Unit IV: Gender and Work in the Global Economy

Gender and Work in the US

Now, more than ever, women in the US are participating in the labor force in full-time, year-round positions.[1] This was not always the case. Changes in the economy (namely, the decline of men’s wages), an increase in single-mothers, and education and job opportunities and cultural shifts created by feminist movement politics from the 1960s and 1970s have fueled the increase in women’s labor force participation. Dual-earner homes are much more common than the breadwinner-homemaker model popularized in the 1950s, in which women stayed home and did unpaid labor (such as laundry, cooking, childcare, cleaning) while men participated in the paid labor force in jobs that would earn them enough money to support a spouse and children.   It turns out this popular American fantasy, often spoken of in political “family values” rhetoric, was only ever a reality for some white, middle-class people, and, for most contemporary households, is now completely out of reach.

Though men and women are participating in the labor force, higher education, and paid work in near-equal numbers, a wage gap between men and women workers remains. On average, women workers make 77% of what men make. This gap persists even when controlling for educational differences, full-time work versus part-time work, and year-round versus seasonal occupational statuses. Thus, women with similar educational backgrounds who work the same number of hours per year as their male counterparts are making 23% less than similarly situated men. So, how can this gap be explained? Researchers put forth four possible explanations of the gender wage gap: 1) discrimination; 2) occupational segregation; 3) devalued work; and 4) inherent work-family conflicts.

Most people believe discrimination in hiring is a thing of the past. Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed it has been illegal to discriminate in hiring based on race or gender. However, although companies can no longer say “men only” in their hiring advertisements, they can make efforts to recruit men, such as circulating job ads in men’s social networks and choosing men to interview from the applicant pool. The same companies can also have non-accommodating family-leave provisions that may discourage women, who they assume are disproportionately more likely to be primary caregivers, from applying. In addition, discrimination cases are very difficult to prosecute legally since no government agency monitors general trends and practices, and so individuals must complain about and prove specific instances of discrimination in specific job settings. Hiring discrimination in particular is extremely difficult to prove in a courtroom, and can thus persist largely unchecked. In addition, even when they are hired, women working in male-dominated fields often run into a glass ceiling, in that they face difficulties in being promoted to higher-level positions in the organization. One example of the glass ceiling and gender discrimination is the class action lawsuit between Wal-Mart and  its female managerial staff. Although Wal-Mart has hired some women in managerial positions across the country, they also have informal policies, at the national level, of promoting men faster and paying them at a different wage scale. While only six women at Wal-Mart initiated the suit, the number of women that would be affected in this case numbered over 1.5 million. Wal-Mart fought this legal battle over the course of ten years (2001-2011). The case was finally decided in June 2011 when the US Supreme Court sided with the defendant, Wal-Mart, citing the difficulty of considering all women workers in Wal-Mart’s retail empire as a coherent “class.” They agreed that discrimination against individuals was present, but the fact that it could not be proven that women, as a class, were discriminated against by the Wal-Mart corporation kept them from being found guilty (Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, et al., 2011). Although Wal-Mart did nothing to curb its male managers who were clearly and consistently hiring and promoting men over women, this neglect was not enough to convict Wal-Mart of class-action discrimination. In this example, it becomes apparent that while gender discrimination is illegal it can still happen in patterned and widespread ways. Additionally, there are a series of factors that make it hard to prosecute gender discrimination.

Photo of the entrance to a Walmart store, with a Walmart sign and logo and aisles with products.
“Walmart mall entrance in Pincourt, Quebec, Canada.” by Bull-Doser is in the Public Domain, CC0

Occupational segregation describes a split labor market in which one group is far more likely to do certain types of work than other groups. Gendered occupational sex segregation describes situations in which women are more likely to do certain jobs and men others. The jobs women are more likely to work in have been dubbed “pink-collar” jobs. While “white collar” describes well-paying managerial work and “blue collar” describes manual labor predominantly done by men with a full range of income levels depending on skill, “pink collar” describes mostly low-wage, female-dominated positions that involve services and, often, emotional labor. The term emotional labor, developed by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983), is used to describe work in which, as part of their job, employees  must control and manage their emotions. For instance, a waitress risks being fired by confronting rude and harassing customers with anger; she must both control her own emotions and help to quell the emotions of angry customers in order to keep her job. Any service-based work that involves interacting with customers (from psychiatrists to food service cashiers) also involves emotional labor. The top three “pink-collar” occupations dominated by women workers—secretaries, teachers, and nurses—all involve exceptional amounts of emotional labor.

Photo of a smiling woman in a red uniform carrying coffee to seated airplane passengers.
“An Austrian Airlines flight attendant serving refreshments to passengers” by Austrian Airlines is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Feminized work, or work thought to be “women’s work” is not only underpaid, it is also socially undervalued, or taken to be worth less than work thought to be “men’s work.” Care work is an area of the service economy that is feminized, involves intense emotional labor, and is consistently undervalued. Caretakers of children and the elderly are predominantly women. Economist Nancy Folbre (2001) has argued that care work is undervalued both because women are more likely to do it and because it is considered to be natural for women to know how to care. Women have traditionally done care work in the home, raising children and caring for sick and dying relatives, usually for free. Perhaps this is because women bear children and are stereotyped as naturally more emotionally sensitive than men.

Some feel it is wrong to ever pay for these services and that they should be done altruistically even by non-family members. Women are stereotyped as having natural caring instincts, and, if these instincts come naturally, there is no reason to pay well (or pay at all) for this work. In reality, care work requires learned skills like any other type of work. What is interesting is that when men participate in this work, and other pink-collar jobs, they actually tend to be paid better and to advance to higher-level positions faster than comparable women. This phenomenon, in contrast to the glass ceiling, is known as the glass escalator  (Williams, 1992). However, Adia Harvey Wingfield (2009) has applied an intersectional analysis to the glass escalator concept and found that men of color do not benefit from this system to the extent that white men do.

A black-and-white photo of an escalator.
“This work” by mimikama is in the Public Domain, CC0

Finally, the fourth explanation for the gender wage gap has to do with the conflict between work and family that women are more likely to have to negotiate than men. For instance, women are much more likely to interrupt their career trajectories to take time off to care for children. This is not an inherent consequence of childbearing. Many countries offer women (and sometimes men) workers paid leave time and the ability to return to their jobs with the same salaries and benefits as when they left them. In contrast, the strongest legal policy protecting people’s jobs in the case of extended leave to care for the sick or elderly, or take personal time for pregnancy and childcare in the United States is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1996. Under this act, most employers are obligated to allow their workers to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave. Unfortunately, few people can afford to be away from their jobs for so long without a paycheck and this policy remains underutilized. Additionally, only about half of the US work force is eligible for leave under FMLA, because the act only applies to workers who are employed by companies that have more than 50 employees. On top of that, many employers are unaware of this act or do not inform their workers that they can take this time off. Thus, women are more likely to quit full-time jobs and take on part-time jobs while their children are young. Quitting and rejoining the labor force typically means starting at the bottom in terms of pay and status at a new company, and this negatively impacts women’s overall earnings even when they return to full-time work.

  1. Much of the material in this chapter was adapted from a classroom guest lecture by Dale Melcher, given on October 26, 2009.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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