Does Minnesota Value Women’s Work? What the Data Shows

Last spring, the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy (CWGPP) at the University of Minnesota released two reports on gender and labor in Minnesota: “Who Cares?” about unpaid care work, and “Who Earns?” about gender and employment. Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Dr. Christina Ewig, director of the center, and Youngmin Chu, doctoral student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, about their research and findings.

What is causing the gender wage gap in Minnesota?

Youngmin Chu: Usually economists attribute the wage gap to a combination of factors: education, occupational segregation [meaning there is a disproportionate number of women working in lower-wage industries such as child care and food service], and work experience. But after accounting for all these factors, we found that there is a remaining gap, which we attribute to gender bias and discrimination.

There is a lot of research on the devaluation of women’s work. Even when women get into the male-dominated, highly paid occupations such as tech — we see the [average wage of that] occupation decrease. People begin to devalue the work because of the presence of women and women of color — [researchers call that process] wage feminization.

Oftentimes [people believe the singular solution to the wage gap is about getting more] women in STEM or other high-paying sectors. That will help, but in addition to that, our society has to recognize women’s work as important and valuable.

Christina Ewig: One of the most disturbing things about the report findings is the fact that we have seen very little change in the gender wage gap in Minnesota since the report began tracking it in 2011.

It used to be that [a gender disparity in] education was an important component of the wage gap, but that is no longer the case. Sixty percent of bachelor’s degrees go to women in the U.S. Unionization is also fairly even between women and men.

[Instead] what accounts for almost half of the wage gap is the concentration of women, and especially women of color, in certain low-wage occupations, and we don’t see the wages for those historically low-wage occupations increasing.

The gap in work experience is mainly due to caregiving; women are primarily the ones who take time out or work part time to care for children or the elderly. If you have holes in your career path, or if you’re working part time, you don’t get the same kind of wage gains.

YC: I am seeing some research trying to blame women for their lower wages by referencing their psychology. Women are usually socialized to be nice and passive, which plays a role [during salary negotiations]. [Even so], we should stop blaming women and instead blame employers who do not have wage transparency or are not paying the same wage to women and men who are doing the same work.

CE: It’s part of this culture of blaming women, saying it’s your individual problem that you didn’t ask for more. We do know from research that women tend to ask less because of that socialization process that Youngmin has laid out, but we also know that when they do negotiate hard, they often experience backlash. [The level of backlash can be] different depending upon the combined race and gender of the worker. More research needs to be done with an intersectional perspective.

The report indicates that unpaid care work contributes $88.1 billion to the state GDP. It’s the first time anyone has calculated that number. How was it calculated, and what does it tell us about Minnesota’s economy?

YC: We calculated the figure using the American Time Use Survey. We multiplied the average number of hours women and men reported doing unpaid work per day with the hourly wage of private household workers in Minnesota, calculated the annual number, and multiplied that with the Minnesota population aged 18 and over. This is a minimum figure for the monetary value; we only included finished services, not the products that result from unpaid work such as meals.

CE: For comparison, manufacturing accounts for $48 billion of the Minnesota GDP.

Soon after economists first came up with the idea for the GDP and what components should be included in it, feminist economists said, “The folks who are earning money that is included in the GDP wouldn’t be able to do that if they didn’t have breakfast before they left the house, if they didn’t know that their kids were safe before they left,” and so on. While changing the actual way GDP is calculated is a big challenge given how ingrained the current measure is, more countries have begun to measure unpaid care through time use surveys and have made policy changes as a result — Uruguay is one example. So we thought, “Why not here in Minnesota?”

Hopefully a monetary value can help those who resist doing unpaid household and child care work to see the value in it.

Our other hope is that this number could help policymakers support [unpaid labor]. During the last legislative session, the passage of paid family leave and paid sick time [was a great first step]. More can be done. Like roads and bridges, care work is super important for a productive economy.

How does this research offer a way forward to change culture within larger systems or at the household level?

YC: Flexibility with work hours and predictable scheduling would help caregivers [of all genders] balance work and family responsibilities.

CE: Father’s leave would improve the paid leave legislation that was recently passed in Minnesota, [including a] built- in incentive for fathers to take that leave. In other countries when fathers take leave, [research has shown that] they do more care work long term after they return to the workforce.

I think when it comes to the wage gap, it’s a little harder. Occupational segregation is really stubborn. In Minnesota we mandate that there’s equal pay for equal work in the public sector to make sure that men and women are paid comparable wages. That could be expanded to the private sector. Another idea is that we could expand the Equal Pay Certificate that we have for large companies that have contracts with the state and give smaller companies an incentive.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the reports that you want readers to be aware of?

YC: One thing for me was paid care work. I’m studying the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which provides labor protection to domestic workers. It has passed in 10 states, but not Minnesota. It provides minimum wage and requires sick leave and other benefits. Domestic workers are a vulnerable population. They suffer from abuse, wage theft, and sexual harassment. Recognizing their labor as more valuable would contribute to [a cultural] recognition of [family-level] unpaid labor as valuable.

CE: Women who are higher income can afford to purchase support to do less care work in their household. Those are the domestic workers that Youngmin is studying. Child care workers are often among the very lowest paid, and are disproportionately women of color.

Another report we have is about direct care workers in the health care field, who are among the lowest-paid workers. We have a major shortage causing problems in nursing homes across the state; those workers are leaving because of low wages and poor working conditions.