Pink-collar worker

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In the United States, a pink-collar worker performs jobs in the service industry. In contrast, blue-collar workers are working-class people who perform skilled or unskilled manual labor, and white-collar workers typically perform professional, managerial, or administrative work in an office environment.

Companies may sometimes blend blue, white, and pink industry categorizations.

A waitress writes down the food order of diners


The term "pink-collar" was popularized in the late 1990s by writer and social critic Louise Kapp Howe to denote women working as nurses, secretaries, and elementary school teachers.[1] Its origins, however, go back to the early 1970s, to when the equal rights amendment, ERA, was placed before the states for ratification (March 1972). At that time, the term was used to denote secretarial and steno-pool staff as well as non-professional office staff, all of which were largely held by women. De rigueur, these positions were not white-collar jobs, but neither were they blue-collar manual labor. Hence, the creation of the term "pink collar," which indicated it was not white-collar but was nonetheless an office job, one that was overwhelmingly filled by women. Despite efforts by many, including those in the media and early second-wave feminists, the term never caught on at that time with the general populace in either the lexicon or the vernacular, and its usage to this day is still problematic.


Pink-collar occupations tend to be personal-service-oriented worker working in retail, nursing, and teaching (depending on the level), are part of the service sector, and are among the most common occupations in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, as of May 2008, there were over 2.2 million persons employed as servers in the United States.[2] Furthermore, the World Health Organization's 2011 World Health Statistics Report states that there are 19.3 million nurses in the world today.[3] In the United States, women comprise 92.1% of the registered nurses that are currently employed.[4]

Pink-collar occupations include:[5][6]

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Historically, women were responsible for the running of a household.[7] Their financial security was often dependent upon a male patriarch. Widowed or divorced women struggled to support themselves and their children.[8]

Women began to develop more opportunities when they moved into the paid workplace, formerly of the male domain. In the 20th century women aimed to be treated like the equals of their male counterparts. In 1920 American women won the right to vote, marking a turning point in their roles in life.[9]

Many single women traveled to cities like New York where they found work in factories and sweatshops, working for low pay operating sewing machines, sorting feathers, rolling tobacco and so on.[10]

These factories were dirty, noisy, dark and dangerous. Workers frequently breathed dangerous fumes and worked with flammable materials.[11] Women lost fingers and hands in accidents because in order to save money they were required to clean and adjust the machines while they were running.[11] Unfortunately, most women who worked in the factories did not earn enough money to live on and lived in poverty.

Throughout the 20th century certain women helped change women's roles in America. Emily Balch, Jane Addams, and Lillian Wald are among the most notable.[12] They created settlement houses and launched missions in crowded, unsanitary neighborhoods where immigrants lived.[12] Balch, Addams, and Wald offered social services to the women and children, often inviting them into their homes and classrooms.[12]

Women took on leadership roles starting in the church. Women became involved with the church activities, a few went on to become president of the societies. The women who joined these societies worked with their members some of whom were full-time teachers, nurses, missionaries, and social workers to accomplish their leadership tasks and make a difference.[13] The Association for the Sociology of Religion was the first to elect a woman president in 1938.[13]

During World Wars One and Two

A U.S. Navy recruiting poster from World War II, showing an officer of the Navy WAVES before a hospital ship

World War I was the beginning of "pink-collar jobs" as the military needed personnel to type letters, answer phones, and perform other tasks. One thousand women worked for the U.S. Navy as stenographers, clerks, and telephone operators.[14]

The field of nursing also became "feminized" and was an accepted profession for women. In 1917, Louisa Lee Schuyler opened the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing, the first to train women as professional nurses.[15] After completing training, some female nurses worked in hospitals, but most worked in field tents.

World War II marked the first time women began working in high-paying industrial jobs. They worked in factories and some even joined the armed forces. These women were segregated from men in separate groups. Although women joined the workforce they still encountered discrimination in and out of the workplace, which persisted despite anti-discrimination laws passed in the 1960s.[16]

Women who joined the armed forces participated in every military field except combat. One thousand female pilots joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, one hundred and forty thousand women joined the Women's Army Corps and one hundred thousand women joined the U.S. Navy as nurses and administrative staff.[17]

Two million women held office jobs during World War II, which offered job security because they had become "feminized".[18]

Life in the working world

This graph shows the increase in women graduating high school and attending college, while there is a decrease in high school dropouts.

A typical job sought by working women was that of a telephone operator or Hello Girl. The workers would sit on stools facing a wall with hundreds of outlets and tiny blinking lights; they had to work quickly when a light flashed plugging the cord into the proper outlet. Despite the hassles many women wanted this job because it paid five dollars a week and provided a rest lounge for the employees to take a break.[19]

Female secretaries were also popular; they were instructed to be efficient, tough and hardworking but to appear soft, accommodating and subservient.[20] They were instructed to be the protector and partner to their boss behind closed doors and a helpmate in public. These women were encouraged to go to charm schools and express their personality through fashion instead of furthering their education.[20]

Social work became a female-dominated profession in the 1930s, emphasizing a group professional identity and the casework method.[21] Social workers gave crucial expertise for the expansion of federal, state and local government, as well as services to meet the needs of the Depression.[21]

Teachers in primary and secondary schools remained female, although as the war progressed women began to move on to better employment and higher salaries.[22] In 1940 teaching positions paid less than $1,500 a year and fell to $800 in rural areas.[22]

Women scientists found it hard to gain appointments at universities; they were forced to take positions in high schools, state or women's colleges, governmental agencies and alternative institutions such as libraries or museums.[23] Women who took jobs at such places often did clerical duties and though some held professional positions, these boundaries were blurred.[23]

Women were hired as librarians who had been professionalized and feminized, in 1920 women accounted for 88% of librarians in the United States.[23]

Two-thirds of the American Geographical Society (AGS)'s employees were women, who served as librarians, editorial personal in the publishing programs, secretaries, research editors, copy editors, proofreaders, research assistants and sales staff. These women came with credentials from well-known colleges and universities and many were overqualified for their positions, but later were promoted to more prestigious positions.

Although female employees did not receive equal pay, they did get sabbaticals to attend university and to travel for their professions all at the cost of the AGS.[23] Male co-workers portrayed their women counterparts as dedicated and self-effacing.[23] Those women working managerial and library or museums positions made an impact on women in the work force, but still encountered discrimination when they tried to advance.

In the 1940s clerical work expanded to occupy the largest number of women employees, this field diversified as it moved into commercial service.[24] The average worker in the 1940s was over 35 years old, married, and needed to work to keep their families afloat.[25]

During the 1950s women were taught that marriage and domesticity were more important than a career. Most women followed this path because of the uncertainty of the post war years.[26] The suburban housewife was encouraged to have hobbies like bread making and sewing. The 1950s housewife was in conflict between being "just a housewife" because their upbringing taught them competition and achievement, many had furthered their education deriving a sense of self-worth.[27]


A single woman working in a factory in the early 20th century earned less than $8 a week, and if the woman was absent from work or late, their employer penalized them by subtracting a few cents or sometimes paying them nothing.[19] These women would live in boarding houses costing $1.50 a week, waking at 5:30 a.m. to start their ten-hour work day.

When women entered the paid workforce in the 1920s they were paid less than men because employers thought the women's jobs were temporary. Employers also paid women less than men because they believed in the "Pin Money Theory", which said that women's earnings were secondary to that of their male counterparts.

Women took typical jobs that were "considerably less substantial than their husbands' in terms of both the average number of hours worked per week as well as continuity over time".[28] However, working women still experienced stress and overload because they were still responsible for the majority of the housework and taking care of the children. This left women isolated and subjected them to their husband's control.[28]

In the early 1900s women's pay was one to three dollars a week and much of that went to living expenses.[29] In the 1900s female tobacco strippers earned five dollars a week, half of what their male coworkers made and seamstresses made six to seven dollars a week compared to a cutter's salary of $16.[30]

The early 1900s women working in factories were paid by the piece, not receiving a fixed weekly wage.[31] Those that were pinching pennies pushed themselves to produce more product so that they earned more money.[31]

The women who earned enough to live on found it impossible to keep their salary rate from being reduced because bosses often made "mistakes" in computing a worker's piece rate.[32] Women who received this kind of treatment did not disagree for fear of losing their jobs. Employers would frequently deduct pay for work they deemed imperfect and for simply trying to lighten the mood by laughing or talking while they worked.[32]

In 1937 a woman's average yearly salary was $525 compared to a man's salary of $1,027.[30] Women in 1991 only earned seventy percent of what men earned regardless of their education.[16]

In the 1940s two-thirds of the women who were in the labor force suffered a decrease in earnings; the average weekly paychecks fell from $50 to $37.[16]

During the 1970s and 1980s women began to fight for equality, they fought against discrimination in jobs where women worked and the educational institutions that would lead to those jobs.[16]

In 1973 the average salaries for women were 57% compared to those of men, but this gender earnings gap was especially noticeable in pink-collar jobs where the largest number of women were employed.[33] Women were given routine, less responsible jobs available and often with a lower pay than men. These jobs were monotonous and mechanical often with assembly-line procedures.[34]


Women entering the workforce had difficulty finding a satisfactory job without references or an education.[35] However, opportunities for higher education expanded as women were admitted to all-male schools like the United States service academies and Ivy League strongholds.[36] Education became a way for society to shape women into its ideal housewife, in the 1950s authorities and educators encouraged college because they found new value in vocational training for domesticity.[37] College prepared women for future roles, while men and women were taught together they were groomed for different paths after they graduated.[38] Education started out as a way to teach women how to be a good wife, but it also allowed them to broaden their minds because of it women earned better jobs and salaries.

Being educated was an expectation for women entering the paying workforce even though male equivalents did not need a high school diploma.[39] While in college a woman would experience extracurricular activities like a sorority that offered a separate space for the woman to practice types of social service work that was expected from her.[40]

Not all of a woman's education was done in the classroom, but rather among their peers through "dating". No longer did men and women have to be supervised when alone together. Dating allowed men and women to practice the paired activities that would later become a way of life.[40]

Women's unions and organizations

New women's organizations sprouted up working to reform and protect women in the workplace. The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) was the largest and most prestigious organization; the members were conservative middle-class housewives.[41] The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was formed after women shirtwaist makers went on strike in New York City in 1909.[42] It started as a small walkout, with a handful of members from one shop and grew to a force of ten of thousands, changing the course of the labor movement forever.[42] In 1910 women allied themselves with the Progressive Party who sought to reform social issues.

Another organization that grew out of women in the workforce was the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor. The Women's Bureau regulated conditions for women employees. As female labor became a crucial part of the economy, efforts by the Women's Bureau increased. The Bureau pushed for employers to take advantage of "women-power" and persuaded women to enter the employment market.[43]

In 1913 the ILGWU signed the well-known "protocol in the Dress and Waist Industry" which was the first contract between labor and management settled by outside negotiators.[44] The contract formalized the trade's division of labor by gender.[44]

Another win for women came in 1921 when congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, a welfare measure intended to reduce infant and maternal mortality; it was the first federally funded healthcare act.[45] The act provided federal funds to establish health centers for prenatal and child care.[45] Expectant mothers and children could receive health checkups and health advice.[45]

In 1963 the Equal Pay Act was passed making it the first federal law against sex discrimination, equal pay for equal work, and made employers hire women workers if they qualified from the start.[46]

Unions also became a major outlet for women to fight against the unfair treatment they experienced. Women who joined these types of unions stayed before and after work to talk about the benefits of the union, collect dues, obtain charters, and form bargaining committees.[42]

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was approved in May 1933. The NRA negotiated codes designed to rekindle production.[47] It raised wages, shortened workers' hours, and increased employment for the first time maximizing hour and minimizing wage provisions benefiting female workers.[47] The NRA had its flaws however, it only covered half of the women in the workforce particularly manufacturing and trade.[47] The NRA regulated working conditions only for women with a job and did not offer any relief for the two million unemployed women who desperately needed it.[48]

The 1930s proved successful for women in the workplace thanks to federal relief programs and the growth of unions. For the first time women were not completely dependent on themselves, in 1933 the federal government expanded in its responsibility to female workers. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act grew out of several successful strikes. Two million women joined the workforce during the Great Depression despite negative public opinion.[49]

Pink ghetto

Pink ghetto is a term used to refer to jobs dominated by women. The term was coined in 1983 to describe the limits women have in furthering their careers, since the jobs are often dead-end, stressful and underpaid.

Pink ghetto can also describe the placement of female managers into positions that will not lead them to the board room, thus perpetuating the "glass ceiling". This includes managing areas such as human resources, customer service, and other areas that do not contribute to the corporate "bottom line". While this allows women to rise in ranks as a manager, their career eventually stalls out and they're excluded from the upper echelons.[50][51][52]

See also


  1. Wickman, Forrest. "Working Man's Blues: Why do we call manual laborers Darth Vader?", 1 May 2012.
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  7. Ware 1982, p. 17
  8. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 333
  9. Naffziger, Claudeen Cline; et al. (1974). "Development of Sex Role Stereotypes", The Family Coordinator 256 (3)
  10. Gourley 2008, p. 103
  11. 11.0 11.1 Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 239
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Gourley 2008, p. 99.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Wallace, Ruth A (2000). "Women and Religion: The Transformation of Leadership Roles," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 502 (4)
  14. Gourley 2008, p. 119
  15. Gourley 2008, p. 123
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Stoper, Emily (May 1991). "Women's Work, Women's Movement: Taking Stock," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 515 pp. 151–152
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  19. 19.0 19.1 Gourley 2008, p. 105
  20. 20.0 20.1 Rung, Margaret C. (1997). "Paternalism and Pink Collar: Gender and Federal Employee Relations,1941-50," The Business History Review 399 (3)
  21. 21.0 21.1 Ware 1982, p. 74
  22. 22.0 22.1 Ware 1982, p. 102
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 Monk, Janice (April 2003). "Women's Worlds at the American Geographical Society," Geographical Review 93 (2): 237–257
  24. Susan M. Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond (Boston, MA: G.K. Hall &Co., 1982), p. 94.
  25. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 314
  26. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 326
  27. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 332
  28. 28.0 28.1 Silver, Hilary. "Housework and Domestic Work," Sociological Forum 182 no.2 (1993).
  29. Archer, Jules (1991). Breaking Barriers (New York: The Penguin Group), p. 27.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Woloch 1984, p. 27
  31. 31.0 31.1 Humowitz Weissman 1978, pp. 236–237
  32. 32.0 32.1 Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 240
  33. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 364
  34. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 304
  35. Gourley 2008, p. 104
  36. Woloch 1984, p. 525
  37. Woloch 1984, p. 500
  38. Woloch 1984, p. 405
  39. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 316
  40. 40.0 40.1 Woloch 1984, p. 404
  41. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 219
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 249
  43. Woloch 1984, p. 505
  44. 44.0 44.1 Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 253
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 Woloch 1984, p. 385
  46. Woloch 1984, p. 507
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 Ware 1982, p. 38
  48. Ware 1982, p. 39
  49. Ware 1982, p. 49
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  • Gourley, Catherine (2008). Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918 (Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books) ISBN 978-0-8225-7150-6
  • Humowitz, Carol; Weissman, Michelle (1978). A History of Women in America (New York: Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith) ISBN 0-553-20762-8
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