After 40 years as a working woman, from the rough and tumble teenage-low-wage years, to becoming a new college graduate thankful to have rent money, through all those years balancing family and work life, and now, as a working retiree – I thought I’d experienced how lopsided the workforce is for women.
We aren’t on par with men in terms of value, workplace personal safety, or pay, but I had countered that dark side of work as I became successful and worked for female university presidents (only 30 percent of colleges are headed by women). Major media outlets showed women in the corporate world, Oprah’s empire, and last week, the Spanx founder’s billions.
Notable achievements and good stories all, but at what cost for millions of women who do not earn high salaries, have corner offices, and enjoy lovely benefits? Here we remain, mired into a pandemic that cost women jobs and thrusts them back into caretaker roles for the young and the elderly and yet media news stories express surprise that women aren’t returning to the workforce.
Well, duh! When bad conditions hit the tipping point, people seek change. The pink ghetto, a term coined in the 1980s for low paid, undervalued work done by women, is revolting and working women everywhere are joining in. According to recent data, nearly two million women have dropped out of the workforce in the United States. The pandemic knocked out more than 54 million women from the workforce, and they are thinking long and hard before returning to an inhospitable place.
When women entered the workforce in large numbers post WWII, they toiled in areas considered extensions of home — child care, cooks, cleaners, servers, teachers. Women in many countries are clustered in hospitality, food service and retail, and in America, add entry level healthcare positions to those female ghettos. In the 1970s, as more American women than men began to earn college degrees, they entered traditional male employment areas – engineers, architects, and all types of corporate jobs, until eventually, they began to crack the “C suite” – chief executives. Pay increased, representation grew, it all looked good for women according to the positive spin served up by the media.
A note – fewer than eight percent of chief executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies were held by women in 2020. Disheartening, yes, but those truly left behind are our sisters in the pink ghettos of childcare, hospitality work, healthcare workers.
Women were tired a long time before the pandemic, which added to daily stress, but women have been resilient. Baby needed a new pair of shoes and mama went to work. The pandemic – lost employment, isolated at home – changed attitudes about employment for workers of all gender expressions. Ask the strikers at John Deere, Nabisco, Kellogg’s, and Kaiser Permanente.
America has ignored its most valuable workers. And workers are dead dog tired of low pay and little respect for essential services. Childcare, elderly care, and other healthcare organizations cannot fill open positions. Restaurants struggle to remain open. When dining doors closed in March of 2020, many restaurant workers found higher pay and better hours in other occupations.
The average annual salary for a full-time childcare worker is $25,000 – a bit over $12 an hour. Salaries for a full-time restaurant worker, not counting tips, aren’t much higher. Also unaccounted for in those salaries is the lack of full-time work, the working conditions, and hours worked.
These women work long hours, late hours for low pay.
For some workers, the pandemic forced wage increases. Amazon pays its full-time warehouse workers $35,000 and offers benefits. More than half of Starbucks baristas make $15 an hour and benefits are available to full-time workers. Childcare, elder care, restaurant work, hotel and hospitality workers – not so much.
Changes may be on the horizon in federal legislation that promises better infrastructure from public transit to high-speed internet and more funds for childcare and educational opportunities. As important as these forthcoming federal initiatives are, perhaps our personal opportunity for change is more important. We can value the work done for us by others and we can pay them a livable wage.
All women who work, from the care provider to the cashier to the CEO — need to be valued and paid accordingly by all employers. The disparity between a CEO salary and a childcare worker’s hourly wage should not exist as the chasm it is.
For once a country values its people and sees them as equals, it can call itself a world leader. As feminist and activist Lucretia Mott said two centuries ago, “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because, in the degradation of women, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”