This week, we’re launching a three-part blog series called “Strong Women, Strong Michigan.” We all know and love women in our lives, and it’s no secret that women are the backbone of communities. Still, women continue to face unique barriers to economic security and full participation in our society. Over the course of three blog posts, we’ll be taking a deeper look at how women in Michigan are doing and how policies can strengthen outcomes among women in the realms of housing, employment, economic prosperity and political participation. Our first blog looks at women participating in the labor force and how a persistent wage gap contributes to levels of poverty among families.
Growing up, my mother used to regale my sister and me with stories of odd jobs she held throughout her twenties and thirties. My sister and I came to call her “Renaissance Woman” because she worked all sorts of gigs and picked up very specific skills like making different kinds of pasta from scratch, operating a telephone switchboard, and safely operating a forklift. She even graduated from clown school in the 1980’s. Yes, you read that correctly. My mother learned to be a professional clown. Well into my elementary school years, my mom still booked birthday parties on the weekends as “Panchita,” the friendly clown who could perform magic tricks and wore big red and blue clown shoes she loved to prance around in. My sister and I were even pulled into her gigs as her little clown assistants. Wigs and all.
Despite the fun we had learning about and even participating in my mom’s work, it wasn’t until we were teenagers that we realized that in all of those jobs, our mother had hardly ever earned more than minimum wage. She was chronically underpaid and overworked. Still, she managed to put food on the table and pay for our school supplies. My mom is and always will be my real-life superhero and I’m sure your mom is yours as well. I think we can all agree that women’s work is invaluable. Women’s work keeps families afloat and drives entire economies. Women deliver hundreds of hours in paid and unpaid labor, and yet, they still aren’t compensated fairly for what they contribute to society.
A new report card from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research gives Michigan a “C” grade for how women are doing in the realm of employment and opportunity. For starters, it’s no secret that a persistent gender pay gap hurts everyone. Unfortunately, women in Michigan still don’t earn the same as men doing the same work. Michigan women who work full time year round make 80 cents on the dollar compared with men who work full-time year round. If working women in Michigan earned as much as comparable men, their poverty rate would drop by half, and the poverty rate among working, single mothers would drop by more than half. That’s astonishing. A significant share of women could obtain economic security if only they were paid fairly. If the current trend continues, women in Michigan won’t see equal pay until the year 2084 (WAIT WHAT??). Full stop. I’ll be 91. What’s even more frustrating is how racism plays a role in how the gender pay gap is felt among women of different racial and ethnic identities. Median annual earnings for White women in Michigan are $40,076 compared to $33,026 among Black women, $30,318 among Hispanic or Latinx women and $50,443 among Asian women. These differences can spell out significant differences in long term outcomes among women and their families. Lower earnings mean a lower likelihood of owning a home, building wealth and being healthy.
One good bit of news is that a growing share of women today are in managerial or professional occupations. These positions often have higher wages and employment benefits. Also, a larger share of women are starting their own businesses. 37% of women were business owners in 2012 compared to 30.4% in 2007. The bad news? Too many other women are still employed in low-wage jobs that don’t pay a livable wage; 30.2% to be exact. The Institute’s report card ranks Michigan 27th nationally for the share of women in poverty. Approximately 16% of women in the state ages 18 and older are experiencing poverty. That’s approximately 1.3 million women who are struggling financially.
So it’s clear, we have a long way to go before we can say women in Michigan are being treated equally in the realm of employment and opportunity. There are plenty of solutions. One is raising the minimum wage, and sticking to it. Another is compensating women equally for their work. A third is strengthening programs that support working women like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). I don’t know about you, but I’d really like to see progress before 2084.
My mom is nearing retirement age, but she still works part-time. Every day she wakes ups, eats a quick breakfast and arrives to work early to get a head start on the work for the day. She’s joined by millions of women in Michigan who like her, have also worked odd jobs, are modern renaissance women themselves, and continue to work almost every day. Women’s work is valuable. It’s time our policies reflect that truth.