More Women Are Working Minimum Jobs Than Men. Why That Matters

April 14th 2015

Gloria Feldt is the former CEO of Planned Parenthood and currently serves as the president of Take the Lead, a nonprofit initiative with a goal of propelling women to leadership parity by 2025. A New York Times best-selling author, Gloria was named to Vanity Fair's "Top 200 Women, Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers" for her work in advancing women's equality. ATTN: recently spoke with Gloria about her thoughts on wage inequality, the Fight for 15, and why low wage workers are disproportionately women.

ATTN: Why are wages so critical in the conversation about women’s equality?
GF: When it comes to minimum wage workers, nearly two-thirds are women. In today’s economy, almost every family is a two wage earner family or if it’s a single parent family it’s more likely to be a female headed household. And what is in her paycheck -- matters, in either case. Having a fair wage and or equal pay for equivalent work it’s not just a fairness issue anymore. It’s an imperative if families are going to able to afford the basics of life.


ATTN: Beyond the minimum wage, there is serious debate around tipped wages. What is your perspective about how these women are paid and valued?

GF: Well the national average is $2.13 for many restaurant workers and 60% of these ten million workers are women. It has to do with our culture’s notion of a value of any service I have three children also who all got through college either waiting tables or bartending. That gave me an appreciation for what it takes to do those jobs because of my personal experience and I became a better tipper as a result. This is also not just about money - it’s about how you are paid and valued in the workplace. The restaurant industry also has the single-largest source of sexual-harassment charges filed by women, that’s 5 times greater than the rest of the female workforce. That’s profound. For children who came from a household where they had a vision about what they would be able to do for their future, those jobs were a motivation for them to keep going to college. For others people who may not have that opportunity, this sexual harassment sets up a pattern of constant struggle and an inability to move forward in the world.

ATTN: What can we do? How do we advocate for better treatment?

GF: Well, I’d like to share about what I have learned from interviewing women across the country and why I think women are not reaching parity in leadership positions. Women have economic power - we buy over 80% of consumer goods, we have knowledge power - as women earn 57% of college degrees. Women also have policy power, as 54% of votes are cast by women. Yet women are only one-fifth of corporate board, congressional and top management seats in business. Particularly in the business case, there is evidence that businesses with more women in top leadership make more money. In my research, the great deal of it is our own ambivalent relationship towards power. These are learned attitudes in our culture, implicit biases, even though we have changed the laws on the books and opened doors for women. Millennials are in a great position to make a sea change in that, but they are going to have to learn new skills. I think it’s about embracing power in a positive way and transforming it in a meaningful way. We have a traditionally male definition of power - the power over something or someone else. I advocate for a more expansive definition of power to - to innovate, to embrace leadership over domination - that is the kind of change we need. Money is power and increasing the minimum wage would make a huge difference. But we need to change these cultural attitudes as well.

ATTN: What do you think it would do for women to have a higher minimum wage? 

GF: Money and power are almost interchangeable words in our society. Think about this. If you don’t know day-to-day whether or not you can feed your children, you don’t even have time to think about higher aspirations. You cannot give your children the kind of enrichment in their lives that enable children with greater privilege to advance. I have been there. When you don’t know if you can pay your basic bills for the month, there is a level of terror that you cannot understand if you haven’t been there. Especially when you have children depending on you. And so getting out of that wheel, raising the minimum wage, completely changes everything. And if the minimum wage were to double, from $7.25 to $15, that is life altering.

I recently met women from a homeless organization in NYC who had gone through a job readiness training program and had learned basic computer skills. The most compelling aspect was that for the first time in their lives, they were able to get jobs that paid above the minimum wage and they were able to get themselves out of abusive relationships. They were able to leave these partners and be independent. There is a clear link between empowerment and raising the minimum wage. 

ATTN: What barriers stand in the way of minimum wage reform?

GF: It is time for women to stand up to seize this moment, as sure to wreak havoc with prevailing norms as the Second Wave feminism that inspired me in the 1960s to morph from real West Texas housewife (I mean really real -- three kids by age 20 and no employable skills) to college student to volunteer women's activist to a full-out career. Let's stop dancing on the head of a pin to someone else's argument about who is more righteous: the woman who opts out to care for children, or the one who leans in to leadership in the corporate world, or the one who dodges both options to create a part-time alternative. Conflicts like this keep women fighting each other rather than using our collective power to push for systemic changes in the workplace, changes that can open up choices for us and generations to come.