Earning

40% of women in the U.S. make under $15/hour: 'Disgusting,' says expert, but 'certainly not surprising'

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Key Points
  • Four in 10 self-identified women workers in the U.S., and half of all female workers of color, currently make less than $15 per hour, according to a new report by Oxfam.
  • "The jobs that women hold, and especially women of color hold, in this country are overwhelmingly very low-wage jobs," a labor history professor says.
  • "Fifteen dollars an hour isn't even close to what is a livable wage these days," she adds.

The gender wage gap has long been a problem: In 2020, women's median hourly earnings were 84% of men's, according to the Pew Research Center, meaning the gap was 16%. The persistence of the gender wage gap is, in part, because many women earn especially low wages.

Four in 10 self-identified women workers in the U.S. currently make less than $15 per hour, according to a new report by Oxfam. Half of women of color make less than $15 per hour.

"Fifteen dollars an hour isn't even close to what is a livable wage these days," says Ileen DeVault, professor of labor history at Cornell University.

Indeed, in 2019, the living wage for a family of four was $16.54 per hour, according to calculations by MIT. That's before taxes and before inflation rates spiked this year, bringing the cost of food up 8.8% year-over-year and the cost of energy including gas and electricity up 32%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That so many women make such low wages is "disgusting," says Erica Smiley, executive director of workers' rights organization Jobs With Justice and co-author of the forthcoming book "The Future We Need."

"But," she adds, "it's certainly not surprising."

Women make up 92.4% of child care workers

"The jobs that women hold, and especially women of color hold, in this country are overwhelmingly very low-wage jobs," says DeVault. That's true across sectors.

Women's work often includes 'serving food or serving people'

Many of the positions where women make up a high percentage of workers have historically been undervalued and underpaid, experts say.

"When we think of women's work … most people will think about serving food or serving people," says Smiley. That's because the responsibility of serving, of taking care of the sick, the elderly, or children, has historically fallen on women. They were and often still are the primary caretakers.

Fifteen dollars an hour isn't even close to what is a livable wage these days.
Ileen DeVault
Professor of labor history, Cornell University

In the workforce, jobs that feature this kind of work are considered low skilled. "We tend to think of skilled jobs as jobs that require a lot of education or training," says DeVault. But when it comes to care and service work, "if these are things that these individuals supposedly just learn as they grow up, then clearly they're not skilled because they haven't required specific education."

Plus, she says, "they've always been seen as jobs that women do out of love, not for money." And so female workers are and have been compensated less for them.  

'Those are the jobs that are available'

Many women often accept lower-paid roles out of necessity. "I think they've accepted them because those are the jobs that are available to them," says DeVault. "They don't have much choice, historically speaking."

Once you are tied to a job, it can be hard to make a change. Often when people are paid so little, their day-to day focus is simply on survival: ensuring they have enough hours in this low-paid work to cover their basic needs, maybe even picking up another gig to make ends meet if they need to.

Because the primary responsibility of taking care of a family at home often falls on women, their time is further depleted.

The jobs that women hold, and especially women of color hold, in this country are overwhelmingly very low-wage jobs.
Ileen DeVault
Professor of labor history, Cornell University

Women doing low-wage work can be so "time poor" that taking a step back to try to improve their condition ― like demanding higher pay from their employer ― is extremely challenging. Their priority is making sure there's food on the table today and tomorrow.

"It's like the old Marxist theory of the army of the unemployed," says Smiley. "As long as you have this population of people that are desperate just to eat, then you will always have a base of people who you can organize to undermine the rest of the workforce."

Women workers are 'in a moment where the wind is behind us'

It's hard to say whether trends around pay will change in the near future. "I'm a historian," says DeVault. "I keep looking back and saying, 'These things don't happen so fast.'"

Still, there's been some movement on the unionizing front, which could bring better conditions for some low-wage workers, including women. More than 200 of the Starbucks coffee chains have filed paperwork to unionize, including at a flagship roastery in Seattle. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island recently voted to unionize as well.

Twenty-one states raised their minimum wage in January, according to the Economic Policy Institute. On a state level, most of those increases don't get workers to $15 yet, but more local entities are implementing raises to $15 or more.

Given the tide, Smiley is optimistic. "I feel like we're in a moment where the wind is behind us as women," she says.

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