Domestic Violence & the Wage Gap: A Dangerous Perpetuation

October 24, 2016


Amarely Gutierrez Oliver is the Director of Domestic Violence Services at YWCA Central Massachusetts.

In the midst of the pay equity legislation recently passed in Massachusetts and increasingly coming up throughout the nation, a lot of people are talking about the wage gap. What is often left out of the conversation, however, is the direct link between domestic violence and economic inequality. Through my work in anti-domestic violence advocacy at the YWCA I am consistently inspired towards intersectionality and interdisciplinary dialogue. After all, every identity is multifaceted. And so this Domestic Violence Awareness Month I invite you to think about the unique ways in which closing the wage gap can mitigate the ramifications of domestic violence. 

First, let’s discuss domestic violence a bit more. 

Conversations around domestic violence are already difficult but they become increasingly so when terminology is muddled and categories are unclear. For example, sometimes I hear “domestic violence” and “violence against women” used interchangeably. They are very much related but not interchangeable. Violence against women is a broad term meant to include many harms directed at women, from slapping, beating, and murder, to stalking, sexual harassment, and rape. Domestic violence can include any of these but with two caveats. 1) It usually occurs within the purview of an intimate relationship or the home and 2) gender does not define victimhood; men are increasingly reporting instances of domestic violence directed at them. 

However, the impact of domestic violence disproportionally affects women. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) cites that more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. In the US, more than 30 million women experience intimate partner violence annually. The economic cost of this has been estimated at $4.9 billion a year, 70% of which can be attributed to medical costs, 15% to decreased productivity, and the remaining 15% to lost earnings in a woman’s lifetime. Furthermore, domestic violence can interact with the wage gap in two ways. First, lower household income predicts an increased risk for domestic violence and second, domestic violence can exacerbate the wage gap by hindering victims from achieving promotions, causing employees to miss work, and eventually culminating in termination of employment. 

How does income relate to domestic violence? 

Economic inequality can, of course, mitigate a vast array of our social disparities, however, recently it has been observed that over 95% of domestic violence incidents occur in households whose incomes are lower than $75,000. Additionally, those households in the lowest income bracket are 15% more likely to experience domestic violence than those in the highest income brackets. Likewise, women who earn less than $10,000 a year demonstrate domestic violence at a rate five times higher than women who earn more than $30,000 a year. A study conducted in 2010 furthermore discovered that the 9% decline in domestic violence rates from 1990-2003 can be explained by the gender wage gap reduction which occurred simultaneously in that time period.

What is the impact of domestic violence on economic inequality?

Aside from the obvious emotional, physical, and psychological turmoil domestic violence can inflict upon a victim’s life, it may also present a more insidious, less forward-facing cost: harmful impact in the workplace. Perpetrators of domestic violence often act out according to deep-seated notions of control and manipulation. Having a grasp over a victim’s financial wellbeing is an all-too-common mechanism by which an abuser can exert their dominance. Unfortunately for many victims, financial wellbeing can be inextricably tethered to workplace performance. 

Victims of domestic violence may often appear unreliable and poorly-performing to their employers as they might frequently miss work or call in sick at the last minute due to recent acts of violence. Abusers can leverage parental duties against their victims by purposefully bailing at the eleventh hour, causing victims to prioritize parenting over work. Abusers may often act out before a victim’s interview or period of significance in the workplace. Employers may start to question the value of a particular employee when this happens regularly. And according to the Joint Center for Poverty Research at Northwestern University, 25% to 50% of domestic violence victims eventually exhibit job loss. 

How does race impact this relationship?

The next layer in the conversation around domestic violence and economic inequality must be race. Survivors of color will face a unique set of circumstances which we must understand fully before we can help. In 2015 African American survivors earned 63% less than non-Hispanic white men. People of color will more likely experience greater difficulty finding and keeping housing and have difficulty obtaining employment in large part due to ramifications of institutionalized stereotypes. Not having the same access to employment or obtaining employment at a significantly lower rate will position survivors in stagnant oppression. For example, Jane is African American and has finally obtained employment at minimum wage, however she has had many absences as a result of an abusive partner. She is already set up by our system to fail and is kept in an unsafe situation due to lack of equitable resources. Statistics published by NNEDV in 2015 reveal that in one day alone there were 1,970 requests for help made in Massachusetts, 16% of which were for services and 63% of which were for housing. This financial crisis is the direct result of the abuse a survivor receives. 

What can be done?

While 5 states and 10 localities have already pioneered the path and passed legislation for paid safe time (MA being one of them), the majority of the US has not. Safe time allows victims of domestic violence to seek help and treatment without further detriment to employment.  As an employer, you can also be aware of the following signs which, when presented simultaneously or in quick succession, might indicate violence at home: arriving to work late or leaving early, unplanned use or increase use of paid time off or earned time, decrease in productivity, tension around receiving phone calls, wearing long sleeve shirts or covering self in warm weather, difficulty in making decisions or concentrating on tasks, bruises, chronic headaches, abdominal pain, fatigue, signs of fear, anxiety or depression. Furthermore, the impact on a company or agency produced by their not addressing and providing support to a survivor is huge. Such organizations compromise the safety of their employees, and expose them to increased health care costs, increased threat of violence, high turnover, and work stoppage.  

Employers can provide immense support just by being open to having a conversation. If you suspect an employee is being abused, talk to them but clearly communicate that you come from a place of solidarity rather than judgment. Ask the right questions. What do you need versus why are you staying? We have been socialized to focus on why a survivor remains in an abusive situation rather than interrogate the origins of the abuse. Have your resources ready. You can contact Employers against Domestic Violence at 508-961-1823 and direct victims to EAP or our state hotline, Safelink, at 877-785-2020. 

You also don’t have to know everything about domestic violence in order to compassionately engage with a victim. There are many agencies ready and willing to provide further support, but it becomes almost impossible to help a survivor move forward if they are not on equal footing with pay equity and employment. Economic inequality will almost always force survivors to remain in life threatening situations. According to Jane Doe Inc. (the Massachusetts state coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence) so far this year there have already been 14 domestic violence homicides. Pay equity is more than just economic equality. For survivors, it is a momentous step towards freedom from constant oppression and violence. As advocates and employers, let us inform ourselves so we can help others.