Why women should take the rest of the year off

2014-11-23 15:00

As of October 15, the average American woman who works full time started working for free.

That’s because she makes just 78% of what a man makes. If a man’s pay lasts the whole year long, hers doesn’t even make it to Halloween (October 31). Scary thought.

Women of colour have been putting in even more time. Black women have been working for free since August 21. Hispanic women have been doing so since July 16.

Even if we take into account things like the fact that women tend to go into different industries and occupations, stay in the labour force for less time (often thanks to raising children) and are less likely to belong to a union, women should still walk away from work from Black Friday (November 28) and not come back until New Year’s Day.

The fact that work by women comes so heavily discounted has inspired unions in Denmark for the past five years to call on Danish women to take the rest of the year off after they reach that point. They have just a $0.17 (R1.87) pay gap, one of the world’s smallest.

“It’s a way to remove the gender pay gap in a split second,” Lise Johansen, who heads the campaign for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, told Bloomberg News. “Go to a tropical island for the rest of the year!”

Women aren’t just working for free when they leave their houses, of course. They’re working for free every day of the year when they go home and raise children, cook meals and clean house.

Compared with men, they devote far more time to this: they spend a half an hour more on childcare, housework, cooking and household management each day. That’s double the time men spend on childcare.

That time might not be rewarded, but it still has a value.

Take the effort women put in caring for elderly parents, which they are far more likely to do than men. If all the informal elderly caregiving by family and friends were instead replaced by someone paid to do it, the total would be $522?billion (R5.7 trillion) a year. That’s a half-trillion dollar gift (mostly) women give to society.

So maybe they should get even more time off than just what the gender wage gap allows, since they’re putting in so much unpaid, unrewarded labour.

Given that they do seven hours more housework each week (15 extra days a year) and eight hours more childcare a week (17 days a year), let’s call it even if they get another month tacked on to their early vacations.

Being generous, that means women could have thrown in the towel when we reached the end of October.

What would happen if American women stopped working inside and outside the home for two months out of the year?

It’s all obviously relegated to the world of thought experiments.

Even in Denmark, where three-quarters of the workforce belong to a union, women won’t actually heed the mostly joking call to stay away from work; and in the US, union power is far lower.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and when it comes to the wage gap, these are increasingly desperate times. The gap was closing quickly and steadily between the 1960s and 1990s, and continued to shrink in the 2000s. But in the past decade, it’s only budged by 1.7 percentage points.

At this rate, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the US estimates it won’t close until 2058.

While President Barrack Obama has issued executive orders related to equal pay, and Democrats in Congress have proposed bills like the Paycheck Fairness Act, none of these measures will close the gap on their own.

In the meantime, the pay gap contributes to more women living in poverty, relying on government benefits and facing economic instability in their retirement years.

Maybe what’s needed is for this issue to jump from a talking point to a day of action. Perhaps if the country witnessed what it would be like for half the population to refuse to type a word, ring up a purchase, pick up a wrench or to wipe a snotty nose, women’s value would be brought into sharp focus.

Then we might see some aggressive action to correct the discrimination that still suppresses women’s wages.

Until then, women should at least slack off as much as they can for the remainder of the year.

– The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

Covert is the economic policy editor for ThinkProgress and is a regular contributor in The Nation

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