Gender Wage Gaps in Everything, Even Babysitting

by Ragini Saira Malhotra

In her piece in The Atlantic, Olga Khazanmar argues that in the U.S. “Even in Babysitting, Men make more than women.” Responding to Rohin Dhar’s Priceonomics blog, she highlights that while women charge an average of $14.50 per hour for babysitting services, men charge $15.00. This is true despite the under-representation of men (less than 3 percent) in this predominantly female-dominated workforce. Khazanmar also notes that the gender wage gap is even greater in other occupations like nursing, administrative work, and teaching, which also employ more women than men.

While Khazanmar focuses on just one type of childcare, the provision of care for children takes many forms. Many believe that women are ‘naturally’ better at childcare than men, and that this work requires little skill. The same attitude is extended to other care occupations, like nursing, which tend to be valued less than jobs typically performed by men. The fact that women’s labor is cheaper than men’s, even within an undervalued occupation like babysitting, is consistent with the finding that women experience larger penalties than men in childcare. This is partly explained by the fact that women, who are particularly likely to be self-employed, experience greater wage penalties when they work for themselves. Women of color and those who identify as gender non-conforming (here, here, and here) are also likely to experience additional wage penalties. By “self-employed,” we commonly refer to family providers offering childcare services from their homes. This form of paid care, which allows women to balance earnings with unpaid care responsibilities, tends to be valued less than center based childcare because of its location within the home. The perception of ‘home’ as ‘feminine’ and less ‘professional’ raises interesting questions about what motivates men to babysit, and what distinguishes babysitting from family day care. The location of this work in the home might also explain why, for Khazanmar, it is particularly surprising that men are advantaged as workers “even in babysitting.”

My research in Western Massachusetts finds that while center workers consider babysitting to be less ‘skilled’ than their own work, they also report it pays more. In fact, some even babysit to supplement their primary incomes. The contrast between the median babysitting hourly wages cited by Priceonomics, and the equivalent national (median) hourly wage of $9.42 for childcare workers, reinforces my findings. While this comparison is limited (the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is not current; Priceconomics data doesn’t distinguish babysitter charges from actual wages after negotiation), it appears that babysitting does afford greater hourly pay-offs than other care and service jobs. This is especially true for workers with college and graduate degrees (who can earn an additional $2.50 and $4.50 more per hour than high school graduates respectively).

Many of the family and center workers I have spoken to have not been to college. They do not believe that a college degree will translate into financial gains or improvements in the quality of their work. While this might change as Massachusetts increases the educational requirements for childcare work, degree related benefits appear less significant in center and family day care than in babysitting. This may partly explain men’s motivations for babysitting, since they have historically entered female-dominated sectors at higher pay scales. Babysitting may also be particularly appealing to many men because, as part-time work, it offers potential to combine higher childcare wages with additional sources of income, without compromising more desirable ‘masculine’ work identities.

But how does this help us understand the gender wage gap? Are there more men than women with credentials in babysitting? Or, as Dhar speculates, are men valued more because they are scarce resources within a female dominated-field? This is rarely the case when women enter male-dominated professions.

Some center Directors I spoke with expressed their efforts to hire men in childcare, because “It takes a special and grounded male to work with children.” One noted that men are “…highly coveted individuals” who should not be “…thrown back….” She also recognized that “…unfortunately young women who want to work with children are abundantly available…” The idea that men in childcare are “special,” stems from the presumption that women are ‘naturally’ better at this work. This explains why men are often described as “babysitting,” their own children, rather than simply ‘parenting’, while this is never assumed about women. The naturalization of care work as ‘women’s work’ shapes gendered preferences for men in pre-school and afterschool, which tend to be perceived to be more ‘educational’ and by extension more ‘skilled,’ than toddler care.

The idea that male babysitters are scarce resources today is interesting given that, for decades, boys were seen as ideal babysitters in the U.S. Clearly cultural perceptions about care-giving at particular historical moments shape the gendered construction of ‘skill’ in the market. To help us understand why men earn more than women in babysitting we need to look at the processes that systematically undervalue all care work, as well as women’s labor in non-care occupations. Advocacy for equal pay for equal work must focus on closing the wage gap at the national level. Currently, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gap 20 percent higher than in babysitting. Bridging this gap will be unlikely if occupational segregation persists and women remain concentrated in under-valued work. We should therefore welcome more men in childcare, while advocating for appropriate recognition of this work and pay equity across occupations.

Ragini Saira Malhotra  is a graduate student in residence at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research interests include gender, care-work, child labor and social policy in South Asia and the United States.







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