Women earn 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, with women of color faring far worse at 64 cents for African-American women and 56 cents for Latina women. This is the primary statistic cited to argue the significant disparity between women and men in the workplace. And it’s absolutely true, the wage gap is an obstacle to women everywhere who are fighting for equal recognition and treatment. However, simply looking at the wage gap doesn’t paint the full picture of discrimination. An issue that is more indicative of the culture of discrimination against women that is embedded in our society is the devaluation of women’s work.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the several studies examining the feminization of a profession and the loss of pay and prestige following it. A secretary or administrative assistant is probably the job most commonly associated with women. However, before the 1920s, clerical work was actually, “a moderately high status, complex, administrative job performed by men” after which a sharp influx in women led it to “a more narrow, lower status, female-dominated occupation.” This phenomenon is echoed in other areas like teaching and nursing. An inherent bias makes it so that as soon as something becomes associated strongly with women or femininity, society deems it less valuable.
One study showed how female academia is devalued when communications graduate students were asked to rate conference abstracts for scientific quality. The same abstracts with traditionally female author names were rated less well than their male peers, especially in male-dominated fields such as politics.
Devaluation of “feminine” professions is also evident in the domestic sphere; in fact, a stay-at-home-mom isn’t considered a “real” job by many. Because a job is considered something strictly in terms of wages and contribution to the GDP, it’s largely ignored. Because domestic work is considered in these terms and doesn’t have an economic value placed on them, women continue to carry the burden as men are discouraged from forgoing a job to enter the non-paying household sphere.
The creator behind the blog Crates and Ribbons calls it “patriarchy’s magic trick.” She argues, “Women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.”
Marlaine Cacouault-Bitaud discusses this trend in a historical perspective and explores how the feminization and consequential loss of prestige may act as an obstacle, “Anthropologists stress the permanence of our representations of the feminine, defined in opposition to the masculine and ranked lower on a scale of values. A feminized profession would thus be discredited by definition, and the highest positions in the spheres of economic and political power would remain inaccessible to women, the sine qua non of avoiding a loss of prestige.”
It is clear that discrimination goes beyond just how much less a woman is paid for their work in comparison to a man, but how we as a society define the value of their work as inferior simply because they are female. To combat workplace inequality, this underlying issue must first be acknowledged.
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