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Challenges Women Face In The Workforce

As Equal Pay Day (for white women) has just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the current challenges that women in the workforce face.

First, why is it important to look at the workforce in segments? The short answer is that people are multi-dimensional and they may be a part of many marginalized groups at once. Therefore, it’s not only important that we talk about how policies impact certain groups, like women, we also have to talk about other compounding factors and systemic issues that women face based on their race, age, and class – we call this intersectionality.

In the business world, understanding intersectionality is an important part of practicing inclusion because it defines how different facets of identity contribute to our unique perspective and team participation, as well as the ways in which different types of discrimination overlap with one another.

Intersectionality serves as a reminder that when you address discrimination toward one group, it’s important not to neglect or disregard further discrimination of groups within that group. A business that focuses on being culturally diverse and inclusive should also make efforts to ensure that their space is as accessible as possible to people with disabilities, for example.

Women face more challenges in the workforce than men. Period. For example, women’s wages have grown more slowly than men’s wages, persistent racial and ethnic disparities in wages only compound challenges for many women of color, who disproportionately work in low-wage jobs. This means that women must work more, while making less and struggling to get ahead.

Within the workplace itself, women continue to grapple with long-standing inequities, including the gender wage gap that stems from a lack of supportive work-family policies, biases ingrained in workplace culture, discrimination, and occupational segregation that reflects women’s overconcentration in low-wage jobs. The unique experiences of women of color—who live at the intersection of compounding gender, race, and ethnic biases—are often ignored entirely, meaning that the practices and attitudes that devalue their skills and limit their opportunities for advancement frequently go unchallenged.

The barriers women face in the labor market and the challenges associated with managing work and family responsibilities mean that women often perform paid work that is nonstandard or undervalued—working at the margins of the economy to make ends meet. This has historically been the case for women—especially women of color, who were expected to work outside the home at a time when middle- to high-income white women were not and who were segregated into low-skilled and low-wage occupations such as domestic servants, seamstresses, laundry workers, and farm laborers. Their exclusion was further codified in 1938, when domestic workers and farmworkers were excluded from legal protections, including minimum wage requirements, in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Women still make up 95 percent of domestic workers, and a majority of them are women of color and foreign-born and non-U.S. citizens. These women are often mistreated due to the intimacy of their jobs and the lack of regulations and workplace protections.

Additionally, women in particular have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has also intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community and the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders.

Furthermore, many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, and mothers are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps than fathers. Among mothers who are thinking about downshifting or leaving, a majority are leaving because of childcare responsibilities.

So what can we do?

To address the challenges that women face both at work and at home—especially women in low-wage and nonstandard work, including many women of color—policymakers must work toward a new social contract that includes four key components.

First, workers should be assured fair and equal wages, with an increase in the minimum wage, elimination of the tipped minimum wage, stronger equal pay protections, and robust overtime and wage theft protections.

Second, workers should be assured high-quality jobs with essential workplace protections and benefits, including access to earned sick days, fair scheduling, broad health and safety laws, and protections against discrimination and harassment.

Third, workers, especially women, need policies that accommodate and support their caregiving responsibilities, such as inclusive paid family and medical leave and quality and affordable child care.

Fourth, policymakers should listen to and prioritize workers’ voices when creating new policies to ensure that they address the holistic needs of all workers. This should include partnering with unions and ensuring that workers are able to form unions and bargain collectively under labor law.

When policymakers boast about the U.S. economy, they fail to recognize the complexities of women’s daily lives and their diverse experiences in the workplace. It is time for policymakers to acknowledge and address the challenges that women face in the workplace and in managing their caregiving responsibilities without supportive work-family policies. By understanding the disparities faced by the nation’s most vulnerable workers, particularly women of color, policymakers can begin to tailor policy solutions to meet workers’ current and future needs.

Doing so will only grow in importance as the nature of work changes and workers no longer have access to traditional employer-provided benefits and workplace protections. Policymakers must prioritize new and essential workplace standards that reimagine labor laws and workplace protections and benefits in order to ensure the economic security of all workers, particularly women. When developing and touting economic policy proposals, policymakers must seek a real-world understanding of all women’s lives—including their everyday experiences and the challenges they face.

— Melina Brann, Executive Director