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Report outlines barriers, improvements needed for women in workforce, economy

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Women make up about half of Alabama’s workforce, but are three times as likely as men to have minimum wage jobs and on average earn 67 cents for every $1 men are paid, according to a new report.

Pay disparities are even worse for women of color and exist even in high-paying professions, according to the study released today by the Women’s Foundation of Alabama.

“We know that what gets measured gets changed,” said Rachel Bunning, the foundation’s vice president of external affairs, about mapping roadblocks for women in the workforce. 

The report highlights four strategies for improving their access to quality employment — and improve the state’s economy:

Closing the gender pay gap would add almost 59,000 new jobs and $15 billion in new income;

Removing barriers, including limited access to quality, affordable child care and skills training, that keep women from working would add 209,767 women into Alabama’s labor force;

Creating fair access to occupations — women in Alabama more frequently work in lower paying jobs, including food prep and child care.

Closing the wealth gap between men and women that’s created by disparity in pay. According to the report, 25% of black households and 15% of white households in the state have zero net worth.

“We know that boosting women’s participation improves the overall economy frequently by significant amounts and reduces poverty,” said Allan Freyer of Peregrine Strategies, which worked on the report, along with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for the foundation.

“One of the reasons the pay gap is so (significant) is that women are mostly highly working in the lowest wage occupations,” Freyer said. “It’s not just that they’re paid less than men in a given occupation, it’s that they’re overwhelmingly concentrated in the occupations that pay the least.” 

Meanwhile, men are more likely to be in the highest-paid occupations. 

Women in Alabama have a lower labor force participation rate, 52%, than in the rest of the South, 57%, and the United States, 58%.

Alabama Secretary of Labor Fitzgerald Washington recently said that for every person seeking a job in Alabama, there are nearly two available positions. Meanwhile, Gov. Kay Ivey in 2019 set a goal of adding 500,000 newly certified workers to the state’s labor force.

To get more women in jobs, the state needs more child care options, said foundation President Melanie Bridgeforth.

“(Quality, affordable child care) is just as important an infrastructure as a road or a bridge,” Bridgeforth said. “And until and unless our Legislature prioritizes it … we will not be able to move, I don’t think and the data shows, move forward in a real, sustainable way.”

The report also said that in the COVID-19 pandemic, women were more likely to be frontline workers.

They accounted for 81 percent of the health care workers and two-thirds of all other frontline workers, including grocery stores employees, educators and child care providers.

“Workers of color, especially Black workers, were over-represented in frontline work—while only accounting for about 25% of all employed people, Black workers made up more than a third of all essential workers and 40% of child care workers,” the report said. “Adding to the challenge, workers of color were experiencing higher infection and mortality rates from COVID-19, (and) simultaneously lacked health insurance coverage at significantly higher rates than their white peers.”

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