I’m a big fan of The Fairer Cents, a podcast hosted by Tanja Hester and Kara Perez and dedicated to all things women and money. A recent episode titled “Financial Feminism” got me thinking. Tanja and Kara talk about all kinds of elements they’d consider under that header and much of the episode concerns things like wage gaps, the illusion many have that those who don’t get certain salaries simply aren’t working as hard as themselves, and the child penalty. But I think we should think even broader about financial feminism: let’s talk about “pink collar” work.
“Pink Collar” is a term that refers to work that is predominantly done by women. Nursing, social work, and teaching are some examples, as well as office administrative staff (think those we once called secretaries) and work with children. The thing about pink collar occupations is that they almost always pay poorly, or at least far less than non-pink-collar occupations, and they’re almost all helping professions in one capacity or another.
There are plenty of excuses for why pink collar workers are generally underpaid, but I’ve done a lot of research in this area (it’s the foundation of my own work) and most of the time there’s a historical basis for it. It makes a tidy circle. Ready?
Then there’s an additional layer:
And that chart, combined with the first one, suggests that as a society we do not value professions that help others nearly as much as we value those that, for example, exist to make money in and of themselves. Historically, on the ground work in social welfare work was done by women on a volunteer basis; as fields like that sought to become paid arenas of expertise, they repeatedly hit the same walls. People couldn’t conceive of paying for that expertise because it was done by women, and long done for free.
Social work in particular, like teaching and other fields, actively sought to recruit men to do the work so that their claims to expertise and to dollars would be more acceptable. But unsurprisingly, men largely refused to join those fields. They gave two reasons, most often: the work was women’s work, and it was too underpaid.
But can’t we blame income streams?
Now because helping fields don’t have a clear income stream–to stick with the example of social work, it grew initially out of working with poor people in American cities–it’s easy to explain the phenomenon away. Bankers have an obvious source of income, but who pays to labor with those without disposable income? It’s easy to say see, it’s not about sexism there, it’s about the nature of nonprofits, combined with the stigma only now starting to ease of working with mental health practitioners (I’ve had this conversation more than once). But here’s the thing: hospitals are also non profits, and though nursing is usually now very well-compensated, it wasn’t always. Consider what nurses are paid versus doctors, though both have a high level of expertise and expectation. Doctors, however, have historically been male, and our society decided long ago that it was happy to find ways to pay them in a nonprofit situation.
Fun fact: do you know what helped raise nurses’ salaries? The influx of men into the field. That’s right. But more importantly, when men do “women’s work” they’re generally better compensated for doing so. Male nurses are the tip of that iceberg.
Another fun fact: many nonprofit, pink collar occupations are indeed mostly staffed by women but the leadership level is often disproportionately male. They’re funneled much more quickly through the “grunt work” that most of the employees in whatever given organization and reach leadership levels at speeds that outpace women significantly, a phenomenon known as the glass escalator. Are men just better workers? No. The problem is both the pink collar in the first place, with all of its financial baggage, and the institution of wage gaps and rapid executive paths in those fields to benefit men.
At the core, what we’re largely talking about is status of occupations and workers as those categories intersect with sex and gender. Status is a financial feminist issue, and it’s entirely bound up with sex-and-gender stratified occupations.