Politics of Poverty

Women may shatter glass ceilings now and then. But it’s still other women sweeping up the pieces.

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Thuy Vo, nail salon worker in Los Angeles, CA, is one of 19 million women doing “low-wage women’s work” jobs in the US. The workforce in the personal appearance industry has a high concentration of immigrants. Workers are exposed to toxic chemicals in a variety of beauty products, and earn median wages slightly over $10 an hour. (Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

While the recent election amplified the voices of angry and disaffected workers, it didn’t really elevate the concerns of women working in low-wage jobs. Oxfam’s new research reveals how millions of women are still pushing up against the wall of gender segregation in the workforce. Women of color are pushing even harder.

The gender wage gap is a stubborn deep divide between men and women. And it’s not just a nifty stat or tagline. It has profound and negative effects on women and their families.

Men just earn more. A dollar to the 80 cents women earn.

And white men earn a lot more than women of color. A dollar to 56 cents of what a Latina woman earns. To 64 cents of what a black woman earns.

Men earn more even if they have less education and fewer skills than women. They earn more if they’re doing the same job, but with a different name. And they even earn more if they’re doing the same job with the SAME name.

But mostly, they earn more because employers pay more for “male” jobs. Men earn more in the jobs that involve “male” tasks: roofers and butchers and cooks and grounds maintenance workers and tractor operators.

Sure, these are tough jobs. They demand skills and stamina and strength.

But so do women’s jobs. Women are working in schools and hospitals and fast food restaurants and hotels and nail salons. They work in heat and cold and with chemicals and tools, and they pay a physical and emotional price for their labors.

But they are not as valued. To put it in the words of a recent report from Oxfam and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), millions of women are “undervalued and underpaid.” They spend their working lives in jobs that involve “women’s work” tasks: cooking, cleaning, serving, and caring for people (children, the elderly, and the infirm), and playing support roles in offices and businesses.

Every day, they face obstacles that have been in the way since women were invited into the workforce.

The report identifies a subset of “low-wage women’s” jobs, which meet four criteria: most workers are women; the median wage is under $15 an hour; at least 100,000 women do the job; and the number of jobs will grow in the next 20 years. We found 22 low-wage women’s work jobs; of the 23.5 million workers doing these jobs, 81 percent are women (19 million). And they are a big segment of the larger workforce: they account for over a quarter of all women’s employment, and 64 percent of women’s low-wage employment.

And the news for these jobs is not good.

First, even if the women’s jobs are very similar to other low-wage jobs – in requirements for education, skills, stamina, and hours – women’s jobs just pay less. In some cases, women’s jobs even demand higher degrees of education.

The comparisons are stark. Consider the job of teachers’ assistant. Workers in this job are 89 percent female; over a quarter of the women in this field have a bachelor’s or master’s degree; but they earn a median wage of $11.43.

By comparison, service station attendants are 91 percent male, have few if any credentials, and earn $11.62 per hour.

Second, when men step into women’s work jobs, men generally earn higher wages than women doing the same job. For example, men working as counter attendants in the food industry earn $9.82 an hour, while female counter attendants earn $7.95 an hour. [That is true.]

Third, it’s getting worse for women. In the next decade, low-wage women’s jobs will increase at one and a half times the rate of all other jobs. Even more women will be faced with the need to take jobs that undervalue their education and skills, undercompensate their contributions, and exact heavy physical and emotional costs.

Fourth, the women doing these jobs are not teenagers making pocket change. The median age is 36, they’re more likely to be women of color or immigrants, and they may have degrees but little opportunity to advance.

Finally, these jobs box women into some tough spots. 43 percent of women in these jobs (8.2 million) live in or near poverty. Many turn to social assistance programs just to get by; for example, 60 percent of mothers depend on subsidized lunch programs for their children. They may be compelled to work irregular hours, and part-time hours. Their workplaces may pose dangers to their health and safety (e.g., manicurists exposed to chemicals).

So what can we do to make sure our economy rethinks how to value “women’s work”? There are no easy solutions, and it will take years to eliminate gender segregation and discrimination.

But we can take steps that will pave the way toward reducing inequality, rewarding hard work, and restoring the ladder of economic mobility for everyone – men and women.

Among the policy options: Raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour (which is, simply, a poverty wage); eliminate the tipped minimum wage, which has been stuck at $2.13 since 1991; guarantee paid sick days; ensure fair scheduling; improve access to affordable child care; improve access to education and training; and restore collective bargaining rights.

Many women enjoy their work, and find fulfillment and dignity in the labor. The satisfactions in many jobs are clear: teaching young children, caring for the elderly, preparing food, styling hair, making a home clean and orderly. But many workers are frustrated by low pay, dangerous conditions, irregular hours, and lack of respect.

It’s well past time to remove the gender glasses, recognize the value and dignity of “women’s work,” and reward these workers appropriately.


Download and read the report from Oxfam: Undervalued and Underpaid in America: The Deck is Stacked Against Millions of Working WomenFind the full report from at IWPR at IWPR.org.


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