Women have made substantial strides in the workplace across the world. In the 38 mostly developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, female participation in the labor force has risen by five percentage points since 2010, to 66%, compared with an increase of only one point, to 80%, among men. Job satisfaction rates are often higher for women compared with men in EU countries as well, according to another report from the IZA Institute. Yet many women continue to suffer from a gender pay gap and report feeling mistreated or disrespected on the job. Nowhere is that truer than in blue-collar occupations that involve manual labor or skilled trades in areas like construction and manufacturing.
One in five blue-collar women left their jobs last year, making them 19% more likely than blue-collar men to do so, according to an 11-country survey by the Oliver Wyman Forum. Blue-collar women were also 36% more likely to leave compared with women in white-collar occupations often associated with office-based work in areas such as finance, technology, and healthcare. Their high attrition rates are a significant factor behind blue-collar labor shortages in many countries. To attract and retain women in blue-collar positions, companies need to address the root causes that are driving women from these jobs, which will require efforts to promote equal opportunities, ensure fair wages, and break down gender norms in the workplace.
Blue-collar women earn less than their male counterparts, leaving them struggling to make a living. In the United States, a staggering 75% of blue-collar women earn less than $50,000 annually, compared with only 43% of blue-collar men. One Payscale report shows that, even when controlling for education and qualifications, the industries with the widest gender pay gaps are ones with a high proportion of blue-collar workers, including construction and maintenance.
Part of the explanation is that blue-collar women are less likely to hold full-time jobs across all levels of education. Only 65% of blue-collar women from the 11-country survey work full-time, compared with approximately 80% of blue-collar men. Blue-collar women working part-time jobs are twice as likely as men to lack sufficient hours to earn a living. Consequently, they are 50% more likely than any other group to have a second job or even multiple side jobs just to make ends meet. These challenges have driven blue-collar women to quit in search of better paying opportunities. A third of blue-collar women who quit their job in the past year cited compensation as the primary reason. But money wasn’t the only reason; other factors such as work-life balance and poor workplace culture also played a role.
What employers can do: Companies should not only look to provide a living wage to their female blue-collar employees but also ensure they get the same opportunity for working hours as men. Equally importantly, employers should help promote women to higher-paying positions by providing training opportunities and rotational programs that help develop women for senior roles. Offering bonuses and incentives for women who take on additional training or leadership positions could encourage participation. In fact, one in three blue-collar women from the Forum survey have already expressed a desire for leadership and management training.
Disrespect and hostile workplaces
Navigating the workplace can be tough for women, but blue-collar jobs bring an added layer of challenges. Many blue-collar fields are traditionally male dominated, which can contribute to a hostile and draining environment for women that ultimately leads to burnout and high attrition rates. Over half of blue-collar women experiencing personal issues at work cite burnout as their top issue.
Enduring sexual harassment and negative attitudes is a workplace problem for blue-collar women that affects their mental health and sense of belonging. They are more likely than both blue-collar men and white-collar women to be mistreated, feel like they don't belong, or experience impolite or uncivil behavior at work. It’s little surprise then, that blue-collar women are 29% more likely to cite a lack of respect and recognition as a reason for leaving compared with men.
“They made it so miserable for me that I had to quit,” one female ex-gold miner told the New York Times, describing the harassment as “rougher than any [she] endured serving in the military in Iraq.”
What employers can do: While training can help raise awareness, build skills and give managers and workers guidance on how to create a more inclusive workplace, more structural changes can better accelerate real change. Work teams can be curated to be all-women or at least a 50-50 balance between men and women, which can immediately change the behavior dynamic and give women a more equal footing. Promoting more women into supervisory roles is another way to create structural change. Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored - and this is true in skilled labor jobs as well. Proactive training for managers on how to productively sponsor and coach women can bridge this gap. Forty percent of blue-collar women have already expressed a desire to have better sponsorship and mentorship opportunities at their job.
A lack of benefits
Blue-collar women lack access to traditional benefits such as health insurance and paid time off, which exacerbate burnout and attrition. Only 48% of blue-collar women receive traditional benefits from their employer, the lowest of any group. While blue-collar women sometimes rely on spousal insurance plans in countries like the United States, many are still ineligible to receive benefits on their own. This often contributes to women having inadequate health coverage or becoming uninsured, creating financial strain. American women of reproductive age already spend 68% more on out-of-pocket healthcare expenses than men, according to the Center for American Progress. As a result, blue-collar women are requesting improved benefits. When it comes to insurance basics, almost half of blue-collar women are seeking better general health insurance coverage. Furthermore, they are 32% more likely to want dental insurance from their employer and 63% more likely to want vision insurance compared with white-collar women.
What employers can do: The US freight rail industry recently came to the brink of a nationwide strike and the most contentious issue in play was paid time off. Offering reasonable levels of paid vacation and sick time is critical to maintaining a healthy and engaged workforce and continuing to attract and retain talent. It’s even more important to offer those benefits to women employees as they are known to carry more of the care burden in their families. In fact, fifty-eight percent of blue-collar women who don't receive paid time off cite it as the benefit they want the most.
By acknowledging and addressing the pain points of blue-collar women, businesses can begin to solve one key factor behind their labor shortage. It's important to note that these changes will not only benefit blue-collar women but improve the well-being of all workers and help the business thrive. In fact, teams that are gender diverse far outperform other teams across business decision-making, innovation, and employee retention, according to the University of North Carolina Pembroke. The time is now for employers to take action and empower their female blue-collar workforce.
Alicia Wang contributed to this article.