Women’s work, men’s salaries

For those who think that this economic inequality is explained by the fact that women earn less than men because they work less than men, it is important to remember that women have always worked as much as men, if not more (Kessler-Harris, 1981).

One obvious characteristic of women’s work for more than two centuries in a number of economic sectors (starting with agriculture, but also including crafts, commerce, and industry) is its invisibility, in the absence of judicial or financial recognition. Housework, primarily accomplished in family settings by women, is the archetype of unpaid work that never quite gets recognized as such (Dalla Costa and Janies, 1972; Federici, 2012). Domestic production is not counted in the large statistical aggregates that measure production from the perspective of national accounting. National income only includes activities that produce goods and services for commercial exchange, or for those furnished as part of public administration (Waring, 1988). A preschool Assistant Teacher who takes care of a child contributes to the national income, while a mother who does the same work does not. If household production were to be taken into account, the gross national product (GNP) in 2010 would have been 33% larger in France, 63% larger in the UK, and 43% larger in Germany; and in 2014 in the United States 23% larger (Bridgman, 2016; Poissonnier and Roy, 2017).

This unpaid and invisible household production is financed largely by women. In France, in 2010, among couples with infants, women worked on average 54 hours per week: 34 hours of unpaid housework and 20 hours of professional activity. Within the same households, men worked only 51 hours, 3 hours less per week. Men devoted on average 18 hours per week to unpaid housework, and 33 hours to professional activities (Source: the French Time Use Survey). In the end, women worked a bit more, but were paid much less.

These figures established by the French national institute for statistical and economic studies (INSEE) from men’s and women’s work data, do not account for the fragmentation of women’s work, both domestic and professional, which is permanently interrupted because women must always make themselves available to others (Oakley, 1985[1974]). Women always carry with them a domestic mental load, even during paid work5. Women are the first people contacted by schools and day care centers when children are sick. Women often multitask (doing housework while watching the kids) and must interrupt what they are doing at any moment when the need arises. To the contrary, men’s work, whether professional or household (handiwork, repairs, gardening, or maybe cooking) is more clearly delineated in time and space.

Salary inequality thus summarizes a wide range of other inequalities that accumulate in families and in the job market, both at the top and at the bottom of the work hierarchy. Women are concentrated in less well-paid sectors: educational, care giving, and personal assistance professions notably (Ingrid Levavasseur’s employment as a care assistant is typical). Because of their family duties, women are often employed in part-time jobs and their careers run on a slower track. Furthermore, glass ceilings prevent them from reaching the best-paying positions (Gustafsson and Meulders, 2000). These factors help to explain why women, in France like elsewhere in the world, earn on average about one quarter less than men do. But even ceteris paribus (for the same age, seniority, job sector, position, years of employment, etc.) the job market still discriminates against women, providing them with a salary 10.5% lower than their male counterparts (Silvera, 2014). These persistent inequalities are intertwined with other inequalities that play out in private family life. In France, according to the French national institute for statistical and economic studies, the income of women living in a couple is, on average, 42% less than their partner. In 2011 she earned 16,700 euros while he earned 29,000 euros. This gap in incomes is only 9% between women and men who live alone. Different-sex marital relations endorse existing economic inequalities and then firmly fix them in place.

Today, Western societies would appear to have addressed questions of unequal salaries between men and women with laws focused on professional equality. Alas, even if women were paid with equal salaries for equal work, this still would not resolve everything. There exists an economic inequality between women and men that does not show up on most political and statistical radars, that, nonetheless, structures and summarizes the socioeconomic destinies of individuals, and that is transferred from one generation to the next.

 
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