Until these jobs are given the respect they deserve, they will continue to turn men off and be paid less than they're worth.
Adam Davidson’s recent New York Times Magazine article “The Best Nanny Money Can Buy” introduced readers to the “bizarre microeconomy” of New York’s highly paid nannies. The first nanny Davidson introduces earns $180,000 a year, plus a Christmas bonus and an apartment on Central Park West.
Davidson’s economy is indeed bizarre. As Bryce Covert pointed out in Forbes recently, the average New York nanny makes $37,076 a year. Childcare providers, home health care aids, and others are paid far too little for the incredibly important work they do. In the U.S., median pay for a childcare worker in 2010 was about $9 an hour.
Care work jobs have historically been paid poorly. Jobs associated with the work women traditionally did as wives and mothers have not been conceptualized as real work and have generally paid far less than traditionally male work. This was partially a result of the way laws were written. Until the 1970s, domestic workers were not included in the Fair Labor Standards Act that mandated a federal minimum wage, among other things.
When jobs pay well, however, they tend to attract men. Yet this does not seem to be the case among New York’s elite nannies. Interestingly, even in the microeconomy of highly paid nannies, they are all women. Davidson himself points this out, and a glance at the job listings on the website of the Pavilion Agency, the firm that connected Davidson with the high-end nanny he spoke to, confirms this. Why aren’t men attracted to these high-end jobs?
The answer seems to lie with the respect we give care workers. Most nannies not only earn very low pay for very long hours but also gain little social capital from their jobs. This lack of respect seems to extend even to highly paid nannies. It is unmistakable in the language used in the Pavillion Agency job listings. “This is the nanny who will be a ‘wife’ to a fortunate family,” reads one posting. Others describe the candidates as a “lovely lady” or “cuddly.” This sounds like the way the ad execs on Mad Men talk about their secretaries and not the way we talk about candidates for professional careers in the 21st century.
These are also notably gendered advertisements. Employers are clearly looking for women to fill these jobs because they imagine them to be a woman’s or a “wife’s” work. This sort of language very likely not only keeps men out of these jobs, but it also keeps pay very low for most care workers. As long the job of nanny is not respected, it will be paid less than jobs that are.
Davidson may have described a strange niche economy, but his rare, highly paid nannies actually tell us quite a bit about the problems most care workers face. If even six-figure salaries fail to attract men to the market, there’s a problem with care work that goes far beyond poor pay. It’s a job that society tells men, and many women, that it isn’t respectable to do. Until these jobs earn social capital as well as cash, care work will probably remain a sex-segregated, and therefore underappreciated, sector of the economy. Outside the upper echelons of Manhattan society, that means care work is likely to remain poorly paid.
Suzanne Kahn is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow and a Ph.D. student in history at Columbia University.