My apologies upfront to those cheering the announcement that Harriet Tubman will grace the front of the $20 bill, and that a few other women will eventually get similar treatment on other currency, but the announcement Wednesday by U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew merely underscores the slow pace of change in America.
The addition of the women — Tubman and other suffragists and civil rights heroines to the $10 and $5 bills — is a positive step. But it won’t count for much, not in most women’s wallets.
According to a report released in April by the Joint Economic Committee (JEC), based on median annual earnings, a woman, working full time, year-round, will lose nearly $500,000 over a career, due to gender pay gaps.
That’s $10,800 less per year than a man.
Pay gaps like this aren’t going to be fixed easily, and certainly not by stamping a few women’s faces on a U.S. sawbuck. And, at the current rate of change, cites the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the gender pay gap will not close until 2059.
As a result of this inequity, women have less money in retirement, have less to reinvest into the economy and are more likely to live in poverty in old age. The economy in general loses by shorting women’s paychecks, whether we’re talking about Jennifer Lawrence not making as much as Bradley Cooper or the produce manager at your local supermarket who just found out the male butcher makes more.
The gaps are real and repeated studies show that they cannot all be explained away by career choice, level of education, women not being assertive in salary negotiations or by choosing to take time away from a career to raise a family.
Something else is to blame and its name is sexism.
Shuffling Andrew Jackson – a slave owner – to the back of the $20 bill so that Harriet Tubman – a former slave and abolitionist – can take center stage is worthy of note. It’s a monumental example of how far our history has progressed, a genial nod toward inclusion rather than exclusion.
And it only took the federal government 100 years to get there.
But more is needed. Substantive change must be made. The pay gap must close.
No woman in America is going to suddenly earn a fairer wage because Tubman’s face is on our money. Women don’t covet their dollars for the artwork on the front. They simply want to be paid fairly for the work they do.
Bravo to the federal government for acknowledging Tubman, but let’s not lose sight of the goals envisioned by all those women who will come after her (estimates are that it will take until 2030 before (all three of the) new bills are circulating). If the country is serious about righting longstanding inequities surrounding gender and commerce, let’s cut the symbolism and have a deeper discussion. Here are some ideas:
According to the JEC study, African-American women earn only 60 percent of what their white male counterparts earn and Hispanic women earn only 55 percent of white men’s earnings.
Put that on a $10 bill. Or how about putting Phillis Wheatley’s image on a bill worth only 60 percent of the one handed out with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ face on it? It’s not an idea that is likely to catch on. Best just close the pay gap.
The women who will one day have their image on U.S. currency – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul – spent their lives working for women’s equality.
Let’s not short-change their legacies now by easing up long before the job is done.
Reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.