Job Segregation Keeps 1 in 4 Working Women in Traditional Care, Serving, and Cleaning Roles with Lowest Pay

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New IWPR and Oxfam America study: low-wage jobs done mostly by women often require similar skills or more education than jobs typically done by men, yet pay much less.

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.

A new study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and Oxfam America finds that more than one in four employed women in the United States are concentrated in low-wage “women’s work”—such as teaching young children, cleaning, serving, and caring for elders—jobs that are done primarily by women, pay less than $15 per hour, and provide few benefits. Workers in these female-dominated jobs, who are disproportionately women of color, earn less than men working in jobs with similar requirements for education, skills, stamina, and hours. For instance, maids and housekeepers, who earn $9.94 per hour, are 90 percent female, while janitors, who are mostly men, earn 22 percent more, at $12.13 per hour.

Workers in low-wage, female-dominated occupations are better educated than those in other low-wage occupations, yet earn less than workers in mixed or male-dominated fields. More than half (52.3 percent) of workers in low-wage, “women’s work” fields have education beyond a high school diploma, compared with only 38 percent of workers in all other low-wage jobs. Yet, workers in female-dominated, low-wage jobs—4 in 5 of whom are women—make $11.30 per hour on average, while workers in all other low-wage jobs—one in three of whom are women—make $0.51 more per hour.

Despite growing levels of education and training among its workers, low-wage women’s work does not sustain families. About four in ten women working full time in these jobs live in or near poverty and three in five mothers in these jobs depend on subsidized lunch programs for their children. Rates of public assistance program use, such as food stamps (SNAP benefits) and Medicaid, are higher than those in other low-wage occupations.

”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. Improving the quality of these low wage jobs, and creating pathways to stable careers, is a critical part of strengthening our nation’s infrastructure,” said IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault, Ph.D.

Other findings from the study, Undervalued and Underpaid in America: Women in Low-Wage, Female-Dominated Jobs, include:

  • Low-wage women’s work is increasingly done by women of color, particularly immigrant women. As the workforce has grown more diverse over the last 20 years, White women’s share of the total workforce declined by about 12 percentage points since 1994, while their share of the low-wage, female-dominated workforce declined by more than 15 percentage points. Women of color now comprise a third of the total female labor force in the United States, but are nearly 45 percent of women working in low-wage, female-dominated jobs. During the same time period, these jobs also saw a 50 percent greater increase in immigrant women workers than higher-paid occupations. Women of color and immigrant women are more likely to be clustered in low-wage jobs such as personal care and housecleaning than White women.
  • Over half of child care workers have a college education, but child care workers earn $9.77 per hour on average. In 1994 one-third of child care workers had a college education; by 2014 that proportion had grown to 55 percent, a growth of more than 20 percentage points. In low-wage women’s work as a whole, workers are more than twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree (12.2 percent versus 6 percent) and almost twice as likely to have an associate’s degree (11.1 percent versus 6 percent) than they were in 1994.
  • Over half of all mothers working in fast food are paid too little to provide food for their own families. Half (51.7 percent) of mothers working in fast food occupations use food stamps (SNAP) and a staggering eight in ten rely on subsidized or free lunch to feed their children. Even many mothers who work in the health care industry do not have access to employer-provided health care: two in five mothers in personal and home care jobs rely on Medicaid.

As the population ages and the demand for care workers increases, employment in these jobs is projected to grow faster than the economy as a whole. By 2024, one in six jobs (15.5 percent) will be in these low-wage, female-dominated occupations, an increase of more than 25 percent since 1994.

“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 and accompanying policy brief from Oxfam America includes recommendations to improve conditions for workers in these jobs, invest in the caregiving infrastructure, and build ladders to higher-paying occupations.

Read IWPR’s full report, Undervalued and Underpaid in America: Women in Low-Wage, Female-Dominated Jobs at IWPR.org.

Read Oxfam America’s companion brief, “Undervalued and Underpaid in America: The Deck is Stacked Against Millions of Working Women,” at http://www.oxfamamerica.org/undervalued.

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Jennifer Clark
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