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‘Women’s Work’ Pays Less, and Keeps Poor Women Poor

You might think that if you have a job, even a full-time job, you couldn’t possibly still be classified as “poor.” But you’d be wrong. Often women in the workforce are caught in a trap of working for wages that can’t possibly bring them up out of poverty, even if they’re putting in a hard day’s work. Why is this? There are some insights from a recent Oxfam study that shine some light on the problem.
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Women’s Work and the Tie to the Home 

Oxfam, whose primary mission is to fight worldwide poverty, published the report in late 2016. They looked at jobs traditionally performed by women and how those jobs — often called “women’s work” — are also some of the lowest-paying available. Much of this work is carried over from tasks in the home, like cooking, cleaning, and caring for people like children or the elderly. To make matters worse, women who do these jobs have little to no hope of vertical movement to a better paying wage or position.

Low-Wage Women’s Work

The report found 22 occupations that fall into these categories:

  • Office and administrative assistance (5.0 million workers in three occupations, 77.4 percent women),
  • Healthcare supports (4.5 million workers in five occupations, 87.7 percent women),
  • Retail/cashiers (3.8 million workers, 71.6 percent women),
  • Food preparation and serving (3.5 million workers in five occupations, 71.4 percent women),
  • Early childhood care and education (3.2 million workers in three occupations, 93.3 percent women),
  • Beauty and personal services (1.7 million workers in four occupations, 82.1 percent women),
  • Cleaning and housekeeping (1.7 million workers, 88.3 percent women).

Oxfam’s research found that “[t]he surprising reality is that 23.5 million people are in these jobs, 19 million of them women. Nearly 15 million people (12.3 million women) are earning under $15 an hour in these jobs.”

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Economy Growing Low-Wage Jobs

While the economy has been growing, unfortunately it hasn’t been spawning the types of higher paying jobs that could bring low-wage workers some relief. Instead, low-wage jobs have been on the rise. Between 1994 and 2014, for example, Oxfam found that the number of waiters and waitresses increased by 37 percent. And they project that by 2024 “one in six of all jobs will be in low-wage women’s work; over 2 million of these jobs will have been newly created.”

Women of Color Rank High in Low-Wage Jobs

In another detailed breakdown, Oxfam saw that more often women of color were the majority in low-paying jobs: “Roughly 45 percent of the women in these jobs are women of color, compared with just over a third (34.3 percent) in the total workforce.”

Women of color tend to have jobs that offer the lowest pay and the least amount of benefits. Lack of higher educational opportunities and support can be one of many factors that are stifling growth in jobs for women of color, the study found:

Black and Hispanic women are less likely than white women to have a bachelor’s degree or higher, making it more difficult to move out of the low-wage sector. Immigrants may not speak English as a first language; women of color may be segregated in lower income neighborhoods and regions, without good transportation options to better jobs; mothers (especially single mothers) of dependent children are challenged to find affordable care options.

How Do We Fix This?

Solving problems this big won’t be a quick fix, but we can start talking about solutions.

  • Acknowledge the reality of the gender pay gap. PayScale’s report shows that while the controlled gap is closing, the pay disparity between men and women persists. In particular, it’s important to note the effects that the opportunity gap has on women’s careers. When fewer women work in executive roles, it’s impossible to achieve true pay equity.
  • Advocate for labor laws mandating a higher minimum wage and fair scheduling practices for low-earning workers.
  • Guarantee paid sick days and family leave.

Tell Us What You Think

Where do you find inequality with women in the workforce? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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