Insights & Advice

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Do women have a choice?

Income inequality between the sexes in this country has always been a problem and it does not appear to be getting any better. Critics argue that much of the blame lies in the choices many women make in pursuing their education and career goals. I beg to differ.

In my last column on the subject two weeks ago, I observed that the pay differential between men and women had finally caught the attention of national politics. The National Budget Office, for example, pointed out the biggest beneficiary of a minimum wage increase would be women.  It is true but the real core of this issue lies elsewhere.

As most readers are aware, American society has changed. As a result of the overall income inequality in this country over the last 30-plus years, most couples are required to work full-time in order to make ends meet.  Women have also spent decades fighting for that right to work on equal footing with men. Why is it, therefore, that when two people get married, pursue equal professional careers, and decide to raise children, it is the wife who is expected to sacrifice her career, take time away from the workforce and forego income and advancement?

Who says this is the way it should be?

For me, this is the main obstacle that women face in this country. This expectation that women are required to be the primary caregivers in our society is the root cause of gender income inequality. It is an expectation so prevalent among us that only the strongest of 21st Century women even question its fairness.

When a woman is expected to quit her job and raise children, several things occur. Her professional career is interrupted, sometimes for many years. Think of the “Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick,” for example. This fictional lawyer dropped out of her legal profession for 13 years to raise children. In the meantime, her philandering husband, cheats on her, and then goes to prison. In order to support her family, she had to beg and plead simply to be offered a para-legal position at a Chicago law firm.

During those child-raising years, she did not contribute to social security a 401 (k) plan or IRA, failed to keep up with her competition (mostly male lawyers), and when she did get a job it was at a salary far below what she should have been making if she, instead of her husband, had raised the children. What’s more, from her employer’s point of view, why pay her more since who’s to say she doesn’t take another leave of absence if she gets pregnant again?

Unfortunately in America there is more fact than fiction in this television tale. The divorce rates in the U.S. are 40%-50% and guess who ends up with the kids the majority of time? So not only have women given up a career, income and economic advancement, but a vast number of them now are required to support the kids while the ex goes off to prison or enjoy his professional success with someone younger.

But let’s say you are one of the lucky ones with a happy marriage.  Whether you like it or not, with the kids grown, you probably still need to go back to work to make ends meet in this economy. But the chances of getting more than the minimum wage job are slim at best. It explains why women represent more than 62% of minimum wage workers.

Many of these women are divorced, have children to support, or just as important, they are widowed. You might find it surprising to discover that over 75% of women in this country are widowed at an average age of 56.  One in four of these women are broke within two months of being widowed, according to the National Center for Women and Retirement Research. More often than not, their only avenue of support is low paying jobs with no future.

We haven’t even examined the other side of women’s role as caregivers to aging parents. It is the woman, once again, who is expected to provide economic and social support for aging parents at the expense of saving for retirement, social security benefits and income generation.

So it appears that blaming women for the choices they make as an explanation for gender income inequality would be laughable if the present state of inequity were not so serious. The solution to this injustice goes far beyond raising the minimum wage, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics