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Women on the Margins of the Labor Market

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The New York Times and other media outlets popularly dubbed the recession of 2007-2009 a "man-cession," vividly painting a picture of the unemployed men hit hard by economic woes. Yet new data published by the Institute for Women's Policy Research suggests that the years that have followed have led to a reversal of fortunes. Young women age 18-34 were twice as likely as young men to report a bout of unemployment in the last two years. They are also recovering jobs slower than men are.

The large imbalance in unemployment rates between men and women may be attributable to their participation in different parts of the labor market. Women are much more likely than men to work in low-wage jobs in the service industry, which has been one of the few areas of job growth in the last few years.

In my own research, I conducted interviews with eighty women living in New York City and discovered that the respondents who worked in low-wage jobs were less likely to stay employed than their counterparts. When employed, the low-wage workers I met worked as line cooks, retail clerks, bartenders, administrative aides, and in other low-paying jobs. Less than one-fifth had attended college and two-thirds of the low-wage workers in my study had less than a high school education. Americans who do not finish high school are often the poorest among us and have life chances measurably lower than their better-educated peers. At particular risk of unemployment are low-wage working mothers such as the women in my study who faced prolonged periods out of work as they moved into and out of the labor market in search of good jobs.

Most of the low-wage earning women I interviewed had great financial needs, yet this did not keep them steadily employed. Women with the greatest financial need to work were almost always also the women with the least rewarding workplace opportunities and the greatest difficulty finding childcare. Even women who were the sole financial supporters of themselves and their families rarely stay employed for long in low-wage work because the working conditions were so poor.

Though low-wage service industry jobs typically last less than a year, the low-wage working-women I met were not unwilling to work. Despite numerous challenges, they did not give up their attempts to find a good job and they continued to plan and search for new and better beginnings. Most women I met enjoyed working but struggled to find a workplace that respected the work they did and provided the support necessary to do their job while caring for a family.

Women employed in the service sector face what economist Jacob Hacker calls "the rising specter of workplace inequality," and, more often than not, find themselves facing repeated bouts of unemployment. The women I met found that since their employers expected high employee turnover, there was little incentive to provide workers benefits or even a basic level of respect for the work they did.

Sociologist Phyllis Moen and psychologist Patricia Roehling note that our labor market depends on two workforces: the primary workforce of full-time steady work and the "secondary workforce" that is made up of positions that are considered easily replaceable and temporary, that "does not require the wages, benefits or security associated with jobs in the primary sector." This secondary labor market is the sector where the bulk of post-recession jobs have been created, primarily service-sector jobs, and the low-wage workers in these difficult jobs are primarily women.

Since the 1970s, women have made remarkable strides in the labor market, but these changes have been incomplete, leaving many working-class women on the margins of the labor market, facing high levels of unemployment. Over the last thirty years, low-income families experienced a dramatic decline in income--an average of a 29 percent decrease--and women's increasingly unstable employment only worsens this situation. Women did gain more jobs than men in October, but the wage gap between men and women persists.

Policies that focus on improving the working conditions of those working at the bottom could improve the lives of a great number of women and their families. The recent IWPR report suggests that there is broad support across political parties to support policies that would develop "high-quality jobs, provide greater workplace support for workers with families to care for, and enhance worker rights." By increasing wages for workers at the bottom and providing incentives for companies to retain these employees, we could promote women's long-term attachment to the labor market--a stance that would benefit these workers, their families and our economy.