The True Cost of Being a Woman (Trigger Warning: Unpleasant Truths Discussed)

Photo by Mary Curran Hackett

Photo by Mary Curran Hackett

My definition of a feminist is a man or woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists


There's been a lot of chatter lately about the role of woman and the inequality they face in the workplace, in the political arena, and the world as a whole. Depending on your political proclivities or the news sites you frequent, the statistics vary.  When I have posted articles in the past highlighting the disparities between pay for men and women, I've been called out. I've had peers tell me that it is nothing more than "statistical gymnastics" and that inequality between men and women simply doesn't exist--no, not in our United States of America. Impossible.

Though countless reports show that indeed women pay more for basic hygienic items, hair cuts, dry cleaning, clothing, and even maintenance services--like oil changes, tune-ups, and tire rotations--and so much more, people still deny that men and women are treated unequally. And despite that worldwide studies show that women, more than men, lack access to education, healthcare, and basic human rights, people still want to argue with me and have even gone so far as to gaslight me, saying that the inequality I see is all "in my head.” (Questions to ask in order to doubt if it’s all in my head: What percentage of women have been U.S. Presidents? What percentage of the House and Senate to do women currently represent? What percentage of Fortune 500 companies are run by women? If the answer is not 50%, then I assure you, it is not in my head. We have work to do, people.)

So instead of providing scientific and statistical evidence, to which many people will still refuse to accept, I thought, I would share just a few of the costs I have had to pay as women in the twenty-first century America.  When I ran through these costs with my husband a few days ago, he asked jokingly, "Don't you think this is the cost of being Mary? Not just a woman?" I laughed, but then I said, "No. Absolutely not." If a white, middle-class women, with a good education, and a great family to support her, faces these injustices and is struggling, imagine what it's like for those who haven't had my advantages? And it's crazy to think that this "could only happen to me." If it's happened to me, I assure you, it's happened to someone else. So let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. The Cost of Healthcare: (Nothing like starting with an innocuous topic, right?) OK, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Since so many people want to discount how unaffordable it is to be a woman in seek of health and wellness, I thought I would share just a couple of stories of just how screwed (literally) women are by the healthcare system. My most profound memory of being screwed by the dear old healthcare system came a month after I was raped. I received a large medical bill from the ER, where I was treated for my injuries and where my rape kit was administered. After haggling with the hospital I was told I signed a paper that said I consented to treatment and therefore agreed to payment. In short: I had to pay or I would be sent to collection. So for the next several months, I dutifully wrote a check out to the ER for the “date of services rendered”—which happened to be the worst night of my life. The rapist did not have to pay for what he did, but, I did. Later, when I was pregnant and single, and receiving no child support, I had to scrape money together to pay for my office copays, my prenatal vitamins, and various uncovered prenatal tests. When my daughter was born, I paid for many expenses related to her birth. Because I was not insured at the time, and still receiving no child support, I had to go back to work right away. There was no maternity leave, no pay, and therefore no way to pay for my child. So off to work I went.
  2. The Cost of Daycare: Perhaps there is nothing more screwed up in America than its current childcare and education situation. I know I am going to catch flack for this, but it’s absolutely without a doubt true. Whether by choice or not to return to work after having a baby, there is no discounting the unbelievable price tag a woman must incur to do so. By the time my daughter was five years old, I had paid over $60,000 in daycare expenses. By the time her brother came along and needed to go to daycare that was another $60,000 for the next six years. All told, by the time my children were of school ages, I had spent nearly $120,000 in daycare. Then in subsequent years I paid on average $6000 a year for after-school care programs and summer camps—totaling $72,000 over the course of the next six years. Yes, that’s $200,000 by the time the children were 12 years old. (And that’s not including their extracurriculars, their clothes, food, housing, or school supplies). Yes, that price tag is just the cost of their care if their mother must (or chooses to) work. The alternatives are few, if none at all—especially for single mothers, who have no choice but to work. Let’s not forget, this disparity effects men too. The price women and families have to pay for women to have a career is at a breaking point. It’s simply not sustainable.
  3. The Cost of Working: OK, lots of women, Sheryl Sandberg, most notably, have spoken quite eloquently on this topic—namely how much less women are paid, how much is expected of them, and how their behavior is evaluated on a different set of criteria. I could write a book. (And just might). After 20 years of working alongside men, I still make not 30% less, not 50% less, but nearly 70% less than my male colleagues who are the same age, have the same level experience (in some cases less education), and who work less hours. (If you’d like to see my pay stubs, I’ll happily supply.) At 40 years old, after working two and sometimes three jobs, and after publishing two books with a major U.S. publisher, I never broke $50,000 a year. (I know, oversharing and impolite in certain circles). I don’t care. I have sat in the same office cubes with men, ran circles around them, producing work at a more efficient rate, receiving higher satisfaction ratings from customers, praise from colleagues and clients alike, and in some cases clandestinely doing the work for my male supervisors, who were incapable of doing the work themselves, meanwhile, grocery shopping for office supplies, stocking and cleaning fridges, taking out garbage, cleaning up after office parties, and running various errands for my supervisors—all before attending presidential level meetings, where my insights, ideas, and problem-solving were also required.  Phew. Additionally, in my over my 20 years of office work, I have witnessed men explode, swear, name call, and carry on (one epic tirade went on for over twenty minutes when a printer did not comply). I have been shouted at and demeaned. As a waitress, I was often groped by fellow workers and customers, and had to turn down physical advances on a nightly basis--from the age of 16! In the office, it didn't get much better. Though there was no groping, I’ve been asked if my bra and panties match the color my dress and what bra size I wore by a male coworker. Soon after I joined the corporate world, one coworker asked me to have sex in his car and locked the doors so I couldn't get out--until I threatened to scream--or call his wife. And, yet—and yet—if a women says damn, shit, fuck—it is unbecoming, an outburst—the standards by which she is judged completely and unequivocally different--in fact she may even be fired or dismissed. If a women speaks, gesticulates, “leans in”—she is either being “threatening” or a "seductress."  There is no in between. If a man does it, he is “commanding the room.” The standards are different, and the let me assure you, the costs are high. Too high. 
  4. The Cost of Stress: I have a pacemaker—one of the perks of having a heart condition. It’s come in handy over the years because, when I go in to appointments to get it checked, my doctor is able to see my heart rates in real time—and even episodes that are timed stamped. One day, my technician alerted me to something disturbing. He asked me: “Are you a doctor or a an EMT or something super stressful?” I said, “No, I work in an office.” He shook his head. “Are you serious?” I said, “Yes.” He pointed to a screen and asked me to look. He said, “See all of these arrhythmias (there were hundreds)—look at their time stamps.” I looked. Every single one of them happened between 9 and 5—Monday through Friday. “That’s bad. That’s really bad.”  Work was literally killing me. “You’re lucky you haven’t had a stroke.”  I shook my head and understood. I broke down and explained how impossible all of it was—-the demands at work, the money, and then running around for hours after work to get the children to and from their various extracurriculars, meetings, and events. And then there was all the cooking, the housekeeping, and the lack of sleep. He nodded. “Sounds like you need help.” Well, DUH! Who doesn’t need help? I have a husband. I have daycare. I have friends, and it’s still not enough. Then he added, “All I am saying is if you don’t change something, you’re body will change it for you.” And, with that I knew he was right. All the headaches, all the joint pain, weight gain, and sleepless nights—all of it—was because my body was telling me what I couldn’t accept: This is too much for one woman. Too damn much. The price was too high. My life or my job? The answer seemed pretty simple. Only it wasn’t. Without the job, how would I feed my family? How would we survive? Most of us don't have the luxury of a choice.

Yes, the cost of being a woman is simply too high. And I don’t know what the answer is. But, I know it starts with me. It starts with me speaking the truth. It starts with me saying enough is enough. It starts with me saying, it’s time we all start doing something about it and talking more candidly about it. It’s time we start holding our institutions, government officials, and policymakers accountable. It’s time we, as women, get behind each other and start sticking up for each other—not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our daughters and our sons—for the world that we will be leaving them someday. 

I also know now this is not the cost of being Mary. I know it’s the cost of being a woman. And, as a woman, I am here to say to all other woman out there: I’m here. I care. I understand. And together we can make this world better. Let’s do this. Let’s command the damn room.