A Report on the National Survey from the Working Women's Department of the AFL-CIO

Early in 1997, the nation's largest organization of working women -- the AFL-CIO, with 5.5 million women members -- set out to learn about the issues that shape women's lives on and off the job.

They asked working women what they need and what they have; what's getting better and what's getting worse; and who should be there to back them up. And they took special samplings of African American, Hispanic, and Asian American women, as well as women from different occupational groups. More than 50,000 union and unrepresented women from every occupation and every part of the nation responded to the Ask a Working Woman survey, giving voice to the nation's 61 million working women. It is the first major study of working women's views since the economic recovery.

Working women said that equal pay is their top concern. Despite the booming national economy, they are very worried about job security and their families' financial security. Large numbers of them -- including an even larger percentage of the abundant part-timers -- are going without basic benefits, such as paid sick leave, health coverage and pension plans.

They want help meeting the demands of work and family. Time is often their scarcest resource and juggling work and family is one of their biggest challenges. Overwhelmingly they say that the way to solve these problems is by working together and getting more help from employers, government, working women's organizations and unions.

These conclusions stand out from the scientific survey:

1. Families depend on working women.
Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of working women report that they provide about half or more of their household income. More than half (52 percent) of married women contribute about half or more of their household income.

Forty-one percent of working women head their own households--they are single, divorced, separated or widowed--and 28 percent of them have dependent children.

2. Equal Pay
Despite receiving scant public attention, equal pay remains an urgent concern for millions of working women. Since women s earnings are essential to their households, they believe equal pay will help their families.

Almost unanimously (99 percent), working women describe equal pay for equal work as important. Thirty-seven percent report that making ends meet has gotten worse in the last five years, compared with 29 percent who think it has gotten better. Almost one-third say their current job does not provide equal pay for equal work, revealing a great gap between what women want from their jobs and what they get from their jobs.

3. Good benefits are as critical as good wages in providing economic security.
Staggeringly large numbers of working women have jobs that don't provide even the most basic benefits: one in every three working women (33 percent) lacks retirement benefits, and a nearly equal number--three in 10 (30 percent)--lack health coverage.

4. Things are getting worse, not better.
For all the official statements and media coverage about a booming economy, job security is a major concern. And job security is something women want but don't have.

Forty-one percent think job security has gotten worse for women in the past five years, compared with only 26 percent who think it has gotten better. Only 34 percent say they are protected from layoffs in their current jobs, one of the largest gaps between what working women want and what they have.

5. The plight of part-timers
The survey points up the precarious plight of part-time workers, the issue that prompted the 1997 strike at UPS.

Twenty-three percent of working women are part-timers and their incomes are critical to their families' well-being. Forty percent say they bring home half or more of their family's incomes. Astonishingly large numbers of women who work part time do not have even the most basic benefits. Only 56 percent report that their jobs provide any paid vacations, compared with 83 percent of women who work full time. Only 48 percent of part-timers have paid sick leave. Only 49 percent have pensions and only 45 percent have health insurance of any kind in their current jobs.

6. Time matters
Among the most important employer policies are those that help working women gain greater control of their time so that they can better juggle work and family.

Forty-two percent say they do not have paid family leave, 39 percent lack flexible hours, 29 percent do not have sick leave and 21 percent do not have paid vacation time.

Child care is an especially important concern for young mothers, single mothers and women of color. Only 13 percent of these mothers have jobs that provide child care. Of working women with children younger than age 12, 56 percent say child care is very important. But only 11 percent have jobs that provide child care. African American (47 percent) and Hispanic (50 percent) women are the most likely to want child care but not have it.

Elder care is a growing concern. Forty-seven percent of working women call elder care very or somewhat important, but only 8 percent have it provided through their jobs.

7. Respect is a word working women use again and again to describe what they want.
Women who are dissatisfied with their jobs are three times as likely as those who are satisfied to mention lack of respect as the biggest problem facing women at work. Sexual harassment is also related to respect. Seventy-eight percent say punishment for sexual harassment is very important. But 35 percent say this protection is not currently provided by their employers.

8. Working together to solve problems in the workplace.
A huge majority of working women (79 percent) say that the best way to solve problems in the workplace is for women to join together and work as a group, rather than to work separately as individuals (15 percent).

Women look to many institutions for more help in solving problems at work, including employers and businesses (96 percent), working women's organizations (92 percent), government (79 percent), community and civic groups (76 percent) and labor unions (75 percent).

Working women want change and are looking for help. The AFL-CIO survey findings stand to inform and inspire our efforts on a full range of issues concerning all working women, including raising pay; improving opportunities for advancement; defending economic security; extending health insurance, child care, elder care, pensions and other benefits; and helping working women and men organize for a stronger voice and a better deal.

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