Decades of Progress for Women Workers Are at Risk

This pandemic has the potential to erase much of the progress women have achieved over the past forty years. The solution is simple: labor organizing and struggling for jobs and fair pay.

A mother and her daughter wear medical masks before going to work. (Leonardo Fernandez Viloria / Getty Images)

At the beginning of 2020 the Pew Research Council put out a sunny report on women in the workforce. It showed that after decades of struggle American women were finally making real strides in the labor market.

That was in January. In June, the research group released new data which shows that the pandemic has hit women harder than men, threatening to wipe out gains, and reveals the persistent vulnerability of millions of working women.

Before COVID-19, work life for American women as a whole was steadily improving. After entering the workforce en masse four decades ago, women in the United States — including working mothers — now make up nearly half of the adult workforce. Women’s average hourly wage increased by 45 percent between 1980 and 2018, from $15 to $22 (in 2018 dollars). This is compared to a 14 percent increase for men (from $23 to $26) over the same period.

Part of this dramatic improvement comes from women entering more skilled positions in a labor market shaped by automation, globalization, and de-unionization. In recent decades jobs requiring analytical and social skills have seen greater wage increases compared with jobs requiring mechanical skills, and women have moved into these jobs in large numbers.

For example, women now comprise more than half of the workforce in legal, teaching and counseling, business operations, and financial specialist occupations. They have increased their share in accounting and dentistry jobs from 27 percent in 1980 to 42 percent in 2018. Women have seen their wages increase 58 percent in jobs that place a high emphasis on analytical skills, such as engineering, and have increased their presence in scientific and technical occupations by 15 and 10 percentage points, respectively, since 1980.

Women have been able to move into these skilled positions by doggedly organizing against workplace discrimination and by hitting the books. As of 2017, women earned 57.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 59.4 percent of master’s degrees, 53.3 percent of doctoral degrees, and more than half of all professional degrees according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

These gains don’t mean that women have achieved equality in the workforce. Men are still much more likely to have high-paying, prestigious positions. Less than a quarter of S&P 500 board seats are held by women, and only a small fraction of these are held by women of color. Just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and 93 percent of Fortune 100 executives are men.

At the same time, regardless of industry or education level, women are only paid 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, and this wage gap is even greater for brown and black women.

Women are also much more likely to hold low-paid service and retail jobs where harassment, discrimination, and wage theft are common. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “women of virtually all races and ethnicities are overrepresented in jobs that typically pay less than $11 per hour and in those that typically pay less than $10 per hour, compared to their representation in the workforce as a whole.” Women make up 58 percent of the low-wage workforce and 69 percent of the lowest-wage workforce.

As hotels, schools, restaurants, and stores have closed due to the pandemic these women workers have been hit hardest. Recent data shows that the May unemployment rate for women was 14.3 percent compared with 11.9 percent for men.

Hispanic women, who rely heavily on jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector, saw a 19.5 percent official unemployment rate. This figure doesn’t account for the approximately 44 percent of Hispanic immigrants who are undocumented, and thus are not counted in official unemployment tallies and therefore unable to receive unemployment benefits despite paying payroll taxes.

Professional women who have been able to work from home have been shielded from much of this economic pain. But even for these women, the future is deeply uncertain. Economists are dreaming of a V-shaped recovery, but a long-term lack of demand will undercut the viability of many professional jobs.

Young women who have just graduated from college may find their career prospects dented. Facing the “worst job market in modern history” graduates may experience prolonged unemployment or substandard employment, which can have a significant negative impact on long-term earnings.

Other women are facing a “motherhood penalty” that has been greatly compounded by the pandemic. Despite men taking up more household and child-rearing duties in recent decades, women remain primarily responsible for childcare and household chores. Since the pandemic hit, women have had to juggle a more extreme “second shift,” and many report cutting work hours and responsibilities in order to manage childcare.

If schools and childcare providers remain closed, many women will be unable to return to their jobs, whether it’s work in a restaurant or an office. Others risk losing promotions or advancement opportunities because they are deemed unreliable by their bosses or peers.

In short, this pandemic has the potential to erase much of the progress women have achieved over the past forty years.

That is, unless we organize. Women have made great strides in work and education in recent years. We have also proven to be the most militant in demanding fair pay and working conditions. In this moment we would do well to take a page from the teachers and nurses, and refuse to allow the gains we’ve worked so hard for to be taken away.