Part of the Solution to End the Wage Gap: Eliminate Occupational Segregation by Gender

I’ll be joining with my colleagues and tradeswomen friends at Chicago Women in Trades later today to meet with the Deputy Secretary of Labor to discuss Equal Pay Day. But please don’t wish me Happy Equal Pay Day! There is nothing to celebrate about the gender wage gap—it continues to be an unfortunate reality of our labor market. Nonetheless, I am grateful for a day that calls awareness to this unconscionable inequity. Moreover, I’m appreciative for the opportunity to urge the Department of Labor to pay more attention and commit resources to one significant way to eliminate the wage gap – by ending occupational segregation by gender. It is a solution/strategy embodied in the stories of the tradeswomen he’ll meet and it’s my own story too – and why it has been my passion and career for over thirty years.
When I made my first steps into the labor market thirty five years ago as an official college dropout, I didn’t have any specific data about the wage gap. However, I did know that it wasn’t going to be easy to support myself in either of the two jobs I had ever done- as a waitress or as a temporary census worker for the government. These traditionally female jobs offer low wages and no employment benefits. And I knew that men’s jobs (when I was growing up we knew there were men’s and women’s jobs because up until 1973 that’s how the help wanted ads were segregated), especially those that were union, might offer more promise for economic independence and security. It was in my search for one of those good union jobs, that I heard about the Chicago Urban League’s program to train women and men of color for jobs in the steel mills. I enrolled and one day the trainer invited me to consider applying to be an elevator constructor. This wasn’t just good fortune shining down on me – no, it was the result of a newly awarded federal contract that required the contractor to take affirmative action to truly open jobs for women and men of color – which then meant actually hiring someone – not just demonstrating good faith efforts to hire.
When that door opened to me (well it didn’t really open, I had to do some kicking – but that’s another story), I was immediately on equal footing – at least in terms of wages, with all my male colleagues. I didn’t know then how much that opportunity and choice could mean over the course of a lifetime. The difference between the wages I might have made if I stayed a waitress, versus the wages I earned as an elevator constructor could top one million dollars. And wage equality is only the first rung of the ladder – it doesn’t take into account the free on-the-job training I received, the health insurance benefits and the pension contributions that nearly doubled the total wage. Not to mention that all of that economic advantage set me up to be able to own my own home, live in the neighborhood of my choosing, help support family members, and build equity and assets that contribute to my economic security.
My experience working in the trades fixing, maintaining and building elevators and escalators, which for the most part I loved, eventually led to the work I do now – advocating and organizing so tradeswomen could get equal treatment beyond just the wages on the job and so more women would find the doors to these careers open to them. I never expected to make a career of this – nor did I think we’d still be fighting for wage equality all these years. The older I get the more ridiculous this seems, especially since the tradeswomen’s movement has been making some pretty good recommendations on how to end occupational segregation. So here is what I’ll be suggesting to the Assistant Secretary so we can speed up this process:
Women’s occupational segregation is built on sex stereotypes, lack of outreach and information, limited pre-vocational skill training, disparate impact of selection criteria, sex discrimination in hiring, and the challenge of being a pioneer in a male-dominated environment. These are pervasive and persistent issues, but they are not without solutions – so let’s tackle these head on by:
• Establishing and enforcing gender equity policy and practice in our job training and career and technical education systems,
• Allocating resources for preparing women and girls to be competitive candidates in jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields,
• Improving and enforcing equal employment opportunity and affirmative action policy and goals for federal contractors and for apprenticeship training,
• Offering technical assistance and training to help public institutions and industry partners make culture change to ensure gender equitable, neutral and sensitive training programs and workplaces
• We need public policy that allows all workers to have paid leave time to address family and medical needs
If you are a tradeswomen, ally or advocate, I hope you will join with me in sharing your own story and your ideas for ending occupational segregation by gender and closing the wage gap. I’ll be happy to forward to the Department of Labor and to our industry leaders. And I still hold out hope, that maybe next year I won’t have to write this blog all over again and instead I’ll be able to report on the dynamic changes the Department of Labor is implementing to end occupational segregation. But don’t just stay tuned, stand up, organize and demand women’s wage equality now.

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