Politics of Poverty

Why DO women earn less than men? And other vexing questions.

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While many child care workers have some higher education (in fact, they are twice as likely to have a college degree today than in 1994), their media pay remains stuck well below $15 an hour. (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

A brief conversation with an expert from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Oxfam commissioned the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) to research gender segregation in the low-wage workforce in the US. The research defined “low-wage women’s work” as large, growing, low-wage occupations with a majority female workforce and median earnings below $15 an hour.

IWPR found 22 occupations that match, employing 23.5 million people (81 percent female, 19 million women), with a median wage of $11.30. Sadly, these are the jobs of the future: they’re growing at one and a half times the rate of job growth overall.

Experts have long known that gender segregation contributes significantly to the wage gap between men and women.  As the decently paid middle in the labor market has been hollowed out, more and more women land in these low-wage jobs.

We posed some questions to IWPR’s Program Director on Employment & Earnings Ariane Hegewisch, a co-author of the report.

What are the most surprising findings?

What is immediately apparent is that most of the jobs can be characterized as “women’s work” – they involve tasks historically performed in the home, such as caring for young children and elders, cleaning, and cooking. While this wasn’t surprising, we were disturbed to find how consistently these tasks are undervalued, and the workers are undercompensated.

We were surprised to find that many of the women in these jobs are better educated than they were 20 years ago, but the extent of low pay has not fallen. In fact, the percentage of women in these occupations earning an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree nearly doubled between 1994 and 2014. Workers doing women’s work are about twice as likely to have a degree than workers in male-dominated occupations—yet earn less.

Women’s work pays less than men’s even when women’s jobs are very similar in requirements for education, skills, and stamina. For instance, janitors (two-thirds men) make $12.13 per hour, while maids and housekeepers (nearly 90 percent women) make $9.94 per hour.

Also surprising are high levels of women in these occupations who live in poverty. We sometimes think that women’s work, particularly part-time, supplements the earnings of other household members. Yet almost one in five women working in these occupations live in poor households (with incomes below federal poverty threshold), and another quarter live in near-poverty.

Why do men earn more than women in the exact same jobs?

On an individual level, this could be due to any number of reasons—for instance, men could have more time in the workforce or fewer caregiving responsibilities that allow them to work more hours.

The more important question is, why do we value jobs traditionally done by women so much less than those traditionally done by men? It is frustrating that a female teacher assistant makes $11.43 per hour, while a male teacher assistant makes $12.21.

But even though men who work in women’s jobs typically earn more than women in these same jobs they still earn less than men working in mixed occupations and male-dominated fields. Security guards make $13.48, more than male or female teacher assistants. This disparity underscores how both men and women suffer from the devaluation of women’s work.

Isn’t it more likely that a man is supporting a family, therefore needs higher wages?

The assumption that men carry a higher burden to provide for their families is outdated: half the families with young children in the US have a breadwinner mom.

For the families that rely solely on the mother’s earnings, the impact of outdated workforce policies can put them in a precarious economic situation. Over half the mothers working in fast food are paid too little to provide food for their own families, and rely on food stamps (SNAP); a staggering eight in ten depend on subsidized or free lunch to feed their children. Many mothers in the health care industry lack access to employer-provided health care: two in five in personal and home care jobs rely on Medicaid.

Women of color and their families are especially at risk: the majority of Black, Native American, and Hispanic breadwinner moms are single and raising a family on their own.

Are you saying that men should be paid less in “men’s work” jobs?

The solution to narrowing the wage gap between men and women in low-wage jobs is not to pay men less, but to value “women’s work” as much as similar “men’s work.”

Mixed or male-dominated, low-wage jobs pay more than female-dominated jobs on average—but the median wage is still $12.21 per hour. This is well below what it takes to keep a family of three out of poverty ($18.24 per hour).

Don’t women earn less because they take breaks to have (and raise) children?

While it’s true that women typically take more time away from work for child rearing than men do, that decision often makes economic sense when a wife’s wages are lower than her husband’s. Research has shown that just by the mere fact of being a mother, women’s advancement opportunities shrink; while just by being a father, men’s grow.

There are also many working women who are not mothers. Why should non-mothers or women past the phase of active child rearing suffer a wage penalty?

Many women work for families, doing child care or elder care. How can these families afford a hike in wages? Wouldn’t that mean that more women would have to quit their jobs and stay home to do this work?

The jobs in this study are growing because they are vital to our economy. Child care and elder care workers allow other workers, many of them middle- and high-skill workers, to stay in the labor force and contribute to the economy.  Yet it is difficult for individual families to pay privately for such services.

That is why we need higher levels of public investment. Such investment can also be good for local economies and has a higher impact on job creation and local growth than providing public subsidies for, say, a manufacturing company.

Surely many of these women do these jobs when they’re young, and then move on?

The median age for women in these occupations is 36; 75 percent are older than 25. A third of women in these jobs are mothers, and about 15 percent—almost twice the rate for women working in better paid occupations—are single mothers. Women are particularly likely to be trapped in part-time work in these occupations; they outnumber men among involuntarily part-time workers.

These jobs often lack pathways to better paying jobs. While additional education and training can help workers gain skills, our analysis shows that education does not guarantee a well-paying job. Women need advice and guidance on careers that come with higher earnings in middle-skilled occupations, allowing them to better support themselves and their families. Additional supports—such as child care assistance—would also help low-income women access additional education and training.

What can we do to make a difference for these women and their families?

  1. Improve conditions by raising the minimum wage and eliminating the tipped minimum wage, proactively enforcing wage and hour laws, guaranteeing paid sick days and paid family leave, ensuring fair scheduling, providing equity for part-time workers, improving work environment and equipment, and supporting collective bargaining rights.
  2. Invest in the caregiving infrastructure by ensuring fair remuneration for workers in care and education, improving access to affordable and quality child care, ensuring universal pre-kindergarten, and investing in eldercare and care of dependent adults.
  3. Build ladders to higher-paying occupations by improving access to education and training, and incentivizing transparent promotion pathways.
  4. Strengthen protections for immigrant workers by increasing the number of visas available to immigrant workers, and allowing flexible work visas.

All of these policies are critical if we want to tackle gender inequality in low-wage work. Perhaps the most important first step is deciding that women’s work is valuable, and critical to the economy.

Ariane Hegewisch is the Program Director for Employment & Earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a co-author of the IWPR/Oxfam study, Undervalued and Underpaid in America: Women in Low-Wage, Female-Dominated Jobs.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran with a photo of a waitress at Langer’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles, CA. The Langer family would like to make clear that every employee of Langer’s is a member of Unite Here! Local 11 and they are proud of their union affiliation. Langer’s is only one of six restaurants in LA (outside of hotels) that are proudly union.

We apologize for any confusion around pay or benefits at the restaurant, and invite you to enjoy some excellent pastrami at Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant the next time you’re in Los Angeles.


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