As Long As We Continue To Devalue Caregivers, The Pay Gap Will Endure

What most of us don't understand about the gender pay gap.

Gender Pay gap visualspace, breeze393 | Canva

A CEO I know recently proclaimed on LinkedIn that at his company, “there is no gender wage gap.”

He went on to outline the process his company used to close the gap, which is very similar to the process we’ve followed at my own company. The intention is to ensure that no man on staff makes a higher salary than a female coworker with comparable skills and industry experience.

If this is how we define the gender pay gap, my company can also confidently proclaim that we don’t have one. That’s because we set our salaries according to market value and publish salary ranges in our job postings. We’re not going to go above this range just because someone asks, and we’re not going to go below it just because someone doesn’t ask.


Each year, we reevaluate all team members’ job descriptions, research the current market value, which can fluctuate year to year, and make adjustments accordingly. If the market value dips, we’re not going to give a team member a pay cut — that would feel crummy! But if it increases for a specific role, we’ll look at adjusting the salary accordingly so that each team member is as close to 50% of the market value as possible.

My company is a worker-owned cooperative, and 11 of our 16 staff members, including me, are co-owners. All co-owners, over 50% of the company, know exactly how much everyone else makes. Over 50% of the company is involved in setting and approving annual raises and salary adjustments. While I hope to explore full salary transparency in the coming years, even now, it would be hard for us to get away with a gender pay gap even if we tried.


So, should we all give ourselves big pats on the back and congratulate one another? Box, checked. Problem, solved. All in a day’s work.

Unfortunately, no. Because here’s the thing: We still have a gender pay gap. The aforementioned CEO’s company still has a gender pay gap. Not because any woman on either of our teams is making less than a man with comparable skills and industry experience. It’s because the “market value” we use to inform our pay scales is far from the objective holy grail it’s sometimes made out to be. The market is rife with gender biases of its own.

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I understand the logic behind setting salaries according to market value. It gives companies a shared barometer, an external range that has nothing to do with whether a prospective employee was, or wasn’t, taught how to negotiate. By using the market value to offer salaries comparable to what a prospective or current employee may find elsewhere, companies can also better attract and retain talent.


But let’s also be honest with ourselves about who is driving the market. Who decides which jobs are “worth more” than other jobs? Who decides which industries are more “economically valuable?”

By and large, the answer is “men.” No, not a group of men sitting in a back room smoking cigars. (Well, maybe… who knows?) But historically, the economy has largely been viewed as a male-driven engine, with women occasionally doing cute helper jobs because they want a little extra pin money, or because they couldn’t find a man to support them.

Even though 75% of women now work outside the home, 16 of the country’s 20 top-paying jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are dominated by men. Fourteen of the 20 lowest-paying jobs are dominated by women.


This is not a coincidence.

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The entire notion of “market value” — that is, of some jobs being more “economically valuable” than others — is one that deserves some serious re-examination. Sometimes, we forget that the economy is something we just made up. Yes, it has become the unpredictable beast that often resists our efforts to tame it, but it’s a beast of our invention.

That’s all to say that the so-called “value” of a job has little basis in objective criteria. Sure, some jobs require more education or training than others, but when you look at the vast array of jobs that require a college degree, I’m hard-pressed to understand why, for instance, a computer and information systems manager makes an average annual salary that is 252% more than the average salary of an elementary school teacher.


Let’s be honest — market values reflect human values. 

A compelling argument could be made, for instance, that the tech sector is a valuable economic driver. An equally compelling argument could be made that the tech sector has decimated urban economies for the rest of us — my hometown of San Francisco being chief among them. The inherent economic worth of a job or sector is largely dependent on your metrics, and your metrics are largely dependent on your values.

As long as a small group of wealthy investors — mostly male, mostly white — want to keep throwing money at the tech sector, the programmer in the Zoom box next to me is going to have a job with higher market value than my own.

Jobs with high social value — for instance, in the education and care industries — have been deemed by these same wealthy investors as “unprofitable,” even though investing in these industries reaps well-proven long-term economic rewards. Even in the short term, everyone knows that teachers and childcare providers enable a sizable percentage of the workforce to do their jobs. What happens when our access to teachers and childcare providers disappears? See: the economic mess that was 2020.


Yet the market value for jobs in these industries is depressingly low. The average childcare provider, who works in an industry that is 94% female, made $27,490 in 2022. If I were to employ childcare providers and pay at the high end of “market value,” I wouldn’t even be paying a living wage.

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Even if your company doesn’t directly employ care providers, our steadfast refusal to invest in this industry has ripple effects.

It’s not only the paltry wages we give our childcare providers that hold women back. It’s also how we pay them. While governments in other high-income countries contribute an average of $14,000 per year for a toddler’s care, the United States contributes $500. Yes, you read that right. Families foot the rest, which for one child in daycare averages around $12,000 per year.


For many parents, particularly those with more than one child, it makes more financial sense for one parent to stay at home than it does to work full-time.

If you can afford, or barely afford, childcare, the viability of working is contingent on finding a viable daycare option. Over half the population now lives in a childcare desert, meaning there are either no childcare providers or there are more than three times as many children as licensed childcare slots.

Our childcare system was in crisis before COVID-19, and it’s in even more dire straits now. Who is picking up the slack? Women, of course — hindering their earning potential. 

Stressed mom working from home Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock


While the share of stay-at-home dads has risen modestly over the years, up to 7% in 2018 from 4% in 1989, a steady one in four women are still stay-at-home mothers.

Throughout their careers, women — and particularly mothers — are more likely to sacrifice paid labor for unpaid labor. Over 40% of women workers, twice the percentage of men, report at least a year with no earnings, and 96% of fathers with jobs work full time, compared to 78% of employed mothers.

Taking time off work to fill in childcare gaps has financial implications that go far beyond the actual missed hours or days. When we factor “job experience” into our salary structures but entirely dismiss the experience gained by raising small humans because we don’t consider childcare a “job,” women are more likely to get stuck with lower salaries. As the American Association of University Women points out, “For women who took just one year off from work, their annual earnings were 39% lower than women who worked all 15 years between 2001 and 2015.”


According to the World Economic Forum, “Studies have shown the ‘motherhood penalty’ makes up 80% of the gender pay gap” and the Harvard Kennedy School reports that “the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers could be larger than the pay gap between men and women.”

When we talk about the gender pay gap, we rarely talk about the lack of affordable and accessible childcare, nor do we talk about the persistent devaluation of female-dominated industries. Think about where you work, and ask yourself some key questions:

  • Regardless of the particular gender makeup at your company, are employees in jobs typically dominated by males making more money than employees in jobs typically dominated by females? Then your company is contributing to the gender pay gap.
  • Do you profit from the labor of employees who rely on underpaid care providers to do their work? Then your company is contributing to the gender pay gap.
  • Are there more women than men who are working fewer hours because they need the time to piece together childcare? Then your company is contributing to the gender pay gap.
  • Do women take longer unpaid or partially paid parental leave than men? Then your company is contributing to the gender pay gap.
  • Do more women than men leave your company altogether after having a child? Then your company is contributing to the gender pay gap.

Here’s a related set of questions to ask:

  • Does your company take proactive steps to ensure that employees in lower-paying jobs typically dominated by females are paid above market value?
  • Does your company offer subsidized daycare services for its employees? Are all employees guaranteed a daycare spot, and does your company pay childcare providers a living wage?
  • Do daycare hours correspond to a full-time work schedule? Or, better put, are the hours you ask of all employees built around the needs of those who also have caregiving responsibilities?
  • Does your company offer fully paid parental leave for mothers and fathers? Are fathers proactively encouraged to take it?
  • Does your company factor caregiving into the years of “experience” that help to determine an employee’s salary?

I don’t know of a single company that can answer “yes” to all these questions — my own included. And while we can’t expect companies alone to solve our country’s thorniest social inequities, let’s make sure we’re not celebrating prematurely. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the hard work that still needs to be done.


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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.