3 Big Myths About Child Care on Equal Pay Day

Last week, the internet Greek chorus turned its attention to a previously wonky topic: DC’s educational requirements for child care workers. A Washington Post article highlighted that DC is first in the nation to require higher education for child care workers, and a plethora of commenters took to Twitter to criticize the policy. Various individuals commented on the “stupidness” of this new policy. For example, Senator Ben Sasse tweeted: “This is insanely stupid.” Economist Alan Cole tweeted: “What’s the endgame for someone who can’t make it through college? Are they going to be allowed to do things anymore?” The article transformed into a Rorschach test revealing Americans’ antiquated view of child care.

Baby Bottle Robot 

The reality is that many Americans still view child care through a prism of babysitting. They desire the cheapest option: a safe baby with a caregiver of minimum capability, like someone who can easily read aloud to their child. As a result, many parents overrate the quality of their child’s day care. But the reality is child care is complex and skilled work that remains deeply undervalued. And today as throughout history, it’s work mostly performed by women.

Today, on Equal Pay Day, let’s pause and consider three persistent myths about child care, which ultimately hold women back from achieving equal pay with men:

MYTH #1: Child care is menial work which can be done by anyone.

Many critics of the new credential requirements in Washington, DC implied that child care is necessarily low-wage work because it requires minimal skill. Commenters were unified in asserting that high-quality care-taking did not require specific competencies and in undervaluing the actual work of nurturing and addressing the demanding needs of small children. These viewpoints belie the reality that adults who educate young children require knowledge and competencies as specialized as those of an elementary, middle school, or high school teacher. A successful early childhood teacher needs to understand child development; language development; and how to foster early literacy, early numeracy, and positive socio-emotional development, among other skills.

Advocates have spent decades trying to help the public understand the plight of early childhood care givers and teachers, and yet the average American continues to undervalue the service of the child care and education workforce — a workforce which is 93% women, mostly women of color. The National Child Care Staffing Study, completed in 1989 by Marcy Whitebook, first brought national attention to the poverty-level wages and high turnover among early childhood teaching staff. At the time, child care workers were paid less than almost all other American workers.

In the intervening years, research has demonstrated the vital importance of the first five years of a child’s life for lifelong social, emotional, and intellectual development, and the importance of the quality of adult-child relationships on child development. As a result, early childhood education has come to be viewed as an important strategy to address the achievement gap. Research has also revealed that staff knowledge and skills are among the most important determinants of early childhood program quality. Yet, child care workers remain firmly on the bottom of the US wage scale, making wages comparable to dog walkers and parking attendants.

Recently, the academic community has brought increased attention to the importance of the early childhood workforce in improving our early childhood system. In 2015, the National Academies of Science and Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) released Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. This report outlines the competencies early childhood teachers need to know and ultimately recommends that all professionals working with children birth through age eight have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Even though research has clearly proven that child care is important work poised to uniquely influence the next generation of the American workforce, outdated attitudes obscure the fact that child care is demanding work which requires specialization.

MYTH #2:  Child care workers are paid little because they have low levels of education.

The belief that child care workers are poorly paid because of low-training and qualifications persists even though education attainment does not explain the low salaries of child care professionals. In the last few decades, early childhood teachers have dramatically improved their educational credentials. In 1994, 33% of child care workers had a college education. In 2014, 55% of child care workers had a college education. Additionally, in the last ten years, 74% of Head Start teachers have earned bachelor’s degrees, but salaries have completely stagnated. Teachers in public pre-k programs who hold bachelor’s degrees also earn way less than women and men with comparable levels of education. They earn, on average, three quarters of the compensation of comparably educated women and less than half of the compensation of comparably educated men.

The fact that early childhood teachers across the spectrum have increased their educational credentials and still receive incredibly low pay reveals the deep undervaluation of traditionally female work.

MYTH #3: Child care requires only “innate” female capabilities, not expertise, training, and education. 

While there is more widespread appreciation that high-quality early care and education is a wise investment, the actual work of caring for children is still viewed through a sexist lens. Child care, like other forms of “traditional female work,” requires “soft” skills or what sociologist Arlie Hochschild first defined as “emotional labor.” Because taking care of young children, and emotional labor, are both viewed as part of women’s “natural” skills and capabilities, they are not highly valued.

Our society sees no reason to reward patience, nurturing, empathy, and compassion, which are viewed as lesser than cognitive skills such as quantitative and qualitative analysis or computer programming.

Anyone who has spent an hour with more than one toddler should recognize how hard it is to address the needs of multiple small children all day long (let alone lead them through academic pursuits). And yet most people view child care as worthy of low wages because they accept our society’s outdated attitudes about traditionally female work.

In order to create a future where young children are provided with quality early childhood experiences and women obtain pay equity with men, we have to stop privileging intellectually demanding work over emotionally demanding work. I can’t help but wonder as we approach a world where artificial intelligence is on the near horizon, if emotional labor and child care will be viewed through a new prism. After all, a computer can’t intuit a small child’s shifting emotions or consider how to tailor their language development on the fly (or even successfully move a bottle to their mouth). But, a trained child care professional can.

Read my colleague Kirsten’s Equal Pay Day post here.