One significant contributing factor to the wage gap, is the fact
that women are found in low-paying jobs at a higher rate than men. U.S. Census Bureau statistics continue to show that the
average earnings for women are lower than the average earnings for men. When you think of a CEO of a large company, do you
think of a man, or a woman? What about a secretary? How about doctors and nurses? Many of the extremely well-paying jobs are
predominantly men, and many of the lower paying jobs are dominated by women. Due to the high costs of childcare, many single
women are unable to break out of a cycle of poverty even with financial assistance. On this page we will examine this issue
of women being caught in low-paying jobs. The following essay was written by Ellen Bravo and Gloria Santa Anna, in addition
to this essay, I have posted links to two studies on this issue at the bottom.
Any commentator reviewing progress in
the United States during the twentieth century will list prominently the gains of working women. Swept away were laws and
customs that prevailed for the centuries––allowing lower pay for women doing the same work as men, permitting
women to be fired for being pregnant, considering women fair game for harassment on the job. From doctor to drill sergeant,
carpenter to CEO, women changed the face of the nation’s workforce. The notion that women had been absent from certain
jobs because they weren’t capable was dealt a significant blow.
And yet, women in this country still earn less than
men for equivalent jobs. Many women today lose their jobs when they give birth. Sexual harassment remains a persistent problem
in the workplace. While women appear in almost every occupational category, they are woefully underrepresented in higher-paying
In fact, the picture for working women is decidedly mixed. Gains have been real and important, but many women
have not been significantly affected by them. A close look at three areas––pay, work/family balance, and welfare––helps
illustrate the problems and their impact on women and their families. If women as a whole are to benefit, concern for equality
must be joined with fundamental change in the way this society does business.
quick look at the numbers shows how greatly the workforce has changed. By 1998 women accounted for 46.3% of the total U.S.
labor force, compared with 37.7% in 1960. Nearly six out of every ten women––59.8%––age 16 and over
were working or looking for work. Women are expected to make up 48% of the workforce by 2005.
While marriage and childbirth
had never spelled the end of employment for certain groups of women, especially African Americans and immigrants, the majority
of women in the past left the workforce to care for their families. That reality has changed drastically, as a result of shrinking
real wages and growing expectations. Debate about whether women should work has become moot. Most women––including
most married mothers––are in the labor force. More than 62% of mothers of children under 3 work outside the home,
compared to 39.4% in 1978. Employment, however, has brought women neither equality nor an end to poverty.
dramatic increases in pay for some, earnings for women as a group remain not just lower than men’s but often very low
• Of women working full-time in 2000, 13.3% earned less than $ 15,000 for the year. For Latinas, the
figure is 26.9%; for African- Americans, 17.3%
• 27% of employed mothers are in a household with income less than
Why do Women make so little money? Because their employers pay them so little. And why is that? Aside
from the continuation of blatant discrimination the reasons include the following factors:
1) Although there have been
huge changes in jobs formerly closed to women, most Women do the same jobs they’ve always done, and those jobs pay less
than comparable jobs done by men.
• Nearly 60% of Women workers are employed in service, sales and clerical jobs.
Even within certain occupations, women are Clustered in the lower-paying jobs. In retail trades, for instance, Women in 2000
constituted, 78% of employees in gift and novelty shops but only 20% of those employed in higher-paying car dealerships.
More women are in professional and managerial Positions, but they’ve made little head-s way in skilled construction
trades and other traditionally male, blue-collar occupations or at the top of the corporate ladder. Women account for only
2% of firefighters and electricians, 11.5% of police and 5% of senior managers.
• Women of color are concentrated
in the lowest-paving jobs, including domestic workers, nurses’ aides and child-care workers.1
Many people talk
about the need to increase the number of women in science and math. While those efforts are needed, they ignore the underlying
question: why does Society value accountants more than social workers? Embedded in the market value of jobs is the legacy
of past discrimination, based on gender and on race.
2) Women disproportionately are employed in part- time and temporary
jobs. No law says these jobs have to pay the same as full-time and permanent positions, or give any, much less equivalent
Tracy was a temp for more than 6 years because she could find permanent employment. She had to leave her
house—and herschoo1-aged son––at 5 a.m. to ride a bus that took her to a van which transported her (for
a fee) to jobs in the outlying areas. Her annual income was less than $13,000 and she had no benefits. Tracy could not afford
a car and sometimes was without a home. “Even though I was always working,“ said Tracy, “I was living in
When Linda’s marriage fell apart, she tried to find full-time employment but had to make do with
three part-time jobs None of her jobs provided health insurance, including one at a nursing home. At age 38, Linda had a serious
heart attack. She eventually found a doctor and hospital Willing to do the Surgery and was able to have hospital bills waived.
Still, she owed $20, 000 to 16 different health care professionals. After she recovered, Linda found a full-time job and a
second, part-time position to pay something every month on those bills. She suffered another heart attack and died on that
job the day before her 42nd birthday.
3) Moonlighting––working more than one job—has been one area
where women have made great gains in recent years. Between 1978 and 1998, women Constituted 72% of the additional 3.4 million
people in this category, accounting for nearly half (47.8%) of all multiple jobholders. Three out of ten of these women work
two part-time jobs.2
Part-time or temporary positions can be beneficial for women, as long as they are voluntary and
equitable. Increasingly, these positions are neither. Regular part-time female workers are paid 20% less than regular full-time
workers with similar characteristics. In 1997, median weekly earnings of temp workers were $329 a week, as compared to $5
10 a week for workers in traditional jobs.3 Being paid less than full-time or permanent workers often means poverty wages.
According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute 28.1% of women employed by temporary help agencies earn less than $5.95
an hour. So do 36.7% of female part-timers. Fewer than one of ten women temps and two in ten part-timers receive health insurance
from their employers.4
4) Women are still largely responsible for family. The penalty for that is significant—and
most women never make it up. One study of professional women who took an average of 8.8 months leave showed them earning 17%
less than women who hadn’t taken leave.5 For lower-wage women, taking a leave may also mean losing a job and having
to start over—often having to go on welfare. In a 1980 speech, Clarence Thomas spoke with disdain of his sister who
had gone on welfare. He neglected to mention that she’d done so in order to care for an aunt who had a stroke.
The globalization of the economy has affected women’s pay in several ways. Large numbers of women from Asia, Central
America and elsewhere find themselves in the United States, their native economies turned upside-down by transnational corporations.
Here they fill jobs U.S.-born workers try to avoid, sewing garments and assembling products in old-fashioned sweatshops, picking
crops, not uncommonly with their children by their side. The most basic employment protections often elude them. Globalization
has costs for U.S. workers as well, as the same transnationals move jobs overseas in the quest for ever cheaper labor. Decent-paying
manufacturing jobs disappear, replaced by lower- paying industries or low-wage service jobs.
6) Women are disproportionately
represented among minimum-wage earners, accounting for more than 3/5 of all those in this category. Of these women in 2000,
15% were married, 10% were women maintaining families.
7) Unionized women earn 31% more than nonunion women. Despite
talk of “supply and demand,” wage levels depend above all on bargaining power. Being able to bargain collectively
for pay and benefits helps diminish the undervaluation of women’s work and to create more opportunities for women to
move into higher-paying jobs. A contract also ensures greater protection against arbitrary firing and a greater likelihood
of paid maternity leave—with the longer job tenure ensuring higher pay. However, only 11.4% of all women are unionized.
Although women have increased their percentage of all union members, up to 40% in 1998 from 35% a decade earlier, that gain
also reflects the loss of union jobs for men—only 16.2% are in unions, down from 20.4% in 1988.
Clearly, the solution
to women’s low pay must be much more far-reaching than elevating greater numbers of women into jobs traditionally performed
by men. To end poverty among women and their families will require fundamental restructuring of the economy.
Today 55% of working women provide half or more of their families’ income. Only 1/5 of families
with children fit the stereotype of Dad as breadwinner, Mom full-time at home. Yet the workplace has not kept pace with these
changes in the workforce. Passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 was an important step forward. This law allows
women and men to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave to care for a new child, a seriously ill child, spouse or parent, or for
a personal illness. But the impact of the bill remains unacceptably narrow. Consider these findings from an updated study
originally done for the bipartisan Commission on Leave:6
• Only 62% of U.S. workers both work for covered employers
(those with 50 or more employees) and meet the eligibility requirements (at least 12 months on the job, working for at least
• Only 11 % of private sector work sites are covered.
• Two-fifths of non-covered firms with
25- 49 employees do not provide leave for all FMLA reasons.
• 62% of employees at covered establishments do not know
if the FMLA applies to them. 16% of those employers do not know if they are covered or mistakenly report that they are not
when, in fact, they are.
• Women, younger workers, workers with low family incomes, and those not protected by collective
bargaining are most likely to be ineligible or unable to afford leave. Of all ethnic groups, Latino workers are least likely
to be protected.
• Of those who needed leave but didn’t take it, 78% said they couldn’t afford to lose
their wages. Nearly one out of ten leave-takers used public assistance to deal with lost income during leave.
workers in the U.S. have access to paid sick leave or even vacation. According to a study reported in Pediatrics magazine,
60% of the working poor do not have sick leave they can use to care for sick family members.7 Nearly three out of four of
the working poor did not consistently have paid sick leave between 1994 and 1998.8 Adding to the problem has been the view
in U.S. culture that care of family members is a private problem to be solved by individual employees.
1996 we saw the passage of national welfare reform legislation—the stunning reversal of U.S. policy that for decades
had guaranteed assistance to poor women and children. Unfortunately, the new policy is based on faulty assumptions and an
unrealistic view of where women will work.
Many architects of welfare reform start with the premise that the majority
of women are on welfare because they won’t work. Their strategy is to force them to work—any job will do. They
design extensive punishments for those who don’t comply. Since women can’t work without some assistance, they
provide some help with insurance and child care. The measure of success is reduction in the welfare rolls.
70% of women on welfare during a two- year period were working or looking for work.9 They’re cyclers (on and off welfare)
or combiners (combine work and welfare). According to a study of six midwest states by Northern Illinois University, only
6.3% of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients never worked; only 3.4% of adults were under 18.10
most serious problem with the program implemented in 1996 is that it’s missing the key component: jobs. There aren’t
enough jobs, the ones that are available don’t pay enough, and there’s a mismatch between the job seekers and
where good jobs are located and the skills they require.
We need to understand that most women are on welfare because
of problems with work or with some other system in their lives, such as marriage or education. The strategy must be to find
solutions for those problems—job training, creation of living wage jobs with affordable leave, adequate quality child
care, health insurance, along with efforts to eliminate domestic violence, reach equity and quality in all schools, and so
forth. Since the problems affect more people than those on welfare, the solutions need to be universal. The measure of success
must be reduction in poverty, not in caseloads, and rise in self-sufficiency for families.
policy makers and advocates for women’s rights speak of “women” as if one size fits all. But women exist
in splendid diversity. Only a thorough understanding of specific conditions of various groups, an understanding that looks
through the lens of class, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation, can lead us to the range of solutions that women need.
Progress for women cannot be measured only by what happens to women in professional and managerial jobs. In order for women
as a whole to benefit, the fight for gender equality must go hand in hand with the struggle against all forms
1. See Karen Rosenblum, “The Wage Gap: Myths and Facts,” for
occupational concentrations by race, ethnicity and gender. In Kesselman et al. Women: Images and Realities, a Multicultural
Anthology. (California: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1999).
2. Cynthia Costello, and Anne J. Stone. eds., The American
Woman 2001-2002. (New York: Norton, 2001).
3. National Alliance For Fair Employment, Contingent Workers Fight for Fairness.
(Boston: National Alliance for Fair Employment, 2000).
4. Anne Kalleberg, et al., Nonstandard Work, Substandard Jobs. (Washington,
D.C.: Economic Policy Institute,
5. This 1 994 study by business professors Joy Schneer and Frieda Reiton compared
128 women MBAs who had never taken a break with 63 who had taken some leave and gone back full time by 1987.
the Needs of Families and Employers: Family and Medical Leave Surveys 2000 Update, conducted by Westat for the U.S. Department
of Labor. (Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 2000).
7. Jody Heymann, “Parental Availability for the
Care of Sick Children,” Pediatrics magazine, 98, No. 2 (August 1996).
8. Jody Heymann, et al., Work-Family Issues
and Low Income Families. (New York: Ford Foundation, 2002).
9. Roberta Spalter-Roth, et al., Welfare Thai Works: The Working
Lives of AFDC Recipients. (Washington, D.C.:
Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 1995.)
10. Paul Kleppner and
Nikolas Theodore, Work After Welfare: Is the Midwest’s Booming Economy Creating Enough Jobs? (Chicago: Northern Illinois