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She Works Hard for the Money

March 8, 2013


It’s been 30 years since the late disco queen, Donna Summer, turned the tune about underpaid women into a global hit –  “It’s a sacrifice working day-to-day, for little money, just tips to pay.”  That reality hasn’t changed much in three decades and there’s little progress in sight for low-income workers, especially women.

March is Women’s History Month  and despite the understandable criticism that “women’s past accomplishments (and failures) deserve to be studied, appreciated, criticized and otherwise actively engaged – not passively cheered in a banal annual celebration,” what better time to lament the sorry economic condition of women in 2013.

In his article. Minimum Wage for Restaurant Servers Remains Stagnant for 20 years Under Industry Lobbying, Dave Jamieson profiles the predicament of women like Rebecca Williams who has waited tables, off and on, for 30 years.  Jamieson points out that though food tastes and expectations have changed dramatically in that time, the conditions for women like Rebecca have not. “Restaurants now tout their commitment to local and organic fare. Diners eagerly pass and poke at tapas-style small plates. Chefs at brick and mortar restaurants now compete with a growing legion of food trucks. But one thing that’s remained consistent in all that time is Williams’ paycheck.”

Rebecca Williams doesn’t work in the fast food industry or the local diner. At age 50, she’s worked mostly at upscale bistros in Atlanta, Ga earning the federally mandated minimum “tipped wage” of $2.13 an hour before tips.  That miniscule wage is usually swallowed up by taxes, leaving her to live on her tips, which can fluctuate significantly from week to week.  According to Jamieson, “Under this system, gratuities aren’t really gratuities. They constitute the vast majority of a servers’ salary. Instead of giving a bonus for good service, diners are essentially subsidizing many servers’ legally guaranteed wages. “

Like so many low wage workers, especially in the food services industry, Rebecca has no health coverage, paid sick or vacation days.  Asked about retirement, Rebecca responds, “I can’t even think about retirement, I’d go into shock.”

The National Restaurant Association (the NRA) has successfully kept most workers’ wages at subsistence levels for decades.  Using the cudgel of job cuts, the NRA has lobbied local, state and federal governments warning that without sufficient profit margins, restaurants are in danger of going out of business taking with them valuable jobs that include the even lower paid staff that bus tables and work as kitchen help.

As the restaurant business grows (2012 sales were $632 billion) the industry now accounts for one-tenth of the nation’s workforce providing more low paid jobs to a mostly female workforce.  While the U.S. Congress has raised the minimum wage (currently at $7.25 per hour) only three times in thirty years, U.S. popular opinion favoring  an increase is gaining traction.  A person working a 40-hour week at minimum wage makes about $15,000 a year – simply not enough to even “get by.”

There is little, if any, momentum underway to raise the “tipped” wage. In fact, it’s surprising how many people do not realize that the $2.13 rate is so common. .

Women – it’s their Fault

Are Rebecca’s stagnant wages, lack of benefits and dismal future prospects symbolic of the true state of women’s economic strength in 2013?
Women now represent two-thirds of all minimum wage workers and the majority of them do not have spousal income to supplement their income.

Controlling for all major factors, women are still paid about .79 cents for every dollar earned by men. Despite assertions to the contrary, women still face bias that prevents them from equalizing their earning power.

Within the past few years, some theorists have claimed that women are simply not as assertive as men in negotiating effectively for their own salary increases.  A study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed women more likely than men to negotiate when this is explicitly mentioned in a job ad.  Researchers found that among 2,422 job seekers responding to ads for an administrative assistant, men were more likely to negotiate when the ad said nothing about negotiation.

These studies are important because as the gender pay gap discussion advances so does the backlash. Despite an abundance of reputable data showing the pay gap across industries, women’s “conditions ” continue to be blamed for the problem. Women are too expensive to medically  insure, women tend to gravitate towards lower paying jobs, women tend to avoid studying the sciences and favor liberal arts; according to these critics, women are always responsible for their own problems.

It’s clear that as women accelerate their demands  on the economy, they often meet resistance. Clothed in new forms (and some not so new – read the comments sections of any online media string and you will cringe at the  ways in which women’s circumstances and demands are often scorned) push-back against women’s demands has become both   more sophisticated and more virulent.

Women are fighting back in clever and determined ways to break through resistance on multiple employment fronts.  According to Cassie Slane, three women calling themselves the LadyCoders are mounting an effort to advance women’s positions in the male bastion tech world.  In an alarming back slide, women in professional computing jobs declined by 8% to 25% from 2010-2011, while the number of men increased 16%.  Slane reports that of 450 IT leaders polled, 30% said they their IT organization had no women at all in management.

The LadyCoder‘s efforts have met with strong resistance on several fronts.  When LadyCoder’s leader, Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack tried to press social media analytics company Klout for data on how many of the 30% female workforce they reported are engineers or web developers, her post got edited.  LadyCoders has also been the subject of criticism by some in the feminist community for promoting adaptation to the male dominated field through the language and tactics they have used in their marketing and training campaigns.

Lean In

Restaurant server Rebecca Williams lives in a world apart from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The unimaginable wealth and privilege that women like Sandberg and controversial Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer occupy is only a dream for the millions of women who toil in kitchens, child care centers and domestic service every day.

Thinking about the common bonds we all share is an important question for all women – working for paychecks or not.

This week Sheryl Sandberg launched her new website and project, Lean In.  Followed by the release of Sandberg’s book and successful 2010 TED talk, Lean In’s message is aimed at younger professional women – don’t say no to new opportunities or “step back” from career, especially if you also want a family life.  Sandberg’s “revolution” is anchored in self-directed Lean In group meetings, called “circles,” where women are encouraged to tell stories with “positive endings about what you learned from experience.”

In a recent New York Times article on Sandberg’s project,  Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, an advisor to companies on improving gender balance comments, “Ms Sandberg does what too many successful women before her have done:blame other women for not trying hard enough.”  While criticism of Ms. Sandberg’s efforts might be too harsh, it’s safe to say that her undertaking completely ignores the huge social and economic barriers most women today experience.

In her blog InPower Women, author Dana Theus defends Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Mayer’s efforts and reminds us that they are doing “what any man would do – running their companies.”  Theus concludes that It’s not Ms. Mayer’s responsibility to represent women’s interests, work-life or otherwise. It’s her responsibility to run Yahoo!”

My thoughts keep returning to Rebecca and the millions of women like her who have no time to “lean-in” or attend time-intensive consciousness raising sessions that are required to end with upbeat notes of “positivity.”  Unlike Ms. Mayer, who has (at her own expense) built a nursery within her Yahoo office to care for her newborn, women like Rebecca, struggle to shift their children between friends and family because certified day-care is costly and scarce in the U.S.

The struggle for women to achieve economic and social parity continues. It is not over –and won’t be for a long time –  no matter who declares it.  It will not be achieved by the elevation of a few women reaching high-ranking positions and fortune – not even when a woman finally takes her place as a President or Prime Minister.  It will be achieved when women are given the rights and respect as equal partners in every sphere of society. It will be done when Rebecca, Sheryl and Marissa each have the same freedom of choice.

I am my sister’s keeper.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related Articles: Why Are Women STILL having a Hard Time in the Workplace?  Women are Leading But Where’s the Power?  What Rights Should All Workers Have? Pt 1


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