Katherine Kersten, the Star Tribune’s resident head-in-the-sand religious zealot, homophobe, and anti-feminist columnist, explained to us the other day that there is no such thing as a “war on women” which, she claims, President Obama invented purely to help his re-election campaign:
There’s a “war on women” being waged by those knuckle-dragging Republicans. How do you know? Because President Obama has told you so, and because his media enablers parrot the line at every opportunity.
Yes, we know because Obama told us so, not because the GOP platform is actually looking poised to include a constitutional ban on abortions of any kind for any reason; it’s also definitely not because we have men holding elected office who actually believe that uteruses contain magical powers that stop pregnancy from happening during a “legitimate” rape; it’s also absolutely not because so many men think it’s totally fine to suggest an entire audience gang rape a woman who had the nerve to mention that rape jokes aren’t funny, and that so many people defend the “joke.” It can’t possibly be because a discussion about contraception included zero women, on behalf of whom the men were charged with making decisions — and that the only woman able to testify was subsequently called a slut, told to share videos of herself having sex, had her perceived sexuality judged openly and maliciously by commentators everywhere, and whose sex life essentially became the focus of the national discourse for weeks. And it definitely can’t be because all of these things, and more, clearly affect primarily women, over and over again throughout history, and rarely affect men on such a visceral and immediately practical level.
But, no. Those things do not constitute a “war on women.” In fact, the real problem is something entirely unrelated to the massive political and cultural fight against women’s reproductive rights, ability to speak in public, and comfort knowing half the population doesn’t think it’d be funny if you got gang raped: women are currently slightly more financially successful than men are, because of the recession!
What does the battlefield look like? A first reconnaissance might suggest that men, not women, are under assault and in full-scale retreat. For example, women now earn almost 60 percent of college degrees, and a majority of master’s and doctoral degrees. Education is the best predictor of future earnings in our information economy.
Women now hold 51 percent of white-collar management and professional jobs. Traditional male sectors like manufacturing are in decline, while women dominate 13 of the 15 job categories projected to grow most in the next decade. In 2010, the Atlantic magazine documented the shift in an article titled “The End of Men.”
That women outpace men in college degrees is nothing new; it’s a statistic we’ve been hearing for ages that has its share of varying analyses. Kersten, like so many others in her position, also makes no mention of the persistent and institutionalized misogyny and glass ceiling that women continue to face in academia in many fields, proving once again that women’s technical legal equality does not mean that women are fully equal in all of society.
On the workplace front, Obama supporters allege that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. They blame sexist employers, and denounce Republicans for opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which they portray as key to “pay equity.”
In fact, the wage gap essentially disappears in “apples to apples” comparisons of the earnings of women with and without children. Women with children tend to choose hours, occupations and flexible work environments that result in lower earnings, while childless women earn virtually the same as their male counterparts on average. In fact, in cities like Minneapolis, Boston and New York, women in their 20s who work full-time now outearn their male peers.
It pains me to admit that one part of Kersten’s critique actually makes sense, but even a broken clock is right twice a day: the argument from the left about pay inequality between women and men is misleading, at best. The argument is frequently framed in a way that leads readers/viewers/listeners to believe that the oft-cited “a woman makes $0.77 to a man’s $1.00” is based on same pay for same work, when in fact, the statistic is a comparison between the employment and pay of all men and all women who work full-time hours, regardless of field, age, or any other factor other than hourly wage or yearly salary. As Kersten noted, apples-to-apples comparisons did, in fact, result in the much sought-after “equal pay for equal work.”
Ultimately, thought, it does not matter that Kersten and her conservative friends are right about this often-overlooked statistical complexity, because she, like nearly everyone else in this argument, continue to neglect the most important factor, and all of its implications: the industries dominated by women (childcare, teaching, housekeeping work) are the ones that pay the least, whether it’s a man or a woman doing the job. The industries dominated by men (construction, etc., etc.) pay the most, whether the job is held by a man or a woman. We all agree on this pretty much irrefutable statistical reality, but why do we always stop there? There are many more questions to ask:
The fact that there remains a vast disparity in the average amount of money women earn in general and the average amount of money men earn in general is still something that should feel immediately disturbing to all of us. Why are these jobs compensated to unequally? Is it because women do the work typically performed in the most underpaid sectors, and we’re inherently sexist? Maybe; but that’s certainly not the whole story, nor, do I think , is it the right path to take when trying to determine the whole answer. What I’d really like to see discussed is why we, as a culture, value and subsequently reward performing physically strenuous or dangerous work more than we value instilling lifelong critical thinking skills, historical and technical knowledge, and socialization skills to our youth? Alternately, why do we feel, as a culture, that waking up to an alarm, going to a cubicle in an office building with a deliberately aggressive and dictatorial environment, and bringing home a check signed by someone else, is more of an accomplishment worthy of practically meaningful compensation (i.e., money) than engaging full-time in the rearing of children, who need to form familial bonds and learn about the world in their youth, whether it’s from a mother, father, or other steadfast guardian figure in their lives? Why do we insist on paying people for the type of job they do, rather than the time it takes to do it? A full-time cashier who makes $8.00 an hour still spends the same amount of their own limited on this planet time ringing up other people’s purchases as an accountant for a local bank who presses buttons on a calculator full-time for $14.44 an hour.
While there is much to be debated about what kind of time, whose time, and which activities happen within this time, and how to fairly compensate this time, it remains that we have constructed a society in which practically every single thing needed for a modestly comfortable life requires access to money. Some people have money, some people don’t, and its easier for some people to earn it than it is for others.
Ultimately, the economic inequality between women and men won’t be meaningfully resolved until we have a serious conversation about how we spend our time, what we contribute to society, what we need, and what it means to be compensated fairly for our work. It’s time we move past the petty and unceasing arguments about whether or not there is still such a thing as “sexism,” as if it weren’t painfully obvious to most of us, and tackle the root of the issue. Perhaps with such a large audience at her fingertips, Kersten could try to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
This article was cross-posted to PaperRevolution.org.