As I write this, I am humming the late Donna Summer’s hit “She Works Hard for the Money” and remembering the scenes from the video, featuring a middle-age single mother, an everywoman, scrubbing floors, waiting tables, running a machine in a garment factory, feeding her preteen kids and falling into bed exhausted.

It is the women who inspired Summer that are featured in this special series, funded with a grant from the Ford Foundation to produce profiles of the lives of women working in the 12 jobs most commonly held by women.

In the almost 20 years that have passed since the song was released, little has changed for the working lives of most U.S. women. Summer’s insistence that her listeners “better treat her right” has been largely ignored. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported in April that women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in jobs predominantly done by women, those predominantly done by men or occupations with a more even mix of men and women. (See this chart for a comparison of women’s median earnings in 20 occupations in which women are dominant.)

Summers wrote the song in honor of a restroom attendant who she found napping in an elegant Los Angeles restaurant. Awakened, the attendant apologized by explaining she worked two jobs. Something clicked inside Summer; she wrote the song in about 20 minutes later that night.

The Women’s eNews reporters were not quite as fortunate. They found it a challenge to find workers in “women’s jobs” to be interviewed, in part because they were unwilling to make their wages public and in part they were worried their employers would somehow punish them for what they had to say. The reporters persisted, however, providing these rare glimpses into the lives of ordinary working women. The tales of long hours, low wages and few benefits saddened us, but the enthusiasm and sheer joy the women expressed for their work repeatedly took us aback.

The editors hope you too will find the pieces surprising and informative and that they inspire you as well, be it to write a song, write a story or take action to see that working women begin to be “treated right.”

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