(WOMENSENEWS)–On Nov. 8, 2014, the day I was getting married, President Barack Obama was nominating Loretta Lynch for attorney general of the United States. By the time she was confirmed, my husband and I had settled into marriage like old pros. Though Lynch has been sworn in, it doesn’t erase the fact that she had to sustain an insultingly long wait.
Whether the cause of the extensive delay was politics, gender or race — and the pundits and Twittersphere provide no shortage of explanations — Lynch has finally become the first African American woman to serve as the nation’s top lawyer. While her confirmation is a wonderful success, Lynch is just one of millions of women across the country working to break down barriers to women’s access and success in jobs and roles traditionally held by men.
Lynch is only the second woman to hold the office (Janet Reno was the first), meaning merely 2.4 percent of U.S. attorneys general have been women. As absurd as this seems, this drastic underrepresentation by women is common across industries.
The U.S. Department of Labor defines an occupation as nontraditional for women if women make up less than 25 percent of those working in that occupation. Of the 500 occupations on which the DOL collects data, more than a quarter are nontraditional for women.
his nontraditional distinction is important because of the corresponding wages that accompany the category. Nontraditional jobs for women – those in construction, manufacturing, IT and transit sectors, for example – have weekly wages that are 30 percent higher than traditionally female occupations such as administrative assistants and nurses’ aides.
This occupational segregation is a major component of the wage gap, and recent data by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that, at its current rate of closing, the gender wage gap won’t be eradicated until 2058.
Speed Things Up
So clearly, we need to speed things up.
We need to improve many aspects of workplace equity, such as implementing paid leave laws on par with every other developed country in the world, enforcing scheduling predictability for our lowest wage workers and offering equal educational opportunities for women and girls.
We also need to address women’s lack of access to and success in well-paying, male-dominated industries such as construction, manufacturing, IT and transit.
First, women need to understand that these jobs exist and are open to them. As Mary Gatta, my colleague at the National Center for Women’s Employment Equity at Wider Opportunities for Women explores in her book, "All I Want is a Job!," women are steered into traditional career choices by American Jobs Centers, societal and cultural norms and a lack of awareness that these careers exist for them.
Then we need to ensure that workplaces are free of discrimination and that workers — men and women — understand how to address and overcome hostile workplace environments. Much has recently been written about Ellen Pao’s trial. She may have lost her suit, but the incidents recounted and her experiences are all too common for women across the income spectrum.
Obviously, nontraditional jobs aren’t the right fit for everyone. If a woman is afraid of heights, for example, roof maintenance may not be a good job for her no matter how high the wages. The same, though, is true for men.
Others may argue that women avoid dirty jobs that demand physical labor. Well, the 1,980,000 women who work as nurses’ aides — earning only $466 a week– routinely overcome physical and emotional hurdles. These may be different from those on a construction site, but they are no less challenging. The manual labor required as a carpenter is certainly on par with that required to lift a human body.
Despite the hurdles women face in skilled trades, they still enter and succeed at these careers every day. In fact, over 1,000 tradeswomen and advocates are convening this weekend in Los Angeles at the 2015 Women Building the Nation Conference.
One example of this success is Ashley Hayes. With her criminal background, Hayes had trouble finding work in her field, the food service industry. Her family received unemployment compensation, food stamps, Medicaid and WIC benefits, yet they still could not make ends meet.
That’s when she entered a pre-apprenticeship training program, West Virginia Women Work. During an 11-week skilled trades training program, Hayes and her cohort learned carpentry, electrical wiring and plumbing basics. When she started as an electrician apprentice, she was earning twice what she had in the food service industry.
Nontraditional and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs offer women 30 percent higher wages than traditionally female jobs and provide women with transferrable skills, a sense of accomplishment and the ability to reach economic security for their families. Women’s participation in these fields can help business’ bottom lines, improve productivity of the workplace and help expand the workforce pool available to work in industries with projected worker shortfalls.
While work on a construction site might seem worlds away from a U.S. cabinet perch, both represent professions where women are achieving economic security and creating new opportunities for others to follow.
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