The Equal Pay Act was a first step in closing the wage gap – and helping women get infrastructure jobs is the new secret weapon

, | Jun 7, 2023

In 1967, four years after the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed, women workers overall were paid 39 cents for every dollar paid to a man. The EPA, in conjunction with other policy and cultural shifts, has shrunk the wage gap by more than 2.5 times since then, making clear that intentional efforts can lead to tremendous change. And the new secret weapon for closing the wage gap is strategically implementing new federal infrastructure spending to make sure women, especially women of color, are part of America’s industrial policy revolution.

It’s well known that women make less than men in virtually every job. But it’s not common knowledge that men and women being concentrated in different types of jobs – what economists call “occupational segregation” – is actually the key driver of the wage gap. In fact, Cornell economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn find that “occupation is the largest single factor accounting for the gender pay gap.”

Occupational segregation happens when a group of workers is over- or under-represented in a particular job, relative to their share of the labor market. It is caused by both policy choices and systemic biases such as racism and sexism. It especially impacts women in low-wage jobs – jobs in which women of color are overrepresented – who face higher rates of occupational segregation than women in high-income occupations. That’s because while women have increased their share of many white collar occupations, blue and pink collar jobs are still very separate.

There is much work to do. We looked at how many jobs women would get from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) – just one of the Biden Administration’s multiple investments in infrastructure. We found that, without a concerted effort to change the status quo, women will account for only 29 percent of jobs created by the IIJA. The figures for women of color are even more stark: Black women will account for less than 4 percent of new jobs, Latinas less than 5 percent, Asian American and Pacific Islander women less than 2 percent, multiracial women less than 1 percent and Native women 0.1 percent – just 1,150 jobs out of nearly 800,000 per year. Overall, occupational segregation will cost women workers nearly 1.5 million jobs over the next decade from IIJA investments alone.

Yet through enforcement and smart implementation choices federal investments in the IIJA, CHIPS and Science Act, and Inflation Reduction Act can increase demand for women workers and provide good jobs for millions of women. To make this a reality, equal opportunity laws must be robustly enforced, including affirmative action plans for covered federal contracts and subcontracts that detail proactive steps to recruit and advance qualified minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, and protected veterans and up-to-date project-wide participation goals for work hours for women in construction contracts. Rigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment protections are necessary to attract and retain women workers in these sectors.

In addition to explicit legal obligations, these funding streams provide numerous opportunities to improve job quality that can help get more women on the job. The Department of Commerce provides two great examples. First, they announced a requirement for providing facility and construction workers at commercial fabrication facilities with meaningful access to child care. While child care is not the only barrier women face – paid family & medical leave and paid sick leave are essential for keeping women in the workforce, too – this requirement is a tremendous advance. Second, their workforce development plan requirement shows how federal agencies can ensure funding recipients are intentional about recruiting and retaining the workforce needed to do the job, thus ensuring that women are included.

States also have a role in ensuring these investments create good jobs for women. Community workforce agreements, like Oregon’s Department of Transportation’s, allow unions and community organizations to partner with funding recipients to establish legally binding requirements to improve job quality like pre-apprenticeship programs and targeted and local hire. Finally, monitoring and evaluation to track progress are important to measure the impact of these investments in creating good jobs for women workers and ensure adherence to all requirements.

We need to do much more to close the wage gap than just creating a path for women to be part of the infrastructure boom. We need to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination, address the barriers caregivers face, raise wages for women (and men) working in fields that are dominated by women, which are especially likely to be undervalued, and more. But now is the moment to move the needle on occupational segregation – not just because it benefits women, but because women’s involvement is essential to the overall success of infrastructure projects. And we can’t let it pass us by.