This week we learned just how awesome the players who make up the US women’s soccer team are: they played with immense discipline and relentless energy throughout this year’s World Cup. The lovely star midfielder Megan Rapinoe generated headlines like “Purple-Haired Lesbian Goddess Flattens France Like a Crêpe.” She also declared that if the women’s team won, the players would not “go to the fucking White House,” and, on Twitter, accepted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s invitation for her team to visit her office instead. When they finally beat the Netherlands — also a terrific team — 2–0, a chant went up in the stands, “Equal pay!”
That was a reference to the team’s ongoing lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, which has been paying its players less than those on the US men’s team for years, even though the women’s team is the better performer by far. It was glorious to see a group of women who have faced discrimination prove their worth before the entire world. One hopes their employer is embarrassed, and that the players will win this fight as decisively as they crushed the talented Dutch on Sunday.
The US women’s team has been amazing for years, and their experience shows that being amazing is not an effective route to equality. But women shouldn’t have to be this awesome to be paid as well as men. You may have noticed that the players on the US men’s team are not unique in their failure to be spectacular. Most men are just okay at their jobs. Women shouldn’t have to be any better. Megan Rapinoe and her teammates are inspiring examples of what some humans can achieve. But for their demands for equal pay to be taken seriously, women should not have to be the best in the world at what they do, nor must they look amazing in bathing suits. The rest of us losers deserve equal pay, too.
Right now, the median US woman worker makes 83 cents for every dollar earned by her male counterpart. Black and Latina women workers make 65 and 59 cents for every white male dollar, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Gender pay gaps exist all over the world and in every industry. International women’s day protests have sometimes dramatized this, with women in Iceland in 2017, for example, walking off the job at 2:38 PM, the point during the year at which women begin working for free, if the pay gap is taken into account.
We can’t resolve the issue of equal pay by becoming goddesses. This is sad for Megan Rapinoe, but probably lucky for the rest of us. We know what can actually help reduce gender pay gaps. We could pay male workers less, obviously an unacceptable strategy; the decline in many male workers’ earning power is one of the reasons our pay gap in the United States isn’t as wide as it used to be, but no one gains from that state of affairs. Better solutions include unions and a robust public sector, both of which run counter to the current drift of US policy.
Women workers in the United States who are union members make, on average, 94 cents on every male union member’s dollar, compared to the 78 cents nonunion women workers make on nonunion male colleagues’ dollars, according to the EPI. South Korea has the biggest gender pay gap in the OECD, and one of the lowest rates of union density (10 percent). Many of the countries with relatively low gender wage gaps are heavily unionized, like Luxembourg, Belgium, and Denmark, according to OECD data.
A robust public sector helps reduce pay gaps, too. As the European Commission observed in a report this year, most EU countries have higher gender pay gaps in the private sector. (Some even report reverse pay gaps in the public sector: in Cyprus, for example, women working in the public sector make more than 6 percent more than men, while private sector Cypriot women make almost 23 percent less than their male counterparts.) That’s because it’s easier to negotiate and implement large-scale collective agreements in the public sector. Governments committed to gender equality are also better able to enforce equal pay laws in their own workplaces than in the private sector. And as those of us who have worked in the public sector know well, and our libertarian friends never tire of pointing out, it has a lot of rules! It turns out some of those rules are good.
Romania has the lowest gender wage gap of any OECD country. I doubt Romanian women are more awesome than women in the United States or elsewhere (but don’t @ me! I’ve never even been there). The Romanian public sector makes up 32 percent of the country’s overall employment, according to the World Bank, much higher than OECD average, which is 18 percent. Greece also has a low gender wage gap, and a public sector that represents more than 33 percent of employment. The public sector share in the United States is much lower, 23 percent, which is probably one reason (besides our pathetically low union density) we have the eighth-highest gender wage gap in the OECD, despite having the best women’s soccer on earth.
Of course, gender pay inequity is not only about the way our economy is organized. Work that women do is undervalued simply because women do it, as Paula England, an NYU scholar who has extensively studied the gender pay gap, has found. Patriarchy is real and a robust feminist movement is always badly needed. That’s why gaps persisted in the USSR, more than in the Scandinavian social-democratic countries, despite much bigger public sectors (and plenty of rules) under Communism. If Stalin hadn’t suppressed the radical feminist movement from Communism’s early years, the Soviet Union might have provided a more interesting model. But as it is, we do know what we need to do to achieve pay equity, whether we are awesome goddesses or not.