Glass ceilings and plastic barriers: Will COVID’s impacts pave a path to pay parity?

April 12, 2021

The pandemic highlighted a fundamental contradiction of our economic system today: The caring labor that’s assigned the lowest value, and is often performed by women, is also essential. Feminist economist Professor Suzanne Bergeron says people in power have taken note.

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, nurses and grocery store cashiers were hailed as heroes for providing needs like medical treatment and food, respectively, to help hold our society together. Not an easy feat at any time — but especially difficult when experiencing heightened exposure to a deadly virus.

Many of those “essential” roles were held by women —  nearly nine out of 10 nurses and nursing assistants were female and so were more than two-thirds of the workers at grocery store checkouts when the New York Times analyzed census data crossed with the federal government’s essential worker guidelines.

And then there was the pressure employers felt when teachers and daycare workers — most of whom are women — were unable to offer an in-person safe place for children to go during the day due to contagion concerns, leaving America’s workforce frantically trying to line up childcare or take a work leave. 

But being essential or critical to the economy does not mean being well compensated. When comparing median wages of full-time workers, women continue to make less than men — women of color earn as low as $0.75 per dollar and, on average, white women make $0.81 for every dollar. 

Photo of Professor Suzanne Bergeron
Photo of Professor Suzanne Bergeron
Professor Suzanne Bergeron

While a couple of dimes in income difference might not seem like much — it balloons when viewed through a macro lens. On average, women could be paid nearly a half million dollars less than their male counterparts over the course of a 40-year career. And then there is the unpaid role of family caregiver, which research shows that the majority of the responsibility falls to females. ”The pandemic highlighted a fundamental contradiction of our economic system today: The caring labor to which we assign the lowest value is also most critical to ensuring the well-being of people and the planet,” said UM-Dearborn’s Helen M. Graves Collegiate Professor of Women's Studies and Social Science Suzanne Bergeron, who co-authored the book Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization, Second Edition (University of Michigan Press, 2021). 

But Bergeron says there are steps being taken to address this long-term issue. “We seem to be at a historic turning point when it comes to addressing the mismatch between the value and pay for essential care work in this country.”

Here’s what Bergeron has noticed in her feminist economics research:

People recognize change is needed and are talking about it.

Suzanne Bergeron: “Families are having conversations about balancing the work among family members. At the level of the community, there has been a proliferation of mutual aid networks providing support for the unpaid care needs of their neighbors: delivery of cooked meals, shopping for medicine and food, child care, pet care, and more.

Workplaces are re-imagining the workday with care needs in mind, such as being more open to flexible work hours than in the past. They are also realizing a need to address the gender inequitable impacts of the pandemic in their institutions. In higher education, for instance, research productivity dropped for women relative to men due to different gendered distributions of care work. This is a fairness issue that universities need to address by providing support for caregivers, rethinking the evaluation of faculty research productivity, reducing and/or shifting workload demands to be more manageable in pandemic contexts, and considering the lessons of the pandemic in imagining more equitable institutional futures. This is precisely the work that UM Dearborn’s Care and Equity Task Force is currently carrying out.  

Finally, at the level of policy, there is a lot going on. Paid family leave is gaining traction in Congress as the number of states with paid leave policies has expanded. One exciting development, included in the recent stimulus bill, has been the expansion of the former child tax credit into a basic income payment of $300 per month per child for all households earning less than $150k. This will provide families with cash to support care needs and improve well-being. A recent basic income experiment in the U.S. has  shown positive results. Having studied basic income policies in a variety of national and local contexts, I anticipate the same from this policy.”

There’s growing outrage at inequities.

SB: “While many were able to shelter safely at home, millions of care laborers in fields such as health, education, home care assistance, food production, grocery and pharmaceutical retail, etc. — the majority of them women — were out there providing goods and services critical to our survival. This essential work is often low-paid and precarious, made even more so by increased risk of exposure to the virus. These essential workers have been hailed as heroes, and there is also growing outrage at the inequity of their low wages and poor working conditions.

Similarly, there is far more attention being paid to the crucial importance of previously invisible unpaid family and community care in the pandemic. This work dramatically increased as socialized forms of care — schools, child care facilities, elder care programs — were shut down, and needs for care and support for families and communities skyrocketed in the context of health, economic and social dislocations. Research demonstrates that it is women who disproportionately take on these burdens, often to the detriment of their paid employment situations and their own health.”

Steps in the right direction are happening at the federal level — but more movement is needed.

SB: ”The current White House jobs plan recognizes paid care work as a crucial part of our national infrastructure. It includes provisions for job creation and raised wages for home and community-based care workers, the majority of whom are women of color whose work has been historically undervalued.

Another important initiative is the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That idea is gaining traction and is embedded in wage laws passed at the state and local level. It has sparked serious consideration by Congress as well. As the majority of those who earn under $15 are women and people of color, this change can contribute significantly to both gender and racial pay parity. Finally, creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants would improve both the pay and working conditions of the many immigrant women who do much of the caring labor in this country, making them much less vulnerable to exploitation. Of course there are many other factors to address, including support for paid care workers who have caregiving responsibilities at home and ongoing efforts to reduce discrimination in the workplace.

The pandemic has increased the hours spent in unpaid care and domestic work for nearly all — as well as our awareness of how crucial unpaid care is to our economic and social well-being. But more of this burden fell on women, who were already doing approximately three times more domestic work than men in different-sexed two-earner families. In the best of times, balancing paid work with the role of primary caregiver has been difficult. In the pandemic, it was beyond impossible. Awareness of these issues is, thankfully, leading to changes in households, communities, workplaces and government policy.”

Bergeron collaborated with noted researchers and Association for Feminist Economics founding members Drucilla Barker and Susan Feiner on “Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work, and Globalization, Second Edition.” 

Interview by Sarah Tuxbury. If you’re a member of the media and would like to speak with Professor Suzanne Bergeron about this topic, please drop us a line at UMDearborn-News@umich.edu.

Back to top of page