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Financial Exploitation of Women in the Workplace Is the Canary in the Coal Mine
Caroline Fredrickson. (Photo: Richard A. Bloom)

Financial Exploitation of Women in the Workplace Is the Canary in the Coal Mine

Caroline Fredrickson. (Photo: Richard A. Bloom)

Part of the Series

The gender gap has not closed for most women at work, and “leaning in” won’t fix this. In Under the Bus, Caroline Fredrickson details the inequities faced by temporary and part-time workers, immigrant women, farm workers, small business employees and domestic workers – in other words, the majority of working women. Click here to order the book now with a contribution to Truthout!

Caroline Fredrickson, author of Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over, recently shared her findings with Truthout on how female workers – particularly in labor-intensive jobs – continue to be economically shortchanged in the United States.

Mark Karlin: You make the alarming and ominous prediction that the exploitation of women in the workplace may be the canary in the coal mine for the growing plight of all workers. How do you see that “leaning together” might reverse this trend?

Caroline Fredrickson: When more than 50 percent of the 99% are women, and, increasingly, women of color, feminists and those fighting against income inequality must come together to fuse a more powerful movement where our policies make the world fairer and our economy more responsive, without trading off the interests of the most vulnerable to ensure benefits for the few. At each turn, so many women, and now an increasing number of men, have been left out of the core protections for the American worker, from child care and family leave to flexible hours and a workplace free from discrimination.

Our nation is in the midst of great change, with greater demographic diversity, where women, including mothers – from the most impoverished to the middle class and above – work in high percentages, and where more and more workers are falling into a legal wasteland of limited rights and contingent employment relationships. As the workplace changes, “their” suffering is increasingly becoming “our” suffering. Our safety net is in fact more like a sieve, letting more and more people slip through. It needs to be rewoven, so it will actually catch people when they fall.

To what degree does the large percentage of women in drastically underpaid job categories – e.g. domestic care, the food service industry, child care etc. – contribute to the exploitation of women in the workplace?

I would reword your question to ask, “To what degree does the exploitation of women cause the pay disparities between traditionally female jobs versus traditionally male jobs?” Many women continue to work in fields dominated by women workers, which are categorically paid less than those dominated by men, even with the same demand for skills and experience. In addition, many of the jobs women fill are minimum-wage and subminimum-wage jobs, where they are the majority of the workforce.

This group of workers has so little political power that the minimum wage remains at historically low levels, and women who earn the subminimum wage paid to tipped employees have their pay stuck at $2.13 per hour, where it has been since the early 1990s. And being underpaid and overworked exercises its own toxic force – balancing families, multiple jobs and chaotic schedules, these women don’t have a lot of time for politics.

As workers paid by the hour have seen their wages stagnate or even become lower (adjusted for inflation), how does the gender gap affect families in which both the father and mother are receiving low wages?

Families are changing and women’s wages have become necessary for families to stay afloat. So the fact that women dominate sectors of the workforce covered by few, if any, protective laws means that their families suffer as well. If we ever had an “Ozzie & Harriet” family structure, it is surely gone now. A lifestyle that used to require one man’s salary now takes two incomes to meet expenses. For poorer families, those in the lower 20 percent of income, the importance of women’s wages is even greater, with more than 66 percent of women bringing in as much as or more than their husbands. When women earn less than they should, these families – and our economy – suffer.

What particularly destructive impact does the gender gap have on families headed by a single working mother?

Not surprisingly, the challenges for single mothers are even more substantial. In a growing number of families, women are the sole earners; these households are our economy’s poorest segment. Between 1970 and 2009, the percentage of single working mothers with children under 18 doubled, and right now almost four in 10 US mothers serve as the only breadwinners for their families. This increase has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the number of children of single mothers who are poor. In 1959, 24 percent of such children were below the poverty line; in 2010, 55 percent of children living with a single mother were poor. To look at it another way, in 2009, 28 percent of unmarried working women with children earned less than the poverty level, compared to only 8 percent of all women workers. The adverse impact on these children, these women and our nation’s future is substantial.

Within the unacceptable gap in pay for women as compared to men in the US, there is even a greater gap for women of color. You have an entire chapter in which you refer to the “Wages of Discrimination.” This appears to be workplace pay discrimination against women of color within gender discrimination against women? Is that correct?

All groups of women, to some degree, suffer from the mix of loopholes and carve-outs in our worker protection laws; but a confluence of factors, including race, ethnicity and immigration status, exacerbates the gap. Women of color are overrepresented in the job categories left out of minimum wage, overtime and anti-discrimination laws. And over the years the contingent of unprotected workers has grown as more women enter the workforce, unions decline, industrial jobs disappear and our population becomes browner. Beneath all this is a history of racism and sexism upon which the structure of our labor protections was built. Through both direct and intentional efforts spearheaded by legislators during the New Deal to exclude workers based on their race and sex, and various limitations built into later laws, certain workers have slipped through the holes in our porous system of labor protections. Over and over it was women – especially women of color – who were left out.

The Center for American Progress sent out an email on Equal Pay Day (April 14) that stated: “According to the latest data, full-time year-round working women earn 78 cents for every dollar a full-time year-round working man earns. The pay gap is even worse for Latina and African American women: African American women earn just 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and Latina women earn just 54 cents.” Are these figures that you are comfortable with?

Sadly, the numbers are right on target. While the 77 or 78 percent represents progress of sorts compared to past decades, much of the increase has come at the top, where high-earning professional women such as Sheryl Sandberg have narrowed the gap slightly. And sadly, women’s wages have gained relative to men’s earnings in large part only because men’s wages have declined. The median wage per hour for women in 1979 was 62.7 percent of men’s wages. That grew to 82.8 percent in 2012, but 25 percent of that growth comes from men losing ground. In the past decade, women have not made any progress at all, with the wage gap overall remaining stubbornly at 77 percent (or CAP’s more optimistic 78 percent), with women of color faring even worse. African-American women make only 71 percent of what all men make; Hispanic women, 62 percent; white women, 82 percent; and Asian women, 95 percent.

The National Partnership for Women and Families states on their website: “As a group, women who are employed full time in the United States lose more than $490 billion to the wage gap every year.” Is that an accurate figure for what you might project the gender wage divide to be in 2015?

I certainly believe it, although I did not undertake that same calculation. Instead, I looked at what eliminating the wage gap would accomplish, relying on economists’ estimates that bringing women’s wages up to a level equal to that of men would raise women’s earnings by more than 17 percent, and family incomes would climb yearly by almost $7,000 per family, or $245.3 billion nationwide.

Your book Under the Bus makes the case that much of gender job pay bias is due to legal discrimination. Can you provide some examples of such laws or lack thereof?

Since the New Deal, legislators have barred certain workers from invoking the wage and hour and anti-discrimination laws. Several laws explicitly carve out certain groups of workers, predominantly women. The Equal Pay Act is a good example. Amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, it adopted the FLSA’s exclusion of domestic and farm workers so for those women, there’s no legal remedy for pay discrimination. Unsurprisingly, women who work as home health aides, nannies or pick grapes in the fields are overwhelmingly women of color.

Perversely, another exclusion bars undocumented workers from seeking protection, allowing unscrupulous employers to mistreat vulnerable workers even more than they otherwise could. This is one reason women farm workers suffer unbelievable indignities in terms of sexual harassment and even rape, not to mention low pay. In addition to these explicit exemptions from the FLSA and the Equal Pay Act, the other anti-discrimination statutes don’t protect employees of small firms or independent contractors – home health aides, nannies and many others.

How much does the relentless push from the religious right, which advocates that a woman should stay at home and raise children, negatively impact progress in reducing the gender pay gap?

The unconscionable fight against paid family leave and affordable, quality child care led by right-wing groups has had a demonstrably negative impact on low-wage families. The right hypocritically has pushed the view that some mothers (white, wealthy) should stay home with their children and simultaneously the view that poor women should work. Their successful efforts to torpedo a public child care program in the 1970s – because it would mean more (white) mothers in the workplace – prevented us from adopting sensible policies to ensure that all children actually have decent care and that mothers have the ability to work if they choose or must.

In the welfare reform fight, conversely, the right fought to make mothers (of color) work without adequate training, child care or other necessary supports. The impossible demands put on working mothers in low-wage jobs with little flexibility makes it hard to impossible to move up the income ladder either through more training or more hours of work. Without access to paid leave, subsidized child care and a fair workplace, women will never be able to make progress in closing the pay gap.

To what degree does the United States being founded as a patriarchal society and that ongoing legacy impact the unfairness of the wage divide?

As the daughter of a historian, I firmly believe past is prologue. Certainly, when we examine our workplace laws, we can still see the legacy of patriarchy and racism firmly entrenched in their provisions. During the 1930s, Southern whites were able to use New Deal programs to build their prejudices into the law, making sure that the domestic workers and farm laborers – a large percentage of whom were women – did not get protections. In so doing, they ensured that a large amount of federal spending would be infused into efforts to maintain what historian Jacqueline Jones describes as “the fundamental racial and sexual inequalities in the former Confederate states.”

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