Washington’s Working Women: Not equal yet

Women’s earnings are essential to economic security for the majority of families in Washington State. Women comprise about half of the state’s workforce. As job losses mount in the second year of the national recession, women’s support of family incomes is more important than ever.

However, women continue to earn far less than men. On an hourly basis, women’s wages have crept steadily closer to men’s, but since 1990 average monthly earnings have actually become more unequal.

In 1979 Washington women’s median hourly wages were just 59% of men’s. That ratio had risen to 71% by 1990, and to 81% by 2007. At the same time, women’s average monthly earnings compared to men’s decreased from 68% in 1990 to 64% in 2007. In 2007, Washington women on average made $1,672 per month less than men.

In every sector of the economy and at every age, men earn more than women. The disparity in incomes becomes more extreme over the course of workers’ careers. Teenage boys make just a little more than teenage girls. Forty-year-old men average nearly double the monthly earnings of forty-year-old women.

One of the key reasons women earn so much less than men is that the workforce remains segregated by gender. Most of us assume that opportunities afforded to men and women and the social dynamics of gender have become more equal. However, many workplaces remain dominated by one gender and some sectors of the economy have become even more segregated since 1990.

In 2007, women held just 26% of software publishing jobs, 25% of aerospace manufacturing jobs, and 16.5% of construction jobs in the state. Women are also nearly twice as likely as men to work part time. In 2007, one third of Washington women but less than one fifth of men worked less than 35 hours per week. Even among full-time, year-round employees, women’s median earnings were only three fourths of men’s in 2007 – $38,903 for women compared to $51,295 for men.

In the 1960s and 1970s, organized activism, changed attitudes, and landmark national legislation that banned discrimination in employment based on sex or pregnancy threw open new doors to women – and to men. As a result, women’s labor force participation rate rose. In Washington, the percentage of adult women in the paid workforce jumped from 53.5% in 1979 to over 61% one decade later.

Since 1990, both men and women have increased their labor force participation during economic expansions and pulled back when the economy fell.

Among married couples with children at home in Washington state, over three-fourths included a wife and mother in the paid labor force in 2007, and 30% of households with children were headed by a single – usually female – parent. As our population ages, more workers also have care-giving responsibilities for aging parents as well.

Yet forward progress for women in the workforce has largely stalled over the past two decades. Workplace standards remain mired in outdated assumptions that most workers are men and most families have a full-time caregiver at home. Among private sector workers in the United States, only 8% have paid family leave, 43% lack a single paid sick day and one quarter lack any paid vacation.

The mismatch between the needs of working families and workplace standards constrains women’s true choices in the job market. It also results in poorer health for children and adults, higher health care costs, lower scholastic achievement for children, and lost productivity in the workplace.

New legislation that enforces modern workplace standards, protects family care giving roles, and supports early learning and care is needed for women to make the next leap toward gender equality. Without reliable access to paid family leave, paid sick days, and affordable, quality childcare and preschool, career opportunities and earning potential will continue to be limited for the majority of women.

Our children, families, businesses, and communities all pay the price for our failure to step up to the public policy needs of today’s working women.

Read more in EOI’s latest report: Washington’s Working Women: Not equal yet

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