Gender and the Sinking Floor in the U.S. Labor Market

In the recent New York Times article “How Can We Help Men? By Helping Women,” historian Stephanie Coontz argues, as the title suggests, that workplace policies which are construed as helping women workers are, in fact, crucial for all workers in today’s economy. Such policies include increasing the minimum wage to a “livable wage,” making good childcare available and affordable, extending unemployment benefits to part-time and temporary workers, and strengthening the social safety net to better support families in poverty. These are crucial issues for both women and men workers, Coontz argues, and are only misconstrued as “women’s issues” because of an outdated paradigm of male breadwinning and female domesticity. The reality today, of course, is that both men and women work, and both are struggling to support themselves and their families. “The most urgent issue facing working Americans today is not the glass ceiling,” Coontz writes. “It is the sinking floor.”

I agree. True, the “glass ceiling” is a major obstacle for many women workers, and a “glass escalator” unfairly lifts too many men to the top of the pay and promotion scale even in women-dominated jobs. But at this historical moment, the most urgent issue for men and women workers (and their children) is the sinking floor.

Yet I have reservations about packaging the solutions to this problem as “putting women first.” As Coontz herself persuasively demonstrates, these policies are not for women alone. It is not putting women first to increase the minimum wage, expand the availability of childcare, extend unemployment benefits to part-time workers, and strengthen the social safety net. Such policies put people first—women, men, and children—and preserving their construction as women’s issues risks unintentionally reifying the longstanding employer fiction that women are a special category of workers.

Over the course of modern American history, employers (and others) have carved out women as a special and distinct category of worker—one that needs protection (e.g., bans on heavy lifting and long hours), one that requires monitoring and restriction (e.g., marriage and pregnancy bans), one whose skills are innate rather than earned, one that does not require a “breadwinning” wage. But while women have faced—and continue to face—unique challenges and obstacles in the workforce, they are not a distinct category of worker. And though casting them as such has long been a successful strategy to secure low-wage labor, doing so has far-reaching negative consequences.

Whenever employers successfully carve out one category of worker as different from “real” workers, then not only is that category of worker at greater risk of exploitation, so are all workers.

We see this clearly in the history of the temporary help industry. In my book The Temp Economy, I examine how the fledgling temp industry strategically deployed gender, racial, and class ideologies to sell temp work in the 1950s and ‘60s. This strategy, I argue, did much more than establish a new sector of low-wage, dead-end, pink-collar work:  It helped undermine (traditionally male) “breadwinning” employment.

In the years after World War II, the early leaders of the new temporary help industry successfully gained entrée into the labor market by constructing temp work as white, middle-class “women’s work.” Temp work, the founders of Manpower, Kelly Girl, and other agencies proclaimed, was for white middle-class housewives who had nothing better to do. They were not “real” workers, temp leaders asserted; they were simply dabbling in temp work in their spare time to buy a few luxuries. The title of a 1956 article in Good Housekeeping, “Extra Money for Extra Work for Extra Women,” perfectly summarized the temp industry’s marketing strategy at this time.

In truth, however, most women in the 1950s and ‘60s did not temp for “extra” money; they were not temping to buy fur coats, as industry executives often asserted. Rather, they temped to support their families. Moreover, women weren’t the ones working in temp jobs. By the early 1960s the two largest temp agencies employed plenty of men:  Fully 40% of Manpower’s workers were men, and Kelly Girl Services had launched “Labor Aides” and other company branches to employ male industrial temps.

Nonetheless, describing temp work—and temp workers—as “extra” was pervasive in industry marketing campaigns. This strategy was ingenious because, in the American cultural imagination, it made sense: White, middle-class housewives weren’t seen as “real” workers. It was assumed that they didn’t have to work, and their only real job—as we saw it—was raising their children and taking care of their husbands and home. As a result, the temp industry’s strategy was remarkably successful. Early suspicions about the temp industry and its potential for exploitation quickly faded, and temp agency work gained both cultural and legal legitimacy.

This legitimacy enabled the temp industry to push far beyond the pink collar sector, in both rhetoric and reality. In the 1970s the temp industry stopped marketing “extra women” to do “extra work.” Instead, industry leaders urged employers to replace all permanent employees—men and women, secretaries and CEOs—with temps. They argued that permanent employees were “costly burdens,” “expensive headaches” that needed relief. But this was not only a rhetorical campaign. By providing employers with a steady stream of low-cost, no-liability temps, the temporary help industry gave employers the tools to put this rhetoric into action. Temporary employment skyrocketed in the 1970s and continued apace in the 1980s and ‘90s. Today temp work—along with many other varieties of low-wage, insecure, unstable employment—is widespread: as much as 90% of employers report using temps and temp agencies every year, nearly 3 million people work as “temps” in the U.S. every day, and the temp industry has added more jobs than any other sector since the end of the most recent recession. Moreover, since the 1970s wages across the labor market have stagnated (and declined for white men) and a quarter of all jobs in the U.S. pay below the (already low) federal poverty line for a family of four.

This history suggests that designating one category of worker—first, white middle-class housewives and, later, all temps—as different from (white, male) “regular” workers effectively converted those workers into an inexpensive army of reserve labor and thus contributed to a broad degradation of employment standards.

Yet women are not the only target of such divides. Today there are other categories of workers who are culturally (and often legally) constructed as different from “regular” workers, including prisoners who work while incarcerated, immigrant “guestworkers,” and even interns. We must watch out for such categorizations and, in challenging those workers’ exploitation, we must be careful not to rely too heavily on the socially constructed divides that made it possible. Thus, instead of packaging the solutions to the sinking wage floor as “helping women,” it might be better to rethink (and complicate) the implicit binary between “men’s” and “women’s issues,” and seek to understand in whose interests the lines between them have been drawn.

 By Erin Hatton, assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Buffalo.


3 thoughts on “Gender and the Sinking Floor in the U.S. Labor Market

  1. This is a brilliant analysis. I can’t believe that I haven’t run across your book before, but I will order a copy right away. This sounds perfect for a gender course or a soc of work course. Thanks!

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