The Patriarchy Penalty

We as a society still cannot wrap our minds around the fact that what’s good for women is also good for society as a whole.

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This year, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on schools, daycares and nursing homes, women’s workforce participation hit a 33-year low. (Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels)

It’s hard to be a woman in America. We are underpaid, harassed, overworked, economically insecure, under-represented in power positions and government, and stripped of autonomy over our own bodies. For women of color, the situation is exceptionally dire, as they fare worse than white women on nearly every social and economic metric.

The last 20 months have been a long, painful illustration of the steep cost the patriarchy exacts on us. Report after report, book after book, article after article have shown just how much women are suffering under patriarchal systems, institutions, policies and a culture all created to ensure our subjugation. Put simply, the patriarchy is an unjust tax women are forced to pay for living in a country and continues to center the desires and needs of men. 

Although we have been carrying the weight of the patriarchy penalty our entire lives, the pandemic added to—and made visible—those burdens in ways we couldn’t have imagined before, as women shouldered the brunt of childcare responsibilities while also working full-time. The Build Back Better Act represents an opportunity to begin to address the deep inequities and injustices the patriarchy places on women, particularly women of color. If our lawmakers really care about us, they will pass it.

It’s that simple. This is not about a single piece of legislation—the passage of BBB would mark a much-needed departure from our male-centric approach to the economy and offer a down payment on an economy and democracy that finally works for all. 

Now is not the time for incremental measures, the urgency of this moment necessitates bold action to both account for what has been lost—and ensure we do not slip back again.

It’s impossible to quantify or adequately express the emotional exhaustion, rage, stress and utter helplessness we felt (and continue to feel) during this pandemic. At the beginning of the year, there was hope for what was possible. We watched with bated breath as BBB, an originally comprehensive response to ensure a just recovery, became two distinct bills with two different trajectories: a stark illustration of how patriarchal thinking is deeply embedded in our politics. 

The physical infrastructure package now sitting on Biden’s desk for signature (also known as BIF) and the work-in-progress Build Back Better Act (BBB)—will bring much needed positive change to women and families. Much has been written about how BBB’s investments in paid leave, child and elder care, public pre-school and higher education will benefit women in particular. While BIF will bring overdue improvements to roads and transit, clean water, electric vehicles and access to high quality internet; it does not offer the comprehensive and structural changes we need to adequately shake the grip of patriarchy on our economy. 

The fact that we had to have two different bills—one spun as infrastructure (read: real infrastructure) and the other now coined as “social spending” speaks volumes. Of course, both bills are spending bills because that’s what Congress does—allocates resources.

Yet the bill that focuses on funding things that are primarily seen as “women’s work,” has resulted in the media and politicians focusing on “the spending” and not the actual purchase. Instead, we should be focused on the tangible relief and improved lives and livelihoods American households will experience through the tremendous advances—paid leave, subsidized child care, an expanded and extended child tax credit—that the passage of BBB will bring. All of a sudden we are hung up on the cost versus the benefit in a way we are not with other bills that impact federal budgets.”

Where were such concerns about debt four years ago when the vast majority of Republicans voted in favor of Trump’s nearly $2 trillion tax plan that overwhelmingly benefitted corporations and the wealthiest Americans, despite the fact that it only had the support of roughly one quarter of U.S. voters? The hypocrisy is staggering.

Where were the concerns about debt four years ago when the vast majority of Republicans voted in favor of Trump’s nearly $2 trillion tax plan that overwhelmingly benefitted corporations and the wealthiest Americans?

A small number of  Republicans joined Democrats to pass BIF. It’s no coincidence that bipartisan support (however weak) is easier to get for a bill creating jobs that will almost all go to men than one that will raise the floor of well-being for women and children, and create higher pay and better quality jobs for fields women are overrepresented in. 

The policies within BBB have been negotiated and debated ad nauseam, forcing women to have to prove that issues related to family, care, education and climate are indeed worthy of public investment. And while women will benefit more because they are more marginalized by a lack of such policies, the reality is it benefits us all, regardless of gender. It is exhausting, demoralizing and antiquated to pretend as though men play no part in raising children, that they do not breathe poisoned air, that they never need to take time off work. But thanks to the patriarchy, we as a society still cannot wrap our minds around the fact that what’s good for women is also good for society as a whole.

What we are seeing in real time is how the patriarchy plays out in policymaking as we fight desperately to get this second bill over to President Biden’s desk. Our current framing of each bill through a gendered lens—infrastructure vs social spending—shows us why it has taken so long (and we’re still waiting) to have policies that will help women. It’s not even hidden anymore. Tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, military spending, bailing out banks—these are all sectors where men play an outsized role. Men are also generally more wealthy than women and are predominantly the CEOs of large corporations. It’s the patriarchy that allows policies that protect them to fly through Congress with little to no debate.

Watching our rights litigated and negotiated away—from Joe Manchin snatching weeks of paid leave from us to Texas and Ohio lawmakers eliminating abortion access—has reinforced what the patriarchy penalty has long told us: We are not valued, we are not respected, and we are not deserving. 

It’s often said that budgets reflect what you value. When a bill that primarily benefits men is passed with far more ease than a bill that benefits everyone, but is marketed as a bill for only women, we are making clear who we value and who we don’t. This is a rare and fleeting opportunity to correct the mistakes and inadequacies of our past. This isn’t about just passing one bill, it’s about laying the foundation of a different, more equitable society that would benefit everyone.  

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About and

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is vice president of programs and strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland. You can follow her on Twitter @Jhumpa_b.
Andrea Flynn is the senior director of the Insight Center. You can follow her on twitter at @dreaflynn.