Tara, 28, is an operations manager at a consulting firm in Austin, Texas. She makes decent money, and although her company is male-dominated (particularly at the top — there’s one female executive to five males), she believes that she’s paid fairly in comparison to her male colleagues. Still, she’s not going to kid herself — she’s an African-American woman and wants to know what the Trump presidency could mean for her rights and earning potential within the workplace, particularly as she thinks about starting a family and continuing to increase her wage trajectory into her 30s. She knows that a couple of her (white) colleagues voted for Trump, and she’s nervous about his politics infiltrating her office. What should she do to protect herself financially and secure her future over the next four years?
I won’t beat around the bush: There’s no good answer to this question. Once you get past the raw slap of this election’s implicit endorsement of disrespect towards women and minorities, you’ll realize that your wallet might not weather Trump’s tenure well, either — despite the fact that “the economy” (quotes necessary) is a big reason why people voted for him.
Sure, plenty of people believe that deep tax cuts, increased infrastructure, and across-the-board deregulation will stimulate job growth and make dollar bills rain from the sky, but how much will those old tricks actually pad our bank accounts? Economist Larry Summers likened Trump’s financial strategies to a sugar high — fun at first, but crappy in the long term, and generally harmful to the nation’s well-being. However, we also don’t know exactly what Trump’s policies are, beyond vague descriptions on his website, or how he’ll pay for them. And what do they mean for women, specifically, if they mean anything at all?
On Tuesday, Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, hosted a conference to discuss strategies for the next administration. The mood was somber; many panelists admitted that they’d prepared for very different circumstances. “There’s a real lack of understanding of what Trump’s economic policies will be, because he didn’t tell us, and the American people didn’t really demand to know it before they elected him,” Boushey told me afterward. “So I can’t say, ‘There will be this bad outcome or that bad outcome for families over a particular time period,’ because there’s just a lot of uncertainty.”
One thing Heather can say, however, is that she’s worried. “I think American women need to be very concerned about labor-law enforcement, particularly regarding equal pay and equal opportunity,” she explained. “How will President-elect Trump be interpreting that law? If women are discriminated against, or if they’re not paid fairly, how will those violations be treated?”
When I spoke to Kate Bahn, an economist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, she told me that even her conservative peers are pessimistic. She wistfully recalled an unusually convivial business trip she took prior to the election with a group of right-leaning economists, during which they bonded over their mutual eye-rolling toward Trump’s policies, and lack thereof. “It was funny: Finally, we could all agree on something — we all believe that Trump is terrible for the economy,” she said. (Or rather, whispered hoarsely — she’s been suffering from an extreme case of laryngitis all week. “The symbolism of losing my voice after this election is not lost on me,” she wrote in an email.)
For women, Bahn said, the message is clear: You’re on your own. “President-elect Trump’s rhetoric around women’s workplace issues is that the onus is on women to deal with it themselves,” she continued. (Remember, this is the man who said that if his daughter was sexually harassed by a superior, à la Roger Ailes, she should just quit. “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case,” Trump told a reporter in August.) In other words, if you don’t like it, you can leave — and face the repercussions of unemployment and/or abandoning a career you’ve spent your life building.
Bahn also didn’t mince words when it came to the psychological implication of Trump’s leadership. “Aside from legislation, having an unapologetic sexual assaulter as president will have a real impact for women,” she said. “If you are scared to go to work, if you don’t feel safe at work, if you’re harassed at work, it really affects how women can take advantage of opportunities in the economy.”
Tara, your best move right now is to batten down the hatches. Pad your emergency fund, consider raising your contributions to your 401K — all the stuff you’re normally supposed to do, only with more urgency. You need walking-out-the-door money, because protective barriers between you and discriminatory employment practices are likely to shrink. I’m glad that your current office seems fair and equitable, and I sure hope it stays that way. In the meantime, you might want to bone up on your company’s internal employee policy, just in case — it might be more useful to you than our government.
While you’re at it, read Ellevest founder Sallie Krawcheck’s timely guide to navigating common stigmas in the workplace, Mind the Gap — and Close It: The Ellevest Guide to Dominating Your Financial Future, which she released for free this week. It offers concrete, well-researched information about factors that hold women back from making more money, and how to dodge them.
Every person I talked to this week said they wished they could offer more shrewd advice about how to weather these next four years; instead, most could only tell me what they hope will not happen, and what the worst could look like.
“One big worry is that enforcement efforts by the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [the EEOC] could be taken away,” said Gillian Thomas, a senior staff attorney for the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and author of Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work. “A change in personnel in both of those agencies, and a shift in priorities from more pro-employee to pro-employer, could affect the vigor with which they investigate charges alleging sex discrimination in equal pay. In other words, if you make a complaint about your employer to a Department of Labor that’s not prioritizing certain aspects of the Fair Labor Standards Act, then they may not pursue an investigation.” In short, even if you are treated illegally at work, there’s no guarantee anyone will do anything about it.
While Trump’s administration probably won’t overturn long-standing laws governing anti-discrimination, he could seriously erode them. “Under Obama’s tenure, the EEOC has had a much more proactive stance in interpreting discrimination,” said Thomas. “In the future, there could be some scaling back — or ‘clarifications’ — on what those [guidelines] say.”
On a positive note, what about that stuff Trump said about paid family leave and tax deductions for child care? It remains to be seen what will come of it. Yes, his proposal — which was publicized by Ivanka and involves six weeks of paid maternity leave — has flaws, but it’s also better than our current options. However, it will face some serious challenges in a Republican-dominated Congress.
When I asked Kate Bahn what women can do to shore up their financial interests over the next four years, she sighed. “This is going to sound terrible, but I think women should be very aware of their family-planning choices, particularly when it comes to how much time they take off,” she said. “That can be associated with big declines in pay and difficulty moving up once you return to work. Which isn’t saying it’s the right or wrong choice for your family, but be aware of the implications, especially when it’s unlikely that we’re going to have strong labor protections. Try to work for employers who you know are good about those things. We were hopeful that the next administration would legislate your rights to them, but now it looks like we’ll have to rely on private employers to offer them.”
Also, if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, get your partner onboard with parental leave. “Research shows that men are less likely to be discriminated against for being fathers than women are for being mothers,” Bahn pointed out. “Ask men to take a greater amount of leave to allow women to grow their careers. I think it’s easier for men to step up than it is for women.”
The saddest part of this discussion is that it reiterates what working women have dealt with for years, and — in what is now a much more distant future — hoped to move beyond: That men created this system, and women will just have to work harder to fit into it.