Research exposes how millions of women are undervalued and underpaid, women of color and immigrants feel the greatest impacts.
The US workforce remains profoundly segregated by gender, according to a new report and accompanying policy brief by Oxfam America in partnership with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released today. Undervalued and Underpaid reveals that this gender segregation has negative consequences for women and their families: low wages, scant benefits, irregular schedules, and few opportunities for advancement.
Oxfam and IWPR warned that this segregation is only going to get worse, as low-wage women’s jobs are set to increase at one and a half times the rate of all other jobs in the next decade.
“While much of the discussion post-election has focused on the economic anxiety that plagues American workers who’ve seen their wages steadily erode over the years, it’s women who are getting the raw end of the economic deal,” said Mary Babic, an Oxfam America spokesperson and author of the policy brief. “Millions of women find themselves compelled to take jobs involving ‘women’s work’-tasks carried over from the home. Nearly one in four women is segregated into these jobs that undervalue their education and skills, undercompensate their contributions, and exact heavy physical and emotional costs.”
The report found that millions of women work in jobs that are seen as “women’s work,” and are done disproportionately by women—such as teaching young children, cleaning, serving, and caring for elders. While these jobs are essential to the economy, and require physical skill, emotional labor, and often, postsecondary education, they offer workers low wages and scant benefits. Men with similar skills and education have much higher odds of landing better jobs: jobs that pay more and offer opportunities. Moreover, even when men do take jobs considered “women’s work,” they earn more money than women on average.
“Our society needs to recognize the economic and social value of the work that women perform in predominantly female, low-wage jobs, which includes caring for the elderly and young children. Policy must address the continuing stark segregation of women, and especially women of color, into jobs that are underpaid for their skill levels, despite being crucial to our nation’s economy,” said IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault, Ph.D. “Improving the quality of these low wage jobs, and creating pathways to stable careers, is a critical part of strengthening our nation’s infrastructure.”
The research found 22 such “low-wage women’s work” jobs employ more than 23 million workers, 81 percent being women (19 million), which accounts for over a quarter of all women’s employment. The consequences for women are damaging: 40 percent live in or near poverty, 60 percent of mothers depend on subsidized lunches for their children, the majority have no paid sick leave, they wrestle with part-time schedules and irregular hours.
Women of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs: while they account for a third of the total workforce, they account for 45 percent of the workforce in low-wage women’s jobs. Moreover, women of color tend to be concentrated in the jobs that offer the lowest pay and sparsest benefits.
Immigrant women account for nearly a fifth of the workforce in these jobs. They are concentrated in particularly difficult and tenuous jobs, which may take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Many immigrant women choose not to complain about poor working conditions because they’re worried about their situation and their families. They stay silent about dangers on the job, sexual harassment, wage theft, and more.
“In our current political climate, many women immigrants are even more fearful about standing up for their rights,” said Babic. “This can only lead to greater vulnerability and abuse.”
The research underscores that the women stuck in these jobs are not teenagers. The median age is 36, with 75 percent older than 25. A third of the women working in these jobs are mothers of dependent children; many are single mothers (nearly 15 percent). And while educational attainment among women in these jobs has increased substantially over the past decades, the pay has not. Today, more than half of women in these jobs have some college, and a quarter have an associate’s degree or higher.
“Millions of women around this country like me are doing important work, but getting paid much less than $15 an hour,” said LiAnne Flakes, an early childhood educator from Florida who was quoted in the report and participated in the launch. “We’re the ones feeding you, educating your children, and taking care of your elderly parents. We’re nurturing and teaching the next generation. Getting them ready to enter school and enter society. We need a policy agenda that values our contribution and raises the floor on working conditions, wages and benefits of our lowest paid workers.”
Oxfam called on President-elect Trump to work with Congress to tackle this issue, outlining policy prescriptions to help, such as raising the federal hourly minimum wage ($7.25), eliminating the tipped hourly minimum wage ($2.13) and working towards guaranteed paid sick days for all workers.
“While we don’t yet know how President-elect Trump will address the needs of the electorate that voted him into office, we are convinced that if he takes these problems seriously, there is a lot he can do. President-elect Trump and his administration can partner with Congress to take steps that will meaningfully reduce inequality, reward hard work, and create ladders of economic mobility for women, and men, who currently earn low wages,” continued Babic. “If they choose to do so, however, remains to be seen.”