A Quick Look at Women in the Workplace and Inequity

A Quick Look at Women in the Workplace and Inequity

Apr 14th 2021

We all know and love diverse women who would’ve been affected by strict labor laws one hundred years ago. Many of the everyday habits women of today have—like swiping a credit card—were illegal.

It’s true, and we’re going to give you a quick history of women in the workforce, what rights we’ve gained over time and how coronavirus has wiped out many of our recent gains (spoiler alert: it sucks). While pay discrimination in the workplace may not be what it once was, we still haven’t achieved pay equity in the U.S. So to properly celebrate the annual International Women’s Day, we have to take a look back at where we’ve been.

A Brief History Of Women In The Workforce

Before and during the early 20th century in the U.S., very few women were employed in the labor force outside their homes. According to the Brookings Institution, just 20% of all women worked outside the home. These working women were largely single; only 5% of married women were categorized as “gainful workers.”

According to Brookings, it’s also important to remember that in early labor history, Black women were twice as likely to work outside the home as white women, and that the Census Bureau did not always accurately record or differentiate working women by race.

Women had very little access to education in the 1900s, and so they often worked dangerous, low-paying jobs in factories. As women began to organize for labor rights in the beginning of the century, these horrific working conditions often made the struggle more pressing. On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a garment factory in New York City. According to Smithsonian Magazine, women workers, many of them recent immigrants, were trapped inside by a locked door meant to keep them from leaving work. As firefighters struggled to rescue the women, many jumped from the ninth-story windows to escape the flames. In total, 146 workers died, and it was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC for nearly 100 years.

Because of labor organization, changes in the economy, and wartime measures that required more women’s labor, by 1970, 50 percent of single women and 40 percent of married women were participating in the labor force, according to Brookings. By the 1990s, labor force participation of women between the ages of 25 and 54 reached just over 74%. In the decades between, women also had to fight for the right to own property, open credit cards and gain financial freedom despite driving economic growth. Those labor activists and women’s rights activists were instrumental to the American economy, and women have added value to every industry they’ve touched.

Women Add Value To Every Industry

While productivity and profit should not be what defines people or makes them important, isn’t it cool that women do both? In fact, diversity of any kind increases company profits, according to Forbes. According to studies, companies in the top 25th percentile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 15% more likely to experience above-average profits. The latest data shows that likelihood has grown to 21%.

Of course, this doesn’t just include women, it includes BIPOC people of all genders, disabled and neurodivergent people and many other groups. According to Forbes, companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits. Diversity, which includes women in the C-suite, makes a company more profitable and productive.

And while yes, we’ve made great strides in labor rights and securing executive level positions for women, there is still racial inequity. Forbes states that in the U.S., women of color represented the smallest portion of executive roles, with Black, Hispanic and Asian women making up roughly 30% of all female-held executive jobs. White women made up the other 70%.

We still have so far to go to get women not just in jobs, or simply working, but in high-paying CEO positions. If you need motivation or a reason to support inclusivity, just look at the numbers. It pays to have a diverse, female-led team. That’s why pay inequities and the wage gap are crucial next steps for progress.

We Still Need Pay Equity

The good news? Things have gotten better for working women of all races and social classes in the last hundred years. The bad news? We’re not even halfway done. The gender pay gap is still on our to-do list, because according to AAUW, white women are paid 82 cents for every dollar a man is paid. This is on top of the pink tax—arbitrary additional costs for everyday items like tampons, “women’s” razors and other female-oriented products. It pays less and costs more to be a woman.

And it doesn’t stop there. Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and other BIPOC women are paid even less than white women, and the pay gap is closing more slowly. According to AAUW, the pay gap is estimated to close in 22 years for Asian women, 350 years for Black women and 432 years for Latina women. That’s absolutely unacceptable.

Coronavirus Has Made It Difficult For Diverse Women In The Workforce

In the short term, women face unprecedented challenges at work because of COVID-19. According to jobs reports, the U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs in December. All of them were held by women. CNN Business reported that for three months in 2020, women held more jobs than men, something that had only occurred one other time during a short period in 2009 and 2010. The pandemic quickly changed things, and women accounted for all the jobs lost in December, while men gained more employment opportunities. And, making matters worse, Black and Latina women lost more jobs than white women.

“Economists often warn against reading too much into a single month, but December's job losses capped off an already awful year for working women — particularly women of color,” CNN stated.

Looks like we’re really not hitting the mark on this year’s International Women’s Day theme of “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”

This backslide has wiped out so many gains made in recent months. According to Refinery 29, a handful of legislators, including former presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), sent a letter to Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council, highlighting the disproportionate economic impact that women of color are facing.

"The coronavirus pandemic has erased some of the hard-fought gains women made in recent decades and poses long-term challenges to women's economic security," the letter said.

Several factors contributed to job losses, like childcare conflicts, being employed in vulnerable female-led industries like retail and hospitality, and major difficulty re-entering the workforce once you’re out of it. This opinion piece in the New York Times by Dr. Diane Coyle, a professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge, posits that we have to get creative and more intentional with solutions to the problem, or women of color will continue to lose access to jobs and financial security.

Yeah, a lot of things have gotten better for femmes, people with vulvas and women over the years, but there’s a long way yet to go. This International Women’s Day, take a moment and reflect on how far we’ve come and what we still have left to do. After all, if we don’t learn its lessons, history is bound to repeat.