A Woman’s Worth

cast-of-the-berenstain-bears-5I recently got to be a fly on the wall at a strategy meeting for an organization that wants to create a new staff position. One of the board members outlined three scenarios for this employee: an entry-level option, part-time, with low pay and responsibilities; a mid-level position, 3/4-time, with slightly higher pay and much more responsibility; and a senior hire, full-time, with executive pay and responsibility.

“Or,” he said, “as we’ve taken to calling them, affectionately, Baby Bear, Mama Bear, and Papa Bear.”

Does anyone else see a problem here?

We all know the Baby Bears of American society, 22-year-olds who are willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year (see today’s NYTimes piece, “The No-Limits Job“). Someone else, we assume–parents, most likely–will pay the bills. Mama Bear, then, doesn’t quite need full-time work or a living wage. Her husband pays the mortgage. Maybe she’s a recent mother trying to get back into the workplace, something we all support. Papa Bear, presumably, is the breadwinner, an experienced executive who must be better compensated and bears more of the responsibilities at home.

Let’s set aside, for a minute, the ethics of paying young people and women lower wages for equal work. Is it even true that families rely on male heads of household? The research says no:

Okay. Now let’s say that Mama Bear does have a husband who works. Does he make enough to support the family without her income? Probably not, since over 50% of minimum-wage workers are in families making less than $40,000/year (Economic Policy Institute, 2012). If he does, we can almost guarantee that their family is white or Asian.

The man who was speaking is not a sexist or a racist. I don’t think he meant to suggest that “Mama Bear” would be an actual mama, or that “Papa Bear” would have to be male. Furthermore, the organization in question happens do a lot of work in support of women and girls. They would never consciously pay a woman less for equal work. They simply picked the most salient example from our society, and it happened to be gendered.

And that’s precisely the problem. Stereotypes of women’s work are so deeply embedded in our culture that the best among us remain unconscious of them. But by assuming that women can get by without a living wage, we further entrench the gender pay gap. We pay men more for the same jobs, even when those men are in traditionally female-dominated careers. When a woman does a job, we assume that it’s a source of discretionary, or optional, income; when a man does the same, we assume he is providing for his household and therefore deserves higher pay.

Which brings us back to Mama Bear. I cannot fault cash-strapped do-good organizations for seeking cost-effective ways to expand their operations. But by creating a position that only an affluent person could afford to take, this organization would reinforce the very same gender and racial wealth gaps that it theoretically opposes.

They mean well; I truly believe that. So do the rest of us. However, if we want to move beyond meaning well to actually doing good, we have to consider the Mama Bears of today’s economic reality–not just the ones in our collective imagination.