October 24, 1975. 90% of the women in Iceland went on strike. No work. No cooking. No shopping. No cleaning. No caring for children. Almost 25,000 women assembled in the capital city of Reykjavik in protest of economic inequality of women. The impact was enormous. It paralyzed the economy, and put the tiny nation of Iceland at the forefront of the fight for gender inequality. This year, on the 41st anniversary of Women’s Day Out, Icelandic women left work at 2:38 PM in protest of the 14% wage gap. The rationale was that after 2:38, women effectively work for free, while their male counterparts still get paid.
In developed nations, women produce slightly less than 40% of GDP. However, if unpaid childcare and house work are included (calculated using standard rates for paid labor), women produce more than half GDP. Yet despite the obvious importance of women’s work to a nation’s financial stability, women globally are still paid less than men. The UK passed its Equal Pay Act in the early 1970s, but there is still a 13.9% difference between the earnings of British men and their female counterparts. Across the E.U., women earn an average of 16.4% less than men, and in Australia and New Zealand, the gap hovers at close to 15%. The US performs worst of all developed nations, with a wage gap of about 22%.
Women’s participation in the American labor force has been steadily increasing over the last three decades, and in the US, women account for nearly 50% of the labor force. Yet the gender gap persists. Education, often touted as the great equalizer, quite ironically widens the gap. A United Nations report finds that “After accounting for gender differences in education, the size of the [adjusted] pay gap actually increased, indicating that rising female education has not been fully or equally rewarded in the labour market.” Indeed, this recent article in Fortune magazine tracks disparity of income among MBA grads, and finds, shockingly, that the lifetime earnings gap for women who hold MBAs is $400K when compared to men who hold the same degrees.
So if it’s not education or experience that contributes to economic inequality, what could it be? I would argue that it’s the whole idea of “Women’s Work,” which persists, albeit veiled, in every single function of society. Women’s economic worth is rooted in unpaid, unrecognized domestic labor. Women perform 2.5 times more household labor than men. This disparity provides the foundation for discrimination against women. It is assumed that female employees will require more time off children arrive, or that their work will be impacted when elder care issues arise. Legal or not, this foments the main basis of the glass ceiling and keeps women stuck in lower paid, part-time jobs—also known as the sticky floor.
What if American women took a Day Off? What if we took a day where we refused to do any work, paid or unpaid? A crisis would ensue. Our government and our businesses would shut down. Airplanes would be grounded, financial markets would steeply decline, manufacturing would grind to a halt, and children would go hungry. Maybe that’s exactly what we need to do, to get policymakers of both genders to understand that Women’s Work is just as valuable as men’s.