. Some of the family-friendly ideas offered by the Biden administration seem likely to help, as will any policies that dilute overall income inequality. As Ms. Hegewisch of the IWPR told me, “the countries where the gender gap is not as bad, like the Scandinavian countries, have a more equitable wage structure in general.”

Additional help may come from increasing awareness, including the work of star athletes like the U.S. women’s national soccer team. A few months ago, one of the team’s players, Megan Rapinoe, testified before a U.S. Congressional Committee titled “Honoring ‘Equal Pay Day’: Examining the Long-Term Economic Impacts of Gender Inequality.”

There is “no level of status, there’s no accomplishment or power, that will protect you from the clutches of inequality,” she said. “One cannot simply outperform inequality, or be excellent enough to escape discrimination of any kind.”

One thing that seems to help is transparency. In 2015, Salesforce, a San Francisco-based software firm that helps companies interact with clients, collected details on salaries for all its employees. It then spent almost $9 million to equalize pay.

Whatever the remedy, there is no doubt that the gender pay gap, like all injustices, should be a major part of our current conversation and politics. But that means actually allowing employees to talk about it. For this story, I talked to a woman who teaches at a Catholic high school on the East Coast. She makes $20,000 less than a male colleague in a similar position, she told me. Although initially eager to talk, in the end she refused to go on the record for fear it might cost her her job.

“They treat my work as a ministry, which means I should earn less,” she told me. She is now looking for a new job.

More reporting from John W. Miller:

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