More work needed toward workplace equality

National Women’s History Month 2016 draws to a close. After centuries of wives being regarded as chattel, social justice for women has been on the rise since the mid-19th century’s passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in a number of American states.

Faded into the role of obscure metaphorical allusion is “the rule of thumb” which, according to English jurisprudence, granted husbands the right to chastise their spouses with a stick no more broad than his thumb. 

In 1920, the power of women grew by leaps and bounds with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States establishing universal suffrage. The fundamental civil right of all citizens to vote has forever reshaped the American political landscape. 

Dr. King would affirm decades later that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” One satisfactory benchmark for parity between the sexes remains untested: abolishing male-centric policies in the workplace around compensation and advancement. As Michael Moore proposed in “Where to Invade Next”, following Iceland’s lead and electing more women to representative bodies would be a good first step. 

We still need the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Despite the passage of the landmark Lilly Ledbetter Act, bending the arc of moral justice toward “equal pay for equal work” remains an as yet unachieved dream.

It is well-documented that female nurse practitioners still earn 11 percent less than their male counterparts. For decades, female physician assistants, likewise, have noted discrepancies with the income of male colleagues. It is tragic enough that women have historically found themselves disadvantaged wherever they compete directly with men.

For the so-called “pink collar careers” like teaching, professions typically staffed predominantly by women, it is unconscionable that starting salaries now frequently fail to support families, or even to service the debt acquired while pursuing the mandated credentials. 

Women, indeed, have come a long way; the work, however, is still in progress.

 

[The original version of the Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on March 27, 2014.]

There’s more than one kind of gender bias in the schools

The celebration of International Women’s Month is at hand. Now that we are more than a decade into the new millennium, it is long past time to join the struggle against what French feminists gleefully labeled the “phallocrats“. Women, most frequently charged with the care and custody of children in divorced households, still only earn 78% of what their male counterparts earn for similar labor. 

It is reported in Labor’s Untold Story by Boyer and Morais that men had difficulty supporting a family on $15 a week in the post Civil War economy. The years 1860-1865 had seen a 43% increase in wages but 116% inflation. 

One is mostly left to imagine the tales of woe and despair experienced by women and children of the same period working 18 hours-a-day at a loom for $3 a week. However, it is known that many thousands died yearly as a result of the unbridled exploitation of the labor force, and countless more were injured and maimed. Hence it should be reverentially recalled that the phrase “Equal Pay for Equal Work” was coined at that time by William H. Sylvis as he attempted to convince his National Labor Union to allow membership for women. 

Lamentably, not only would he never see this simple moral precept come to fruition, a century and half later and women are still waiting for simple economic justice. At the beginning of the 21st century, women have improved by less than “two-bits” from the 59 cents on the dollar they earned a couple decades ago. 

So, what hope is there for teachers? 

This is no idle question. What hope is there for adequate compensation in a profession dominated by an historically exploited class of worker?  It goes straight to the heart of the problem with teacher compensation. Women comprise 75 percent of teachers regionally (90 percent at the elementary level!). It is abundantly clear that this society declines to pay women at a level commensurate with male peers in male-dominated professions with similar requirements for credentials.

To date, the answer to that question has been short and sweet. There is not much hope at all. Ideologues offer the same tired alibis and excuses for not compensating teachers. How many of these have you heard? 

Teachers have it easy. Teachers already earn too much. Teachers only work 40 weeks a year. Teachers only work 7 ½ hours a day. Teachers are only earning “supplemental” incomes, what used to be referred to as “pin money“. Teachers are not here for a career, etc. 

None of these propositions is categorically true. In fact, they border on preposterously false. Still, they do play off popular beliefs and misconceptions about teaching as a profession, not to mention the cavalier attitude that some in this society have toward “women’s work” in general and the general undertow of anti-intellectualism  in American society. 

In his “White Paper Report on Education in 1988, Tom Brokaw said in his summation, “I don’t care who you are or what you do for living, you do not work any harder than a teacher.” Colleagues at the time expressed shock and amazement that someone from outside the profession had recognized this fact. 

Teaching is not an easy line of work and the hours are interminable. The reason new mothers frequently abandon the classroom, when they are able to do so, is that caring for babies virtually precludes being able to devote the countless hours needed for effective lesson-planning and correcting of student work outside the contractual day, nor is the level of financial compensation adequate to justify the hiring of secondary caregivers.

Those unable to take a hiatus – single mothers come to mind -often pay terrible prices in lost time with their children and the financial drain of day care. 

There has been a vast demographic change in recent decades. According to the Brookings Institute Center in “A Region Divided,” roughly 12.7 percent of homes in Prince George’s County were single parent households in 1996, which constituted a 27 percent share of such households in the metropolitan region. In 80 percent of those households the single parent was a woman. Furthermore, the average single father earned $36,364 in 1997 and the average single mother $23,040. 

We do not know how many single parents are teachers, but many of my colleagues are single with children for any variety of reasons. However, we do know that fewer men go into teaching, and inability to support a family on the prevailing wage is one of the justifications frequently cited. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that single mothers are disproportionately hurt by lower salaries for teachers, especially when computations are made for breaks-in-service for child rearing. 

Therefore, as our budgeting season is in full swing, let us realize that teacher compensation is also a feminist issue. This campaign must start with some small battle to be fought, and hopefully won. So what better way could there be to celebrate International Women’s Month than by joining in the struggle to eliminate gender-based inequities in compensation …

Furthermore, let us begin with the professions dominated by women, namely teaching and nursing. It would be good for women. It would be good for children. For if it is true that justice delayed is justice denied, this is justice that is far too long overdue. 

 

[The original “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on March 9, 2000. It has been revised and updated.]