Toward equal employment for women

Jane LaTour on gendered pay disparities in the workforce.

Now that March Madness—and Women’s History Month—are upon us, we pause for a look at the distance women have traveled since the Civil Rights Act, with its Title VII provisions for equal employment, became law in 1964. As I wrote in “Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality,” “[W] omen today enjoy many gains won by the barrier-busting advocates for gender equality. Little girls today grow up thinking they might pilot an airplane; or travel into space like astronauts Mae Jemison or Sally Ride; conquer scientific frontiers; play professional basketball on the court at Madison Square Garden; or argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Report on that Court—or the N.B.A. [National Basketball Association]—for the New York Times.”

We’re a far cry from the days when newspapers ran classified ads in sexsegregated columns and brilliant future jurists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite academic records of excellence, had difficulty finding employment at law firms. The road to greater gender equality was built by the actions of individual activists— acting collectively. “Equal: Women Reshape American Law” by Fred Strebeigh tells one aspect of this story. After the loss of draft deferments during the Vietnam War, which resulted in plummeting enrollments, law schools began admitting women in large numbers. Once inside, women challenged the culture in the classroom, then the employment process, and finally the law—bringing their arguments to challenge unequal practices before the Supreme Court. In the legal profession, the fact that women were able to reach a critical mass and move beyond that point enabled an activist generation—as well as women who followed in that tradition—to have a significant impact on institutions and policy.

Many excellent histories explore various aspects of the women’s movement and the organizing that led to massive social changes—for men and for women. Ruth Rosen’s “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America” (2000); “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s” by Stephanie Coontz (2011); Nan Robertson’s “Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times” (1992); and Susan Brownmiller’s “In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution” (1999), are at the top of my list for illumination. Yet, despite all of the gains documented in these books and other scholarship, true equality is still elusive. While this is true even in the lives of highly accomplished professional women, the barriers to equality are much more dramatic, with more devastating consequences, in the lives of working-class women.

In certain instances, Hollywood succeeds in giving currency to the lives of women working, not in courtrooms or operating rooms (medicine: another field that has opened up to women since Title VII), but in the lower-paid precincts, of which there are many. “Frozen River” (2008) is one such film. It perfectly captures the life of a woman struggling to survive on the wages of a part-time discount store clerk. The movie puts you inside the skin of this newly-single mother, forced to make harrowing choices in order to survive—to pay her bills and feed her children—alongside that of another woman, a Native American. The film shows the two mothers making common cause to face the bleak economic landscape where shrinking opportunities present enormous challenges.

For more than a decade, beginning in 2002, I had the privilege of writing about public sector workers for the Public Employee Press (PEP), the newspaper published by District Council 37 (DC 37) of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I wrote many articles based on interviews with women working as civil servants. These stories described the lives of women struggling to pay their bills, support their families, find child care without bankrupting the family budget, getting the kids off to school in the morning, getting to work on time so that they could keep the jobs that afforded them health benefits, and at the same time, absorbing all of the vitriol that’s been spreading across the country—in small towns and large; in rural and metropolitan areas—about our so-called greedy, lazy public sector workers.

How are these women doing? The membership of DC 37 hasn’t had a raise in five-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, rents have risen; the cost of riding New York City’s subways and buses keeps rising, as does the cost of food. And for much of that time, the city under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration was saberrattling about union members needing to contribute more to the cost of their health care coverage. As I interviewed mothers, I liked to ask them what time they had to get up in the morning to get their kids out on time; how far they had to travel to get everybody where they were going—to daycare, school, or work, and what time they got to bed at night—before starting out all over again the next day. In short, I was able to describe the conditions and small economies of everyday living as a public sector worker in New York City.

Over and over, the stories turned out to be familiar: women on shoe-string budgets, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as the expression goes; living with the stresses and consequences of lowwage jobs in one of the countries most expensive metropolitan areas. These are the everyday heroes who contribute to their communities, raise their children, and live invisible lives in an America which provides excessive financial rewards to the rich, while impugning the people whom Mitt Romney referred to as “the takers.” These stories shed light on the reality of the lives of ordinary working-class women. Back in 2010, when some of these interviews were conducted, U.S. Census Bureau information showed the highest overall poverty rate, 15 percent, since 1993. But the poverty rate for single-mother families was an outrageous 41 percent. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Women at Greater Risk of Economic Insecurity,” showed that women of color were at greatest risk of economic hardship and that single mothers face double jeopardy—lower earnings because they are female and higher financial stress from the costs of raising children.

One possible solution to what social scientists once termed “the feminization of poverty” is to get women out of the female job ghettos. “Looking back to the 1970s, economic evidence was accumulating underscoring the point that concentrating 85 percent of women into a narrow range of employment categories—the economist Paul Samuelson’s ‘female job ghetto’—led to a dampening effect on their wages. Research by economists Heidi Hartmann, Barbara Bergmann, and Barbara Reskin, among others, made occupational segregation a hot topic. Their work on the significance of sex segregation in the workplace described the many factors—cultural, social, and institutional—that together added up to preserving the female job ghetto. During the 1970s, ‘59 cents to every man’s dollar’ became a common refrain.” Today, we’re up to 77 cents for every man’s dollar.

The ongoing attempt to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act has focused a lot of media attention on the Equal Pay Act, a strategy that would revise remedies for gender discrimination regarding the payment of wages. But another important act got little attention while celebrating its 40th anniversary— the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act (WANTO). In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $1.8 million in grants to improve women’s participation in apprenticeships such as advanced manufacturing, transportation, construction and new and emerging green occupations. Four decades—and yet the option of women training for and gaining access to work in blue-collar skilled “nontraditional” fields (less than 25 percent of the total number employed in that field) is still marginal and almost invisible. Despite legislation such as WANTO and litigation, scores of court cases brought by women and women’s rights advocacy groups, progress on this front is minimal.

One of my favorite illustrations of the difference and the economic consequences of entering fields traditionally dominated by men goes like this:

“Remember when you were a teenager and your very first job was as a babysitter? You were 16-years-old and you found that taking care of two kids sure wasn’t easy. To make sure that all was safe and sound, the parents would telephone you and ask if everything was okay.”

“Meanwhile your brother was mowing the lawn or cleaning out the garage and getting paid twice as much as you were. And for what? You had two children on your hands and the worst he could do was run over the azaleas with his lawn mower!”

“If you had an experience like this, take notice. You are beginning to understand what the movement for PAY EQUITY FOR WOMEN is all about!”

This scenario was written by the AFSCME Women’s Department in 1978. Back then, AFSCME was a leader in the movement for equal pay and comparable worth. AFSCME’s lawyer, Winn Newman, took the lead on these cases in the public sector. His work is featured in books like “Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization.” The face of AFSCME’s leadership was male—and the members working in the higher paid blue-collar jobs were male too. But slowly, women began to enter those jobs. As this author wrote in “Sisters in the Brotherhoods,” “At the first New York Women’s Trade Union Conference in January 1974, Margie Albert made an argument about male-female pay differentials and the power of a union to boost women’s paychecks: ‘There is no God-given law that says a secretary is making ‘good money’ when she earns $180 a week while a sanitation worker in New York City is earning entry-level pay at considerably over that. The difference is clear. He’s organized in a powerful union. We are hopelessly divided in most offices. Women need unions!’ But another argument was looming. Why were all the sanitation workers in New York City men?”

You can follow the stories of the public sector female pioneers going into the blue-collar jobs over the decades online in the PEP…the first women who became Sewage Treatment Workers and Highway Repairers—women who poured concrete and paved roads, who fixed guard rails, who did the jobs referred to as “men’s work”—and got paid for it. And what a difference that could make in the life of a working woman: the base pay in 2012 for a Sewage Treatment Worker in New York City was $73,000. In California, the equivalent salary for a Wastewater Plant Operator Trainee ranged from $61,500 to $71,184—with benefits. This is a job that provides union benefits for applicants having completed the 12th grade, or its equivalent—no experience required. These salaries are double those offered for the average clerical worker in New York City.

A recent study released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research charted occupational segregation since the 1970s. It showed that young women are now less likely to work in the same jobs as men. While “[w]omen continue to enter some high-paying male-dominated professions, for example, rising from 4.0 to 32.2 percent of lawyers between 1972 and 2009, overall progress has stalled since 1996. Slowing progress, women continue to dominate professions traditionally done by women, which typically pay less, accounting for over 95 percent of all kindergarten teachers, librarians, dental assistants, and registered nurses in 2009…Most troubling, young women experience more segregation today than they did a decade ago; since 2002, their Index of Dissimilarity has worsened by 6 percent, erasing nearly one-fifth of the improvement since 1968.”

What are some of the barriers that endure and keep the numbers of women working in the blue-collar jobs so low? One of the biggest is harassment: private or public sector, this is a topic that never fails to get coverage. Stories of extreme harassment of women working in the blue-collar “nontraditional” jobs show that misogyny persists. There is a constant stream of documentation about workplace discrimination endured by these women. In “Sisters,” there’s a whole section that looks at city agencies. One focuses on the city’s Board of Education, where the carpenter Ann Jochems, the lone female, was sexually harassed to an extreme degree for 16 years. Over time, the numbers of tradeswomen working in city agencies—craft jobs that pay the prevailing rate with the private sector—have been dismal.

A quick look at data provides a reference point: at the Division of School Facilities (DSF), which is where Jochems worked, “a breakdown from 2003 to 2006 indicates the number by trade, title, and gender. However, surprisingly, the DSF does not track these employees by race. In 2003, there were five tradeswomen: one carpenter, one electrician, one machinist, one plumber, and one steamfitter helper. During fiscal years 2004 and 2005, there were four tradeswomen. Fiscal year 2006 saw an improvement: six tradeswomen— two electricians, one carpenter, one machinist, one plumber, and one steamfitter. Working in isolation, they are often targets for harassment and gender discrimination. One by one and two by two, they take up their high-paid, skilled positions in city agencies, still operating on the frontier of gender equality.”

In February 2011, a group of female bridge painters won their bias suit against New York City. Not only did the city’s Transportation Department discriminate by hiring men only, but it allowed the men to “operate like a ‘boys club’ where lewd sexual images and cartoons were displayed at their lockers.” The message that goes out from cases like this is that women are not welcome. Only very tough, thick-skinned individuals need apply.

Getting to critical mass in this realm would require many changes. As long as women are invisible in these jobs; as long as little girls don’t learn about or see any role models—don’t ever spot a woman on a fire truck or see a female plumber—as long as sexism is allowed to run rampant; as long as agencies and the trade unions do not make the issue a priority—then the problem of non-representation will remain. Women may have “come a long way baby,” but in the blue-collar skilled jobs and on many other fronts, they still have a long way to go. There is much to be done to get to real equal employment opportunity. And, as the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observed: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”