Popaganda Episode: Demystifying the Wage Gap

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Why is it that white men in America are paid more—on average—than women and people of color in every single state? We dig into the realities behind the wage gap with help from three all-stars. First Lilly Ledbetter explains how it feels to fight your employer for equal pay all the way to the Supreme Couty. Then, journalist Sarah L. Jaffe breaks down the myths of minimum wage. Finally, author Sheila Bapat explains the racist and sexist history behind our country’s failure to pay domestic workers fairly. Tune in. 

This show features the song “Workin’ Woman Blues” by the fantastic Valerie June.  

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SARAH MIRK: This is Popaganda, Bitch Media’s feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.


Hi. This is so exciting. I’m coming to you today from inside America’s largest employer. That’s right, folks, I’m in a Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart employs over 2 million Americans, including the people wandering around this store wearing bright blue vests. But though the workers all wear the same uniform and name tags, they are not created equal.  Over the past decade, thousands of women working at Wal-Mart have sued the company in a series of lawsuits because there’s something missing their paychecks—women at Wal-Mart are routinely paid less than their male coworkers and, female workers argue, are systematically passed over for promotions. Although Wal-Mart has an anti-discrimination policy on the books, the company’s payroll data from 2001 showed that women working in the stores nationwide made anywhere from 10 for 40 percent less than male employers working similar jobs.

Today’s show is all about the wage gap. This isn’t just about Wal-Mart. From sea to shining sea, women in the United States are paid less than men, on average, across the board, in every single state. And it hasn’t budged in a decade: in 2002, women on average were paid 77 percent of what men made. In 2012 the numbers were the same. Gender impacts what we get paid and so does race and age—the wage gap jumps after women hit 35, and while white women make 78 percent of what men do, Hispanic and Latina women make only 53 percent, Native women about 60 percent, and African American make about 64 percent.

That’s a lot of statistics to throw at you. But you around at a group of workers who are all doing the work, the numbers hit home. In the wage gap, you see a numerical representation of the kind of sexism and racism that’s usually hard to quantify. It stems from our institutions, from our history, and, of course, from ourselves.

So, today, I’m digging deep at the Wal-Mart. We’re going to demystify the wage gap. First off, I talk the one-and-only Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama woman who made history when she fought Goodyear after realizing she’s been underpaid for 19 years. Then, journalist Sarah Jaffe explains the myths of minimum wage. Finally, author Sheila Bapat talks with us about how our country undervalues jobs traditionally seen as “women’s work” and explains current domestic worker activism. From the depths of a Portland-area Wal-Mart, over-and-out.

Interview with Lilly Ledbetter

SARAH MIRK: Lilly Ledbetter worked at Goodyear in Alabama for 19 years. She didn’t now it then, but over time her pay decreased in comparison to her male colleagues—by the end of her career, she was making less money per month than the lowest-paid male manager in the area. So she fought and the courts all the way to the courts initially awarded her $3.8 million in damages and backpay—in 2007, the Supreme Court reversed the decision because the hadn’t filed the lawsuit within 180 days of getting her first pay check… 28 years before.  Since then, she’s fought even harder for equal pay protections nationwide—in 2009, Congress literally stamped her name on a major piece of anti-discrimination legislation: the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which loosened the timeliness requirements for filing a discrimination suit. Sadly, her work is as relevant as ever today, since women still face retaliation for demanding equal pay.

SARAH MIRK: I wanted to talk to you about media coverage of equal pay. When you first started fighting your case, what surprised you about the way it was covered in the news?

LILLY LEDBETTER: The media coverage in my regard didn’t hit until the verdict came out in my case. The jury came back on a Friday and gave me a $3.8 million award. Of course, the judge had reduced it to $360,000 total, but I loved the media coverage because the next day, the headlines from coast to coast read, “Jacksonville, Alabama woman awarded $3.8 million from Goodyear Tire and Rubber from federal jury.” In one headline, they had me as a “Jacksonville, Florida” woman, but they had my name and Goodyear and the amount right, and that was good! I tell a lot of groups, you have to really dissect what you hear on the media because it’s not always exactly like what you’ve heard and seen. But I loved those headlines. I had folks sending me papers from everywhere and most of them were front pages. My house looks like a museum now.

SARAH: It would have had a much different impact if it had just said $360,000—having the bigger figure really makes it seem like, “You companies had better listen up!”

LILLY: That’s exactly right.  It sent a message. Even the 360 was still a good award. It wasn’t what it should be, but I had a lawyer friend tell me later, “I know you didn’t get any money but, boy, that headline, you can’t beat ‘em.” That $3.8 million, the jury came to that through lost overtime hours, back pay for those 19 years of working, and the future retirements because there’s nothing in the law that allows a person to gain any of that back. It’s gone forever.

SARAH: Since your lawsuit went through, the wage gap has become front-page news. How have you seen the media coverage on this issue change?

I think the coverage has been much, much greater. From coast to coast and north to south, there was an outcry over the Supreme Court verdict because it was so unjust to take a family’s wages. Because when you’re talking about women’s wages, what you’re really talking about is a family’s wages. There was a lot of pushback and it really showed how far behind we are. We are extremely far behind. Equal pay is 50 years old and Title VII as well and we should be more advanced in this country. And yet the women—the white women—are averaging only 77 cents on the dollar. This is not right.

SARAH: When you look at new stories about equal pay, what do you wish was more prominent? What do you think is missing from the way we talk about this issue?

LILLY: I wish more people would understand and accept it. You still get a lot of opposition sometimes. I think that stems from the corporate arguments against it, because they think that it will be such a hardship on them if they comply—which it won’t, it will be a piece of cake if they adhere to the laws, just like anything else. Two, companies have already done some studies on people who do treat their people fairly and equitably: their productivity is better and their bottom line is better. It’s a proven fact already.

SARAH: Do you get frustrated at how slow the change is on this issue?

LILLY: I warned my family going in that it would take us eight years. I had known people who had tried to get their insurance payments on losing an arm in the factory or something, it would take them eight to 10 years just to get that. So I know that this would not be an overnight solution. On the other hand, the Ledbetter bill passed in just 18 months. That’s pretty good. It was a lot of work, though. A lot of people across this country was writing letters and lobbying to get this past, but it passed.

SARAH: What’s the most pressing issue now you’re working on?

LILLY: Well, paycheck fairness should have passed in Washington the other week. That should have passed. That’s the most critical. That would help the American worker. I have such a hard time understanding how politicians are elected and go to Washington and cannot support what supports the families back home. And I don’t understand voters who let them get away with it. I think we’re approaching a time where people are waking up and learning about this and things will change.

SARAH: What pushback do you experience yourself from people when you talk about this issue? What do people say and how do you counter it?

LILLY: Oh, well, people say, ‘This is not really the facts.’ But this is the facts. You get out there and start talking to people, you’ll find people who can tell you story after story about making less money than their coworker, but they can’t bring it up because they’re the sole breadwinner in their family. They’re living paycheck to paycheck and they can’t afford to ask. I have example after example of people who know for a fact that they’re being paid less, but they can’t do anything about it for fear of losing their job. The fear is there. I have a lady in Chicago right now that’s still battling her case. She worked for the government and found out that her coworkers were making more than she was—same job! Same job!—so she asked about it and they said they’d let her know. Two months later, they let her go. But they gave her a different reason why they laid her off, so now she’s still fighting the layoff and for equal pay. That right there is the reason this country is held behind. One of the women who testified at my trial, they asked her why she didn’t complain about being paid less. She said, “I was a divorced mother supporting a handicapped son and I was living paycheck to paycheck.” We worked for a company where if you discussed your paycheck, you didn’t have a job.

[Song: Valerie “June’s Working Woman Blues”]

SARAH MIRK: That was Lilly Ledbetter, whose memoir is called Grace and Grit. Thanks to the Portland State University’s Center for Women, Politics & Policy, for setting up that interview.

[Song: Valerie “June’s Working Woman Blues”]

Interview with Sarah Jaffe

SARAH MIRK: Today, we’re demystifying the wage gap. Now is a relevant time to ask, why is the wage gap mystified to begin with? There’s a lot of misconceptions about why women and people of color are paid less than white men in every state in the country on average. Honestly, people find it believe, there’s a lot straight-up questioning how our economy could work to so systematically discriminate against women and people of color. According to economic theory, our economy is supposed to be an equalizer, right? So why are women are still paid less than men? Here, to walk us through some of the myths around the minimum wage one of my favorite journalists, Sarah Jaffe. She’s prolific—she’s written about music for Bitch, all sorts of economic issues as staff writer for In These Times magazine, and she co-hosts Dissent magazine’s labor podcast, Belabored.  Here’s Sarah Jaffe on the myths of minimum wage.

SARAH JAFFE: I mean the most important thing I think , and I assume that Bitch readers think, who is a minimum wage worker? There’s this idea that a minimum wage worker is a teenager working at the mall after school to be able go out on the weekends. That is statistically not true. It is overwhelmingly people over the age of 18 or 20 trying to support a family on this miserly wage. Important to note, it is 2/3 women working on the minimum wage. When you’re talking about raising the minimum wage, you are talking about immediately raising the wage for a whole lot of women.

SARAH MIRK: Why is it that women are more likely to be working these minimum wage jobs? What kinds of factors contribute?

SARAH JAFFE: So many factors. It’s the good old fashioned patriarchy. It’s the fact that women’s work—things that are perceived to be women’s jobs, jobs that involve emotional labor, caring, home health care aids, also customer service work, restaurant work, which often pays a subminimum wage and you’re expected to make the difference in tips if you’re lucky—these are assumed to be jobs women do, therefore pay less. There are a lot of studies by economists that show that for a variety of reasons. The second thing is that part-time work tends to pays less. This is a very gendered concept. This is because part time work back in the day was a job a house wife picked up a few hours a week to make some pin money. These jobs were created on the perception that women didn’t need to bring home a real sustaining wage because they would be married to someone who did that for them. The final factor is that jobs pay minimum wage because workers have less power in the country than they used to forty to fifty years ago. There are fewer unions than there used to be. The problem huting mid-level to small businesses is that people don’t have any money. It’s a demand problem. We have a crisis of aggregate demand. People who are working these ever-growing minimum wage jobs don’t have any extra money to spend. They don’t have any money to go to Walmart and shop. If you pay a Walmart worker who’s making $8 an hour now, if you raise her wage to $15 an hour, she may be able to go into a Walmart and shop.

SARAH MIRK: That’s journalist Sarah Jaffe, picking apart myths of the minimum wage. Find her writing at adifferentclass.com and I really recommend you follow her on Twitter: @SarahLJaffe

Interview with Sheila Bapat

SARAH MIRK: Today, we’re demystifying the wage gap. Part of the reason behind the wage gap is that women and people of color are more concentrated in the labor force in low-income jobs. Let’s look at domestic workers—people who work in the homes of their employers taking care of children or elderly family members, cooking, and cleaning. More than 90 percent of domestic workers are women and 67 percent are Latina. And, according to a survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, more than one in five are paid below minimum wage.

As a child, Sheila Baa-pit watched her mom do all the housework. Abroad, visiting family in India, she saw her female relatives do the same. In her new book, Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights, Bapat has turned studied these relationships and the workers on the forefront of demanding justice. In the current print issue of Bitch, the Tough issue, Sheila wrote an article called “Out from the Shadows” about the growing visibility of domestic workers onscreen and off. For this show, Bitch magazine editor-in-chief Kjerstin Johnson talked with Sheila about her article and the racist reasons domestic workers have remained “in the shadows” of the labor economy. 

[The following is an edited version of the interview on the podcast, not an exact transcript]

KJERSTIN JOHNSON: Let’s start with your book. What compelled you to write it?

SHEILA BAPAT: It really goes back to that second-wave feminist thing where the personal is political. In my household, there was a really rigid division of labor where my mother was in charge of all of the domestic work, all the cooking, cleaning, caring for everyone in the household. She also worked outside of the home as a teacher and she did a fabulous job, but my father, who earned more money outside of the home, had all of the economic power. And when I went over to my friends’ houses, it was the same thing—women were in charge of all of the domestic work and men had all of the economic power. When I would travel to India, I would meet family there and it was exactly the same narrative. It really struck me even as a child how clear the power dynamics were how related there were to the division of women and men. So when I got to college and discovered feminist theory, that there was a whole field of study about this exact phenomenon. When I started writing about the domestic workers movement, it really just inspired me to see how much work they were achieving through changing global labor policy and it really felt like the first real big push against this economic trend of finding zero economic power in all of this domestic work.

KJERSTIN: Tell me about the domestic workers’ rights movement. What are they fighting for? Is there something special about this point in time that’s making the movement gain so much steam?

SHEILA BAPAT: You might say the birthplace of the movement was New York City, where in 2001, Ai-jen Poo—the head of the domestic workers movement and in many ways the key spokesperson—was working with domestic violence victims. She observed that many of these women were immigrants and domestic workers, and understood that if these women could provide for themselves and provide for their children, they wouldn’t be stuck in situations where they are being physically abused.

All of that energy helped start the domestic workers movement: ensuring fare wages, minimum-wage guarantees, and overtime guarantees for nannies, homecare workers, and housekeepers in the state of New York. These are workers who are often expected to work 12 to 18–hour days. Sometimes 24-hour days, sometimes three-day shifts at a time without any break. The movement is fighting to demonstrate that this is hard work and should be valued in our labor policy.

In practice, this means securing policy change at both a state and federal level. New York activists started working with organizers in California to do the same work. Now, after almost a decade of hard work, both states have a domestic workers bill of rights. Hawaii also has the domestic worker bill of rights, securing labor protection for the state’s domestic workers.

At the federal level, activists have done very well working with the Obama administration to change long-standing regulations that deny homecare workers overtime protection and minimum-wage protection.

That being said, there’s many states throughout the country that are raising their minimum wage—I think Delaware, Rhode Island, and West Virginia—but they’re still excluding homecare workers. I think that’s a testament to how far this movement still has to go to show that domestic work is real work and it needs to be included within minimum wage increases, just like everything else.

KJERSTIN: Why is it that domestic workers—unlike other professions—don’t have these protections already?

SHEILA: There’s many deeply systemic reasons for this that are rooted in racism and in sexism in the United States. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, which guaranteed workers minimum wage and overtime protection. We also passed the National Labor Relations Act around that time, which guaranteed many workers protection to collectively bargain and unionize and things like that. But both of these big, big laws (and many other New Deal labor protections that President Roosevelt enacted) actually excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers.

Domestic workers and agricultural workers were African American in that period, overwhelmingly so. And in order to pass this legislation President Roosevelt had to strike a deal with Southern legislators who did not want to grant equality and wage laws for African American workers. It’s deeply racist and it’s a legacy of slavery that we’ve excluded these deals from basic labor protection for so long.

It’s also a deeply sexist problem. These are sectors—nannies, homecare workers, housekeepers—that have historically been viewed as “women’s work” and therefore deemed of less economic value. We just assume, in the United States and abroad, that there will be someone to do all of the cooking, all of the cleaning, all of the care work for very little pay or no pay at all. It’s connected to the fact that there’s no paid family leave in the United States and in many other countries. The idea of having welfare protection and couples’ benefits for people who just get home and care for children is a radical idea. People are deemed “welfare queens” if they get any public benefits if all they’re doing is raising their children.

KJERSTIN: Let’s talk about the article you wrote in the new issue of Bitch, “Out from the Shadows,” which discussed the visibility of domestic workers on screen. Can you talk about what you wrote about?

SHEILA: First of all, that was an absolutely delightful article to write and I enjoyed it so much. It’s so fun to kind of talk about your favorite television shows and analyze them in light of the domestic workers movement. The piece basically argues that while we’re starting to see really impressive policy changes to labor laws in this country—ones that recognize the value of domestic work and to bring that work out of the shadows—we’re not seeing the same phenomenon in entertainment.

Often the stories told in entertainment industries are those of people who hire housekeepers and nannies and caregivers. We continue to see these repeated narrative of marginalized domestic workers, and I think it’s troubling and problematic that you can have a really great series that is enjoyable to watch, but that still tends to perpetuate the invisibility of domestic work. For example, Mad Men—Matthew Weiner has created a fabulous show and there’s an opportunity there for some very exciting and hard-hitting gender analysis—but I think it’s an opportunity missed in some ways in terms of class. Some would argue that the hyperbole of it is the point, but I still think it kind of fails to tell an important story about America in the 1960s.

KJERSTIN: We’ve talked about pop culture, but how can people change how they talk about and think about domestic work, so that we really start shifting the conversation and culture at large?

SHEILA: I think becoming educated about what domestic work is and why it has economic value is really important. Certainly, Part of the Family gets into a lot of those basics: Domestic work is essential to everyone’s ability to go out into the world and be productive in another environment.

It’s also talking about the issue in various ways. Barbara Ehrenreich has done an amazing amount of work in terms of talking about poverty and poverty alleviation. She describes it as, we need to start seeing domestic work as work because we don’t see a clean floor or a clean bathroom or a fed child or a bathed child as work. We see them as the absence of something being wrong. Whereas if there’s a dirty home or a dirty bathroom or children who are unruly and unkempt—that’s a problem, but we don’t see the solution as laborious.

There have also been attempts to influence popular culture and to leverage existing pop cultural icons. The Help, which came out in 2011 (and which we also talk about it in my article for Bitch), is one of the only major movies that focuses on the workers themselves rather than the employers. Certainly there were a lot of problems with that movie and the book, the perspective is certainly a bit problematic, but I think that the domestic workers movement has done a good job engaging with the actors who acted in that movie. Octavia Spencer has been supportive of the movement, and key women in pop culture like Amy Poehler have been supportive of the California domestic workers bill of rights. And that’s all really, really important in terms of shifting peoples minds and hearts and helping people understand that domestic labor is in fact actual work.

I think one of the things that I admire so much about the domestic workers movement is how many different approaches they take. It’s community organizing and leadership development of workers themselves. But it’s also regulatory changes, changing labor law and policy.  It’s an impressive amount of success for just a 13-year period.

SARAH MIRK: That was Sheila Bapat talking with Bitch magazine editor-in-chief Kjerstin Johnson. Sheila’s new book is called Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights. All during June, she’s doing readings of the book in San Francisco, LA, New York, DC, and Boston—go see her and support her work. You can see the whole tour calendar on her publisher’s website: I-G pub.com.

Today on Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast, we’ve been demystifying the wage gap. And what we’ve really found is that women aren’t paid less because of one company or one factor—who can’t blame the persistent disparity in payment between white people and people of color and men and women in this country on one specific factor. It’s a lot of very real systems and problems working in tandem that create widespread and really harmful economic discrimination. Luckily, there’s people like Lilly Ledbetter and Sarah Jaffe and Sheila Bapat working on our side. Let’s do this.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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