Oxfam America, in partnership with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), recently released a report entitled “Undervalued and Underpaid in America: The Deck is Stacked Against Millions of Working Women.” The researchers found that of the millions of people in the U.S. working low-wage jobs, the majority are women.
Women in these jobs face many obstacles, such as low wages, few benefits, irregular hours, and little opportunity for advancement. “In the next decade, low-wage women’s jobs will increase at one and a half times the rate of all other jobs,” the study noted. “Even more women will be faced with the need to take jobs that undervalue their education and skills, undercompensate their contributions, and exact heavy physical and emotional costs.” The researchers concluded that significant policy changes that improve compensation and working conditions—while creating opportunities for advancement—are needed.
Low-Wage Women’s Jobs
The study examined “low-wage women’s jobs,” defined as jobs in which the majority of workers are female; the pay is under a median wage of US$15 an hour; at least 100,000 women do the job; and the number of jobs are projected to grow in the future. Low-wage women’s jobs entail duties carried over from the household and historically considered “women’s work.” These include cleaning, caretaking, serving, and cooking. Such tasks were divided into twenty-two jobs within seven broader categories.
The report analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2014 to 2024, and found that of the 23.5 million people working in these 22 jobs, 81 percent were women. Men with similar skills and education either had better jobs or were paid on average more than women if they held a low-wage women’s job.
Jobs entailing low-wage women’s work, such as waiting tables, have grown substantially in the past two decades. Others are projected to grow enormously in the coming years; personal and home health care aides are anticipated to be the fastest growing professions in the country due to an aging population. “By 2024, one in six of all jobs (15.5 percent) will be in low-wage women’s work; over two million of these jobs will have been newly created,” the report found.
The seven sectors examined in the study were office and administrative assistance; healthcare support; retail; food preparation and serving; early childhood care and education; beauty and personal services; and cleaning and housekeeping. Office and administrative assistance was the largest sector of the study. Healthcare support jobs were predicted to outpace any other jobs. Food preparation and serving paid the lowest wages.
The Women in Low-Wage Women’s Jobs
The study highlighted that among women working in low-wage women’s jobs, a disproportionate number of women of color were represented, as were foreign-born women. One-third of all women working in low-wage women’s jobs were mothers, and 15 percent were single mothers. Barriers such as language, education, lack of child care options, and documentation prevented job advancement and frequently led to labor abuse due to a lack of worker options.
The impact of working in low-wage women’s jobs is that 8.2 million women live at or near the poverty line. Due to a median hourly wage of US$11.30, many of these women utilize social assistance programs to take care of themselves and their families. Much of low-wage women’s work is part-time, lacks benefits, offers little to no sick leave, and employs unpredictable and irregular hours. For women who are the primary caretaker at home, job security becomes scarce when life intervenes with a sick child.
Looking to the Future
The researchers advocate a two-pronged approach to improve economic security for all workers. The first step addresses compensation—including raising the federal minimum wage, ending the tipped minimum wage, and providing adequate governmental oversight to prevent wage theft—and improving working conditions, such as protected sick and family leave, fair scheduling, safe working environments, and strengthening equal pay laws. The second step focuses on setting workers up to succeed, through access to child care and higher education, protection for immigrant workers, and restoring collective bargaining rights.
The report warned that if no changes are made, low-wage women’s jobs will continue to grow, widening the gender gap and perpetuating a cycle of poverty in families.