The real face of low-wage work in America is female

Child care workers at Learning World Child Development Center in Riverdale, Md. 1.4 million women work in this occupation, with a median hourly wage of $9.77 ($20,320 per year). Photo: Ricky Carioti / Washington Post via Getty Images

Yes, economic anxiety is real. But the workers feeling the pressure most? Women. And women of color most of all. 

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 is releasing new research that 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.

As a home care aide in Chicago, Patricia provides vital services that enable elderly clients to remain independent and stay in their homes (rather than move to institutions). She keeps track of their medications, cooks and cleans, and does errands. It’s emotionally satisfying, she says, but also draining, and at times physically exhausting.

She gets paid $10.55 an hour—higher than the median wage for women in this occupation, which is $10.16 an hour.

This is one of the jobs explored in a new report from Oxfam and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Undervalued and Underpaid identifies 22 jobs that meet criteria for “low-wage women’s work” jobs. These jobs pay a median wage under $15, employ mostly women, and are large and growing in number.

Most of them involve tasks historically considered “women’s work” such as cooking, cleaning, caring for people, and doing support work.

By comparison, “men’s work” jobs pay more. While home care aides are providing services (85 percent women), service station attendants (90 percent men) earn a median wage over a dollar more per hour ($11.62).

In general, men earn more: onedollar to every 80 cents women earn. And white men earn much more than women of color: one dollar to every 56 cents of what a Latina woman earns, and of every 64 cents of what a black woman earns.

Men earn more even if they have less education. They earn more if they’re doing the same job, but with a different name (janitors earn more than maids). And they earn more even if they’re doing the same job with the SAME name (male fitness workers earn $16.25 an hour, while female fitness workers earn $12.79).

And the news for women in these jobs is not good. Low-wage women’s jobs are growing at one and a half times the rate of other jobs in the economy. By 2024, one in every six jobs will be in these sectors.

These jobs take a toll on women and their families. 43 percent (8.2 million) live in or near poverty. Many turn to social assistance programs just to get by. They may be compelled to work irregular  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, but we can take steps to pave the way toward reducing inequality, rewarding hard work, and restoring the ladder of economic mobility for everyone—men and women.

We’re urging policy-makers and decision-makers: Raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour; eliminate the tipped minimum wage; guarantee paid sick days; ensure fair scheduling; improve access to affordable child care; improve access to education and training; and restore collective bargaining rights.

You can take action by spreading the word on social media:

1 in 4 women stuck in low-wage jobs struggle to survive. #Fightfor15 & give them a chance to thrive

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