Opinion

Women in Low-Wage Jobs Are Underpaid and Overloaded

Despite holding better educational credentials than ever before, women continue to make up two-thirds of the workers earning $10.10 per hour or less.

Joan Entmacher is vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center.
National Journal
Joan Entmacher
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Joan Entmacher
July 30, 2014, 1 a.m.

Maybe you think that gender in­equal­ity is a thing of the past — or soon will be — be­cause wo­men are out­pa­cing men in edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment.

Think again.

Des­pite hold­ing bet­ter edu­ca­tion­al cre­den­tials than ever be­fore, wo­men make up two-thirds of the work­ers in low-wage jobs — jobs that typ­ic­ally pay $10.10 per hour or less. For men, it takes only a high school de­gree to avoid be­ing overrep­res­en­ted in low-wage jobs. But for wo­men, it takes a bach­el­or’s de­gree.

Those are just some of the start­ling find­ings in the Na­tion­al Wo­men’s Law Cen­ter’s new re­port, Un­der­paid & Over­loaded: Wo­men in Low-Wage Jobs. The re­port takes an in-depth look at wo­men and men in the low-wage work­force, in po­s­i­tions such as home health aides, child care work­ers, fast-food work­ers, res­taur­ant serv­ers, maids, and cashiers. We found that re­gard­less of their edu­ca­tion level, age, mar­it­al or par­ent­al status, race, eth­ni­city, or na­tion­al ori­gin, wo­men rep­res­ent a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of the low-wage work­force.

For ex­ample, fed­er­al em­ploy­ment data in­dic­ate that wo­men with some col­lege or an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree make up twice as large a share of the low-wage work­force as their male coun­ter­parts (22 per­cent versus 10 per­cent). Wo­men age 50 and older make up more than three times as large a share of the low-wage work­force as their male coun­ter­parts (17 per­cent versus 5 per­cent). Moth­ers make up three and a half times as large a share of the low-wage work­force as fath­ers (21 per­cent versus 6 per­cent). Here’s how we know this is a gender-re­lated eco­nom­ic prob­lem: In each of these groups, wo­men make up a sim­il­ar or smal­ler share of the work­force than men.

The wo­men in the low-wage work­force may not be whom you think. Only one in 10 is a teen­ager. More than one-quarter are 50 and older. Four of five have a high school de­gree or high­er; more than four in 10 have some col­lege or more. Nearly half are wo­men of col­or. Close to one-third are moth­ers, and four in 10 moth­ers in low-wage jobs have fam­ily in­comes be­low $25,000.

Ima­gine a moth­er who is a re­tail cash­ier or a sales as­so­ci­ate. It was the only job she could find, even though she gradu­ated from com­munity col­lege. She earns $9 an hour, with no be­ne­fits. She’s nev­er sure ex­actly how much she’ll earn each week, be­cause her sched­ule some­times changes at the last minute. That makes ar­ran­ging child care a real hassle and pay­ing for it a frus­trat­ing eco­nom­ic chal­lenge. Pay­ing the bills each month is a struggle. And a single health emer­gency — or a broken-down car — could push her fam­ily over the fin­an­cial edge.

Wo­men’s overrep­res­ent­a­tion in low-wage jobs is a par­tic­u­lar con­cern today be­cause the share of fam­il­ies re­ly­ing on wo­men’s earn­ings has in­creased dra­mat­ic­ally. Work­ing moth­ers are the primary bread­win­ners or es­sen­tial co-bread­win­ners in about two-thirds of fam­il­ies with chil­dren. At the same time, wo­men still shoulder most care-giv­ing re­spons­ib­il­it­ies. And the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of low-wage jobs pose par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges to wo­men as both bread­win­ners and care­givers.

Moth­ers struggle to af­ford the safe and stable child care they need to work — much less the high-qual­ity child care their chil­dren need to be suc­cess­ful in school. Low-wage jobs of­ten lack ba­sic be­ne­fits such as paid sick leave or health in­sur­ance. While the Af­ford­able Care Act has sig­ni­fic­antly im­proved wo­men’s ac­cess to af­ford­able health in­sur­ance, work­ers in these jobs may still face bar­ri­ers to health in­sur­ance cov­er­age and ser­vices, in­clud­ing re­pro­duct­ive health care. Twenty-four states have re­fused to ex­pand Medi­caid cov­er­age. Even with as­sist­ance from the ACA, health care costs can be steep, and the Su­preme Court re­cently ruled that cer­tain com­pan­ies can re­fuse to sub­sid­ize in­sur­ance cov­er­age for birth con­trol. Wo­men work­ing in low-wage jobs, es­pe­cially wo­men of col­or, of­ten face dis­crim­in­a­tion and har­ass­ment.

Wo­men’s in­creased edu­ca­tion, train­ing, and work ex­per­i­ence — along with an­ti­discrim­in­a­tion laws — have led to real gains for wo­men in the work­place over the past 40 years. But des­pite bet­ter cre­den­tials, the job and in­come pro­spects for many re­main bleak. In fact, wo­men’s con­cen­tra­tion in low-wage jobs has in­creased in the wake of the Great Re­ces­sion, and the trend is likely to con­tin­ue. Many of the jobs pre­dicted to add the most work­ers in the com­ing years are low-wage — and fe­male-dom­in­ated. That list in­cludes re­tail salespeople, fast- food work­ers, home care aides, child care work­ers, maids, and house­keep­ers.

The pre­dom­in­ance of wo­men in low-wage jobs makes clear that an eco­nom­ic agenda that works for wo­men must ad­dress the needs of low-wage work­ers and of wo­men in these jobs in par­tic­u­lar. En­sur­ing that work­ers are treated fairly and can provide for their fam­il­ies is vi­tal not only for them, but for all Amer­ic­ans.

The cen­ter’s re­port out­lines a com­pre­hens­ive agenda to ad­dress the chal­lenges faced by wo­men in low-wage jobs — policies to in­crease wages and eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity, sup­port work­ers with fam­ily re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, re­move per­sist­ent bar­ri­ers and cre­ate path­ways to op­por­tun­ity, strengthen col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing rights, and fa­cil­it­ate new forms of work­er or­gan­iz­ing. These policies are es­pe­cially crit­ic­al for wo­men in low-wage jobs. They will also im­prove the lives of work­ers across the in­come spec­trum and make our eco­nomy stronger for every­one.

Joan Ent­mach­er is vice pres­id­ent for fam­ily eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity at the Na­tion­al Wo­men’s Law Cen­ter.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a piece? Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com with a brief pitch. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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