Labor Day: A Time to Take Stock of Women’s Progress
By Emily Martin, Vice President and General Counsel, and Liz Watson, Senior Advisor, National Women's Law Center
Labor Day provided a moment to take stock of how women are doing in today’s economy. For many, it’s not a pretty picture.
This might seem surprising given that during the recovery many of the occupations that have shown the most rapid growth are occupations where women hold the majority of jobs. Unfortunately, these occupations are also marked by low wages. In fact, low-wage jobs have grown almost three times faster than middle and high-wage jobs during the recovery.
The top ten fastest-growing occupations include: retail salesperson; restaurant servers; personal and home care aides; office clerks and customer service representatives—jobs where women make up the majority of all workers. All of these are occupations that pay low wages.
In fact, there are 2.4 women for every 1 man working in occupations with median earnings for full-time work below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Likewise, women make up 2 out of 3 minimum wage workers. Often women’s work is synonymous with low-wage work.
And discrimination in promotions and pay persists at the bottom of the labor market too, with men continuing to out-earn women in low-wage occupations. Off-the-clock work and failure to pay overtime further depress wages for these workers.
This is a problem not just for women, but for the families depending on their paychecks—and today’s families rely on women’s wages to stay afloat. Women now make up 63% of primary or co-breadwinners.
Women working in low-wage occupations face not only low wages, but also employer policies that refuse to recognize that many women in the workforce need to be good workers and good parents. Some women workers in physically demanding jobs are forced to quit their jobs or get fired when they are pregnant, because employers refuse to make even minor adjustments that some pregnant workers need to continue to work and have healthy pregnancies. Likewise, women who need minor adjustments to their work schedules to attend a child’s appointment or stay home with a sick child risk losing their jobs.
In short, the rapid-fire growth of low-wage jobs intersects with the persistent and pernicious facts of sex discrimination, occupational segregation, wage theft and public policies that fail to account for the family responsibilities of working men and women.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Congress could pass legislation that would: strengthen pay discrimination laws; help girls and young women train for higher-paying jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields; increase the minimum wage; put in place protections for pregnant workers to prevent employers from terminating them rather than making minor adjustments to work rules; and provide paid sick days for all workers. And the EEOC, the OFCCP and the Department of Labor could redouble their enforcement of the laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment of women, as well as wage and hour violations, with a particular focus on women in low-wage jobs.