I’ve written a lot lately about my difficulties reconciling myself with my current entry-level salary, and some of the tricks I’ve used to make myself feel better about it. There is one part of my annoyance that I’ve never written about, because I don’t know how to untangle it, re-package it, and put a nice bow on it in a couple thousand words. It’s a knotty weird thing in the background of my work life. But, it’s something that I keep hearing exists in the worlds of many other women I know, too. I make a lot less than my husband, and it feels weird.
I wanted to put some of my recurrent thoughts about the pay differential out there, not because they are right or correct. You may find that one significant undercurrent to this post is that I don’t know what to think. Instead, I wanted to share because only very recently had I heard my thoughts and feelings reflected at all, perhaps because the intersections of real-world money, romantic love, and feminism grounded in society-wide statistics can’t help but be messy.
Do Degrees Even Matter?
The calculator tells me that I make 69% of what Mr. Steward makes. The gap widens if you include bonuses. The difference could be easily explained away by different professions. Except, Mr. Steward and I are in the same industry, with similar jobs, and fairly similar skill sets. I have an expensive, fancy liberal arts education and a Master’s degree in History. He has an A.S. and several more years office experience. While I don’t expect perfect parity (experience is obviously more valuable than a credential), it seems like things should balance out more than they do.
I know I’m not alone in that feeling. Tanja from Our Next Life finds herself in the same predicament, which she discusses in the second episode of the Fairer Cents podcast. Even in their more lucrative, specialized profession, her husband’s two extra years of experience (or, that is the reason he gives–Tanja has some misgivings on that point) contributes to a significant pay disparity, despite her fancier degrees.
Did a whole generation of women make a painful error overvaluing the importance of education? Did we educate ourselves with the “wrong” kind of degrees? Does the wrongness have something to do with the fact that we are women earning them?
When Your Salary Feels Like It’s “Extra”
One of the reasons I have previously shied away from talking about money, relationships, and feminism is because I never want it to come across as if I begrudge Mr. Steward anything. I am his biggest champion. I think he is an underpaid bargain for our company, given his current responsibilities. He earns and deserves everything he gets.
I’m also incredibly grateful that, despite some squabbles about discretionary spending, our money has been our money since we married. This is despite the fact that I was in graduate school, earning a pittance on my fellowship. His income let us live, freeing up my fellowship money to repay my undergraduate student loans.
The thing is, I also earn and deserve everything I get. Yet, my income has always felt like the “extra” money. This is not because of anything Mr. Steward has said or done, but because mathematically it has been true. Until I took a new job this year, my earnings have been almost exactly equal to daycare costs and what we put toward bigger financial goals like debt repayment, a house down payment, and investments. Those are all huge accomplishments, and things I am both proud and glad that I provided for our family. They are not, however, the bare-bones necessities of day-to-day survival.
I have a friend from church who is in a similar boat. She is a trained teacher who left the workforce to raise her children and earn an MLS. She is so accomplished, leading a large women’s ministry and writing a book. Now that her kids are in middle school, she is trying to find work that will allow her husband to pivot into a less stressful job. She found a position that matched her skill set and that seemed interesting. But, just as she was about to accept, her husband received a raise that was almost exactly equal to what her new job would have paid. She can’t help but feel like there’s no point.
In our household, this dynamic is changing. Mr. Steward is going back to school to finish his B.S., and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it feels nice to get to support him through it as he did me, even if our company is covering the bulk of the costs. We are also pretty much finished adding on new big financial obligations (i.e. house and children) that “eat up” Mr. Steward’s income increases.
Most importantly, though, I am close to the tipping point where my salary could support our family. The track I am trying to move into at work starts at $40,000 per year, which is around the magic number of our annual spending. I suspect that once we both make enough to support our family, my money will stop feeling like it’s simply “extra.” Instead, I can know we’re both contributing to our bare-bones living expenses and our broader goals.
But what about my friend? When the pay disparity seems insurmountably huge, how do you justify working without a clear vocation calling you to do so?
Feminism and “Winning” as a Woman
It feels like every day, I see a new article on how important it is for women to “win” at their careers. Statistically, there are good reasons for this. Women make, on average, a fraction of what men make. Women are wildly under-represented in the most high-paying fields and positions. Even how women communicate and negotiate (or not) can disadvantage us in the workplace. It’s important to be cognizant of these factors and demand what should be rightfully ours.
I also want to be a great role model for my daughters. I want my girls to understand how imperative it is that they be able to take care of themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to work outside of the home. They will have many examples of how being a stay-at-home-mom or partner can be a reasonable option in both our family and our church communities. But I want them to be able to make that choice on a footing where it can be a rational choice about what is best for them and their family. I do not want them to be forced into staying home, when it does not suit them, because of a lack of skills, opportunity, or workplace savvy.
Yet, the fact remains that I am a woman of moderate ambitions. I am absolutely willing to speak up for myself and my desires in the workplace, as I am doing with my promotion plan. It is important to me that I am compensated similarly to my male peers for the same work. But I am not as willing or eager to scale some of the corporate ladders as some of my male colleagues, or even my husband. I can see myself rapidly reaching the threshold where the trade of money for the added stress and time away from my family will not be worth it to me.
I view that as a deeply personal choice, one born of self-knowledge about what I want as an individual. After all, I already left one potentially lucrative, highly-competitive field (academia) not because I couldn’t hack it, but because I decided hacking it just wasn’t worth the cost to my personal happiness. I have no regrets about doing so. Isn’t that the point of feminism, to have the options to be able to choose to work to the degree and in the type of positions that suit me best, without having to worry about my “womanness” being a question?
I want to say yes. Yet, I often feel a slippage both in the articles I read and in my own mind, between the idea that feminism means we should get equal pay for equal, freely-chosen work, and a more macro-level feminism which seems to say we should not only be free but willing to become girlbosses and pursue the most pay and prestige possible in order to bring the status of women up in the world. The latter I deeply question, to the point that I’ve wondered if our willingness to measure the success of how much we, as women, are “winning” by pay and prestige isn’t buying into male-created metrics, even as we seek to overturn them.
Does my lack of a certain kind of career ambition make me a bad feminist? Am I part of the problem if I am willing to perpetually make less than my husband if it means I like my work better?