Women on the Frontline

“Women are leaders everywhere you look—our country was built by strong women.” This quote by Nancy Pelosi’s certainly holds true for the over twenty-five million women that are part of the dynamic frontline workforce in America. Inconsistent work hours, low wages, and juggling work and home responsibilities are everyday realities for many women, and can negatively impact their growth potential. 

While the percentage of men versus women on the frontline mirrors that of the general population, several large segments of the frontline workforce are female-dominated. In fact, in six major categories of frontline workers—retail, public transportation, trucking/warehouse/postal service, cleaning, home health care, and childcare—women comprise almost sixty-five percent, with some of those industries topping out at over ninety percent female. 

According to an article in The New York Times, “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America,” more than eight out of ten home health and personal care aides are women. These two occupations are also currently among the fastest-growing occupations in the entire U.S. job market. We are seeing their numbers grow exponentially as our population begins to age and the demand for these workers explodes. However, despite the high demand for these jobs, the women working them continue to earn little more than minimum wage, and until very recently were exempt from basic labor protection laws, including workplace safety standards and unemployment benefits. 

The impact and importance of female workers is further illustrated in the retail sector—as is the earnings gap between them and their male counterparts. On average, women in the retail sector make only seventy-one percent of what their male counterparts make. In fact, the Urban Institute estimates that nearly sixty percent of lower income frontline wage jobs are filled by women. 

As if that were not enough, the predominantly female workforce must also contend with inconsistent work schedules. Over forty percent of retail workers in stores do not have a set daytime work schedule (thirty percent have irregular or rotating schedules). A lack of consistency in scheduling can lead to frustration and stress when trying to balance work and home life.

Impacts of the Pandemic on Female Frontline Workers and Supervisors

We spoke with one frontline supervisor who has been at this level for over ten years. She is also one of the many female frontline workers being adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a mother of a six-year-old son, she is worried what this coming school year means for her and her job. Her child will not be attending school in person for at least the first couple of weeks, possibly longer. When we spoke with her, a common theme emerged repeatedly. She did not know how she would be able to work her current schedule, while teaching her child at home. She cited a lack of forward-thinking by her company as part of her frustration. After this spring, when many women suddenly found themselves juggling working and caring for children who were home full time, many companies failed to prepare for the eventuality that the same situation would recur this fall. Now, many female workers like the one we spoke with are left desperately searching for a solution that allows them both to provide financially for their family and care for their children.

What Can Companies Do To Help Level the Playing Field

Women on our frontline are doing more than filling slots, they are a major driving force in our economy. Companies can take several steps to create a more equitable work environment and support these women. First, companies have to close the wage gap. In fast-growing, high-demand fields such as caregiving, minimum wage is no longer acceptable. And in fields where some jobs are dominated by women and some by men, such as retail, the difference between salaries for the two groups cannot be so vast.

Second, giving workers more control over their work schedules, and providing more consistency, is a long overdue change. Doing so will lessen the burden on working mothers, those with elder caregiving responsibilities and others, allowing them to succeed in their jobs and maybe even have time for additional training needed for advancement. They will no longer have to choose between work and their families. Finally, planning for the future and emergency preparedness must become part of every employer’s task list. While COVID-19 initially left companies reeling, now that the threat is identified, it is time to start planning what can be done to mitigate the damage to female employees—from this and whatever next disaster may lie ahead.

We owe these simple initial steps to our daughters, our mothers, our sisters, our friends—these strong, intelligent, hardworking, and talented women who are the backbone of our country. Our frontline can only be successful if all workers are treated fairly and provided an opportunity for success.