US must prioritize women’s labor needs to achieve workplace equity

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This year, New Zealand approved legislation to expand paid leave for parents who lose a pregnancy due to a miscarriage or stillbirth. According to the policy, parents can receive three days of paid leave before having to return to work or take additional time off without pay.

This kind of paid leave is the exception, not the rule. Only five other countries have a similar policy, and the United States is not among them.

The differences in legislation between the United States and countries like New Zealand illustrate the wildly different ways in which each prioritizes the well-being and needs of its citizens. The United States has a longstanding history of minimizing issues that affect families, especially mothers, such as family leave and child care, in an effort to continue oppressing women by keeping them out of the labor force, underpaying them and taking advantage of them as workers both in and out of the formal workplace. By failing to standardize basic necessities such as workplace child care and paid time off for caregiving, the structure of our society is setting working women up to struggle and fail. 

Currently, only nine states and Washington, D.C. require or will soon require paid family leave, all of which have varying benefits and requirements to qualify. While California is one of these states, there is still much more to be desired in its current legislation. Both Californian and federal legislation must institute more policies to aid women in the workplace, including free child care, sufficient miscarriage leave and guaranteed equal pay.

Due to the stress of unpaid leave or needing more time off than paid leave provides, a financial constraint is placed on women in particular. As they are more frequently the ones to take time off for caregiving, the lack of consistent support women receive in the workplace reinforces the notion that they are dispensable.

Although there has been some progress within our culture in terms of gender equality, we are still by no means equal, especially when it comes to compensation. Considering the current state of the uncontrolled gender pay gap — women earn $0.82 for every dollar a man receives, and that disparity becomes even greater for women of color — some may conclude that it makes financial sense for the partner earning less to stay home and care for the family.

Combining the overall difference in earnings with the historical perspective that women are the primary caregivers, it is not surprising that many women have been forced to give up their working lives to ensure the health and happiness of their families. Perhaps if women were consistently paid the same as men, they would feel less inclined to be the default choice for staying home to perform child care

Moreover, caregiving work in general, both professionally and domestically, is typically less valued than other professions due to its gendered nature. Silvia Federici, an extremely influential socialist feminist and theorist of domestic labor, proposes that domestic labor, also referred to as reproductive labor, is unwaged labor. Research indicates that if women in the United States made minimum wage for their domestic labor in 2019, they would have earned $1.5 trillion.

Not only do many women work full-time jobs, but they essentially work a second shift as laborers within their own homes, and this work, of course, goes uncompensated. With women ultimately doing twice the amount of work and earning less than their male counterparts, it seems that the United States does not value women’s contributions both in and out of the formal work environment. 

Some may argue that monetizing reproductive labor is not a worthwhile endeavor because it is not “real work.” However, reproductive labor is the work that is essential for daily life to function. As such work is a necessity, it should be valued, which means compensating those who perform it.

Despite the fundamental nature of reproductive labor, the United States as a capitalist system is deeply rooted and reliant on the exploitation of women and the working class in order to maintain its existence. Without taking advantage of female workers, American capitalism would fail to sustain some of its defining characteristics, such as promoting substandard working conditions and limiting resources of those in need.

As more and more women are entering the labor force, it is imperative that they are provided with resources that facilitate their success and social mobility. While capitalism in the United States has normalized the exploitation of women and their work in such a way that at times it seems impossible to imagine a different system, we must nevertheless challenge that narrative.

Women and reproductive laborers must be compensated accordingly, and workers across all states must have consistent access to benefits such as free child care and reasonable family leave so that they may achieve an equitable working experience. While it may not be possible to prioritize these labor needs at the federal level, all state governments — even those that have existing but insufficient policies, such as California — must push for public policies that guarantee these benefits.

Savanna Kennedy is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in conservation and resource studies.