There are many forms of income inequality in America. Racism and sexism are evident in the compensation women and people of color receive in comparison to their white counterparts. I am baffled by the conservative push to indoctrinate children with the idea that we are all equal and that society is a fair game that, if played correctly, they can succeed in. For me, this was a bright and cheery message that made me happy and proud of humanity as a child, but it makes the painful truth of reality that much harder to swallow once you have to face it as an adult. I feel continuously confronted by the juxtaposition of the things I was raised for half my life to believe and what I experience as a woman.
I think there are a couple reasons why conservatives fight so vehemently for this picturesque worldview to be the only one our children are exposed to. Firstly, they truly believe it themselves. I’ve always thought of conservatives as primarily wealthy or well off people. They desperately want to believe that their good fortune is a direct reflection of their hard work and value to society. “I earned my place.” so on and so forth. It makes them feel badly about themselves to consider that they had a leg up compared to others. The poor conservatives that dominate my small area of the country are a bit more complicated to explain. I have to assume that despite their personal struggles, they want to believe that if they only work hard enough, they too can be wealthy and successful someday. On the other hand, perhaps its a subconscious form of self-hatred. Maybe they believe that they deserve the pitiful lot they’ve gotten in life through there own failings and flaws. It’s almost harder to accept that our society simply isn’t fair.
Secondly, I think that the data reflecting the income inequality can be confusing and misleading depending on what factors you choose to look at. For instance, not every job comes right out and pays women and people of color a lower wage for the same position. However, these populations are far less likely to be hired, promoted, receive raises, and move up in the hierarchy of their company. Whether this be through implicit or explicit bias is somewhat irrelevant. The fact is that people are suffering because of it. In addition to that, fields that are primarily women dominated are some of the lowest paying fields whereas male dominated fields tend to be the highest paid. Shockingly enough you can actually observe this trend. As the composition of gender within a field changes, so does the pay rate.
What fields women excel in and find meaningful are viewed more negatively and given less value by society, despite the actual necessity and importance of these careers. I don’t think anyone would argue that we don’t need social workers, child care, or teachers to be part of our society. In fact, I would say people would place these fields above things like CEOs, marketing executives, stock brokers, and lawyers in terms of importance. At least, I would. While these other, higher paying jobs are important, I don’t see them as the backbone of our society in the way a teacher is.
I think one of the saddest aspects of this dilemma is that it doesn’t seem to have any hope of correcting itself through the free market. If women (or people in general) began to avoid these jobs, perhaps they would begin to raise the pay and benefits in order to attract more people. They don’t have to, however, because for the most part, I think the people working these jobs do it because they see the inherent value in them. No one that’s a teacher or a social worker is doing it for the money. They are doing it for the children and disadvantaged populations that they serve. Compassion and self-sacrifice are the hallmarks of these careers.
Perhaps even more upsetting than that, I’m not sure things would get better for society overall if these jobs suddenly became the highest paying. I definitely would hate to see people in these fields doing it solely for the money. Imagine schools filled with teachers that didn’t even care about their students or the quality and value of their work. Not to say there aren’t any teacher like this even now, but I think there would be far more if it was a way to get rich. Although it still might be nice if they would at least pay these workers enough to live and to pay for the schooling required to obtain the job in the first place.
With that said, I really don’t have a solution to these egregious injustices that permeate our society and workforce. I just want anyone reading this to know that they shouldn’t feel badly about being paid so little for whatever work they might be doing. One of the important things we’ve learned from the pandemic is that “essential” workers are also some of the most underpaid. So while you might be internalizing the idea that what you do doesn’t matter or isn’t difficult due to the number staring back at you from your paycheck, don’t be fooled. What you do does matter. Don’t fall into the trap of believing we are fairly compensated for our time and labor. In the same vein, don’t assume you are better than anyone earning less than you either.
The judge that sits behind the desk in his ornate courtroom may hand down the sentences to the perpetrators kids disclose about, but the people I work with are the ones that have compiled the evidence used against them that was needed to reach that conviction. Who do you believe has helped the child more in the end, the prosecuting attorney or the criminally underpaid therapist that has helped them cope with and navigate their trauma for years after the fact? Even if you believe their contributions are equal, one makes the same amount in one year that the other makes in one week. Even so, take pride in all that you do to contribute to your community whether you work as a waitress or as a doctor. Neither person has more value or is more worthy of their place in society than the other.