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The fight to close the time gap for women

March 8 is International Women’s Day. Though it’s been observed for over a century, it has become more popular and more political in the United States in recent years. It’s apt that this year International Women’s Day coincides with daylight savings time, the day we all lose an hour, because the relationship of women to time is a primary cause of gender inequality.

Compared to men, women in the U.S. spend two hours more per day on unpaid care work, including domestic chores, looking after children and providing care to the sick and elderly. That’s 95 extra eight-hour workdays, or nearly five months of work — for free — each year. 

Women doing paid work don’t cut back on unpaid labor. Instead, they extend their working day. In other words, women work more and make less; the cost of unpaid labor comes to one and a half-trillion dollars less per year. To “have it all,” we’re sacrificing our well-being and our sleep, while also forgoing the wealth.

We can go into the workforce intending to “lean in,” but it’s not that easy. We hear a lot about flexibility being the answer to working mothers’ struggles, and that it can increase productivity and save companies money. But flexibility only works when it’s accessible and truly valued. People of all genders face serious career harm due to flexibility bias — they’re shunted to lower-value and lower-responsibility roles, or forced out of a job entirely. Lower-income salaried workers and many hourly workers don’t even have the option.

The cost of taking a break from paid work is high and getting higher. A recent study found that women who took a single year off between 2001 and 2015 earned 39 percent less over 15 years. That’s more than triple the cost for women who did the same back in the 1970s. 

So why do women make this “choice?” Lots of reasons. Cisgender men have more to lose due to the pay gap. With child care so expensive and long-term care options in free fall, it makes economic sense for many women to retreat from the workplace to conserve more money for their families That’s arguably not a choice. And for single parents, there’s no question of choice. They’re all they’ve got.

Men aren’t always offered paid leave. But men who have leave don’t take it as much. Too often, men don’t formalize flexible arrangements, while women are unequally pushed toward flexibility. And while men in relationships with women expect them to work outside the home, they don’t do the unpaid work to make up the gap. Why would they, when the cost is so high and they have options?

Meanwhile, the time gap is getting worse. Women spend more time than ever in the workforce. We all do. Extended hours are on the rise, and culture has shifted to give greater rewards for a longer workweek, which is increasingly important as wages stay flat. That means your career suffers not only for flexibility during the traditional workday, but also for not being reachable 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. 

The expectation to sacrifice time extends to work tasks; one study found women are seen as selfish if they don’t stay late to complete projects, while men are not. Another showed that women (and particularly women of color) are given more valueless tasks like organizing parties and taking meeting notes (tellingly, this is called “housework”). 

The flip side of expecting low-value work is less expectation to drive high value. While men are promoted on potential, women are promoted on achievement. When you’re held to a “prove your worth” standard, you advance more slowly. When you advance more slowly, you have less power to change the culture. 

So the cycle continues, and its effects are severe. The time gap, and the pay gap, are key contributors to the gender wealth disparity. On average, women have only 32 cents for every dollar a cisgender white man has. Black and Latinx women have less than one penny. That one and a half-trillion dollars could really help.

There are things we can do personally to fight time discrimination. Like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, we can reclaim our time when it’s disrespected. If we can afford it, we can outsource care work and deal with the guilt and judgment that come with that choice. We can talk to the people who aren’t pulling their weight at home. We can make unpaid labor visible all year long, not just on Mother’s Day. 

But this cycle isn’t the effect of individual choice. It’s a sign of an infrastructure in crisis. So we need to make infrastructural changes if we ever want to see any real difference.

Paid family leave should be a given. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t have it.  But it will not work until everyone, of all genders, is incentivized to take it. 

Our care infrastructure is broken. Oxfam estimates that if the richest 1 percent paid half a percent extra tax on their wealth for 10 years, we could create 117 million care jobs. Businesses should contribute to building a system that will drive employee productivity.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, which doesn’t go far enough, has been blocked in the Senate multiple times — talk about wasting time. We also need to set federal standards for businesses around flexibility and standards for evaluation and promotion.

The clock has stopped for the pay gap — it might not close for 232 years. The advancement of women in the workplace has stalled. Systematically changing how we treat and value unpaid labor is the only way to “spring forward” to true equality. 

Sallie L. Krawcheck is the CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, a digital financial adviser for women launched in 2016. She is a former CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Smith Barney.

Tags civil rights Equal pay equal rights International Women's Day Maxine Waters pay gap

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