Pink-collar worker

A pink-collar worker refers to someone working in the care-oriented career field or in fields historically considered to be women’s work. This may include jobs in the beauty industry, nursing, social work, teaching, secretarial work, or child care.[1] While these jobs may also be filled by men, they are typically female-dominated and may pay significantly less than white-collar or blue-collar jobs.[2]


The term pink-collar was popularized in the late 1970s by writer and social critic Louise Kapp Howe to denote women working as nurses, secretaries, and elementary school teachers. Its origins, however, go back to the early 1970s, to when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was placed before the states for ratification. At that time, the term was used to denote secretarial staff as well as non-professional office staff, all of which were largely held by women. 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, was nonetheless an office job and one that was overwhelmingly filled by women.


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.[1] Furthermore, the World Health Organization's 2011 World Health Statistics Report states that there are 19.3 million nurses in the world today.[2] In the United States, women comprise 92.1% of the registered nurses that are currently employed.[3]

Pink-collar occupations include:[4][5]








Personal care and service


Background (United States)

Historically, women were responsible for the running of a household.[6] Their financial security was often dependent upon a male patriarch. Widowed or divorced women struggled to support themselves and their children.[7]

Western women began to develop more opportunities when they moved into the paid workplace, formerly of the male domain. In the mid 19th and early 20th century women aimed to be treated as the equals to their male counterparts, notably in the Seneca Falls Convention. In 1920 American women legally gained the right to vote, marking a turning point for the American women's suffrage movement; yet race and class remained as impediments to voting for some women.[8]

At the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, large numbers of single women in the United States traveled to large cities such as New York where they found work in factories and sweatshops, working for low pay operating sewing machines, sorting feathers, rolling tobacco and other similar menial tasks.[9][10]

In these factories, workers frequently breathed dangerous fumes and worked with flammable materials.[11] In order for factories to save money, women were required to clean and adjust the machines while they were running, which resulted in accidents where women lost their fingers or hands. [11] Many women who worked in the factories earned meager wages for working long hours in unsafe conditions and as a result lived in poverty.[10]

Throughout the 20th century women such as Emily Balch, Jane Addams, and Lillian Wald were advocates for evolving the roles of women in America.[12] These women created settlement houses and launched missions in overcrowded squalid immigrant neighborhoods to offer social services to women and children.[12]

In addition, women gradually became more involved with church activities and came to take on more leadership roles in various religious 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.[13] The Association for the Sociology of Religion was the first to elect a woman president in 1938.[13]

World War I and II

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

In addition, Military nurses, an already "feminized" and accepted profession for women, expanded during wartime. In 1917, Louisa Lee Schuyler opened the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing, which was the first to train women as professional nurses.[15] After completing training, female nurses worked in hospitals or more predominantly in field tents.

World War II marked the emergence of large numbers of women working domestically in industrial jobs to assist in the war effort as directed under the War Manpower Commission which recruited women to fill war manufacturing jobs.[16]

Notably, American women in World War II joined the armed services and were stationed domestically and abroad through participation in non combat military roles and as medical personnel. 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 through WAVES in addition to administrative staff.[17]

The 20th Century Female Working World (United States)

A typical job sought by working women in the early 20th century was a telephone operator or Hello Girl. The Hello Girls began as women who operated on telephone switchboards during WWI by answering telephones and talking to impatient callers in a calming tone.[18] 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 by plugging the cord into the proper outlet. Despite the difficult work, 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 while also appearing soft, accommodating, and subservient.[20] Women were expected 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. Women scientists 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] Some found work as human computers.

Mostly women were hired as librarians, who had been professionalized and feminized from the late 19th century. 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 personnel 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 at the cost of the AGS.[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] Suburban housewives were 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 women 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, which is equivalent to roughly less that $98 dollars a week today.[28] If the woman was absent or was late, employers penalized them by docking their pay.[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. With this being said, 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".[29] 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.[29]

In the early 1900s women's pay was one to three dollars a week and much of that went to living expenses.[30] 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.[31] This differed from women working in factories in the 1900s as they were paid by the piece, not receiving a fixed weekly wage.[32] Those that were pinching pennies pushed themselves to produce more product so that they earned more money.[32] 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.[33] As well as this, 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.[33] In the 1937 a woman's average yearly salary was $525 compared to a man's salary of $1,027.[31] 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.[34] This gap in wage stayed consistent, as women in 1991 only earned seventy percent of what men earned regardless of their education.[34]

Later on in the 1970s and 1980s as 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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36]

In 1975, a study was carried out that examined the pay differences between single and married women. It was found that married women made substantially less than single women, as single women made up to 97% of what a single man would make and married women would only make up to 62% of married men's pay.[37] This was found to potentially be because of taking maternity leaves, as less work related experience would be gained in the time that these women left to care for their children, leading to less investment from the company.[38] It was also found that women now are more likely to join or re-join the work force after having children, rather than the traditional role of becoming a stay at home mother.[37]


Women entering the workforce had difficulty finding a satisfactory job without references or an education.[39] However, opportunities for higher education expanded as women were admitted to all-male schools like the United States service academies and Ivy League strongholds.[40] 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.[41] College prepared women for future roles because while men and women were taught together, they were groomed for different paths after they graduated.[42] Education started out as a way to teach women how to be a good wife, but education also allowed women to broaden their minds.

Being educated was an expectation for women entering the paying workforce, despite the fact that their male equivalents did not need a high school diploma.[43] While in college, a woman would experience extracurricular activities, such as a sorority, that offered a separate space for the woman to practice types of social service work that was expected from her.[44]

However, not all of a woman's education was done in the classroom. Women were also educated through their peers through "dating". Men and women no longer had to be supervised when alone together. Dating allowed men and women to practice the paired activities that would later become a way of life.[44]

New women's organizations sprouted up working to reform and protect women in the workplace. The largest and most prestigious of these organizations was The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), whose members were conservative middle-class housewives. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was formed after women shirtwaist makers went on strike in New York City in 1909. 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. 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.

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. The contract formalized the trade's division of labor by gender.

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. The act provided federal funds to establish health centers for prenatal and child care. Expectant mothers and children could receive health checkups and health advice.

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.

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.

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was approved in May 1933. The NRA negotiated codes designed to rekindle production. It raised wages, shortened workers' hours, and increased employment for the first time maximizing hour and minimizing wage provisions benefiting female workers. The NRA had its flaws however, it only covered half of the women in the workforce particularly manufacturing and trade. 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.

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.

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. The term pink ghetto is just simply another way of describing pink-collar work. Pink ghetto was more commonly used in the early years, when women were finally able to work. Pink-collar work became the popular term once it was popularized by Louise Kapp Howe, a writer and social critic, in the 1970s.

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.[45][46][47]

Pink or Velvet Ghetto in the field of Public Relations

The pink collar ghetto, also known as the velvet ghetto, concerns the phenomena of women entering a certain field employment and subsequently the status and pay grade of this profession drops along with the new influx of women workers. Some scholars, such as Elizabeth Toth, claim this is partially the result of women taking technician roles instead of managerial roles, being less likely to negotiate higher pay, and being perceived as putting family life before work [48].

Other scholars, such as Kim Golombisky, acknowledge the inequalities of women, and especially women of color and different classes, as part of the cause of this phenomenon.

Traditionally, Feminism in public relations focuses on gender equality, but new scholarship makes claims that focusing on social justice would better aid feminist cause in the field. This brings the idea of intersectionalism to the pink collar ghetto. The issue is not caused by what women lack as professionals, but caused by larger societal injustices and interlocking systems of oppression[49].

Male integration

Scholars such as Judy Wajcman argue that technology has long been monopolized by men and is a great source of their power historically.[50] However, more millennial men are doing pink collar work because technology is affecting blue collar work. Machines are able to perform many of the tasks that were typically gendered male within factories. In a 1990 study conducted by Allan H. Hunt and Timothy L. Hunt, they examined how industrial robots would impact both the creation of jobs as well as job displacement among unskilled workers in the United States. It was concluded that the impact of unemployment due to the spread of robotics would be felt the greatest by uneducated, unskilled blue-collar workers. New technology in the form of robotics eliminates many semi or unskilled jobs, and has taken traditional male filled roles away from the job market.[51] Judy Wajman maintains that skills involving machines and strength are associated with masculinity.[52] This means that the least technical jobs (pink-collar) jobs are associated with women. These machines designed by men, using the technology they have always monopolized, are now displacing them and forcing them into feminized pink-collar work.

It was found as well that men going into traditionally claimed pink collar jobs are felt discriminated and threatened in their jobs.[53] Men going into positions such as teaching, nursing and childcare faced many negative stereotypes in these lines of work, as men have traditionally been viewed as stern, strong and holding dominant attitudes. This stereotype about men negatively impacts men in these lines of work, as it is expected that a woman with the same position would be more nurturing, caring and well suited for the work.[53]

See also


  1. U.S. Department of Labor - Bureau of Labor Statistics (24 May 2006). "Occupational Employment and Wages - Waiters and Waitresses". US Department of Labor. Retrieved 31 December 2006.
  2. "World Health Statistics 2011". World Health Organization. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  3. "Quick Facts on Registered Nurses". US Department of Labor. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  4. David Francis. "The Pink-Collar Job Boom". US News. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  5. Katerina Sardi (27 June 2012). "Nine pink collar jobs men want most". NBC. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
  6. Ware 1982, p. 17
  7. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 333
  8. Naffziger, Claudeen Cline; Naffziger, Ken (1974). "Development of Sex Role Stereotypes". The Family Coordinator. 23 (3): 251–259. doi:10.2307/582762.
  9. Gourley 2008, p. 103
  10. "Sweatshops 1880-1940". National Museum of American History. 21 August 2017. Retrieved 14 October 2019.
  11. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 239
  12. Gourley 2008, p. 99.
  13. Wallace, Ruth A. (2000). "Women and Religion: The Transformation of Leadership Roles". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 39 (4): 496–508. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2000.tb00011.x. JSTOR 1388082.
  14. Gourley 2008, p. 119
  15. Gourley 2008, p. 123
  16. "Women in the Work Force during World War II". National Archives. 15 August 2016. Retrieved 14 October 2019.
  17. May, Elaine Tyler (1994). Pushing the Limits. New York: Oxford University. p. 41.
  18. "Topics in Chronicling America-Hello Girls". The Library of Congress. 29 January 2015. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  19. Gourley 2008, p. 105
  20. Rung, Margaret C. (1997). "Paternalism and Pink Collars: Gender and Federal Employee Relations, 1941–50". Business History Review. 71 (3): 381–416. doi:10.2307/3116078.
  21. Ware 1982, p. 74
  22. Ware 1982, p. 102
  23. Monk, Janice (2003). "Women's Worlds at the American Geographical Society". Geographical Review. 93 (2): 237–257. doi:10.1111/j.1931-0846.2003.tb00031.x.
  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. "US Inflation Calculator". US Inflation Calculator. Retrieved 16 December 2017.
  29. Silver, Hilary. "Housework and Domestic Work," Sociological Forum 182 no.2 (1993).
  30. Archer, Jules (1991). Breaking Barriers (New York: The Penguin Group), p. 27.
  31. Woloch 1984, p. 27
  32. Humowitz Weissman 1978, pp. 236–237
  33. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 240
  34. Stoper, Emily (1991). "Women's Work, Women's Movement: Taking Stock". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 515 (1): 151–162. doi:10.1177/0002716291515001013. JSTOR 1046935.
  35. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 364
  36. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 304
  37. Waldfogel, Jane (1995). "The Price of Motherhood: Family Status and Women's Pay in Young British Cohort". Oxford Economic Papers. 47 (4): 584–610. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.oep.a042189. JSTOR 2663545.
  38. Waldfogel, Jane (1997). "The Effect of Children on Women's Wages". American Sociological Review. 62 (2): 209–217. doi:10.2307/2657300. JSTOR 2657300.
  39. Gourley 2008, p. 104
  40. Woloch 1984, p. 525
  41. Woloch 1984, p. 500
  42. Woloch 1984, p. 405
  43. Humowitz Weissman 1978, p. 316
  44. Woloch 1984, p. 404
  45. Kleiman, Carol (8 January 2006). "Pink-collar workers fight to leave "ghetto"". Seattle Times. Retrieved 16 October 2008.
  46. Glasscock, Gretchen (10 February 2009). "Promises Unkept in the Enduring Pink Ghetto". The New Agenda. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  47. Murray, Sarah (8 January 2008). "Posting Up in the Pink Ghetto". Women's Sports Foundation. Archived from the original on 16 June 2010. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  48. "Public Relations Field: 'Velvet Ghetto'". Los Angeles Times. 30 November 1986. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  49. Golombisky, Kim (2015). "Renewing the Commitments of Feminist Public Relations Theory From Velvet Ghetto to Social Justice". Journal of Public Relations Research. 27: 389–415 via Communication Source.
  50. Wajcman, Judy (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. Penn State Press. ISBN 978-0271008028.
  51. L., Hunt, H. Allan|Hunt, Timothy (1983). Human Resource Implications of Robotics. W. ISBN 9780880990080.
  52. Wajman, Judy. Male Designs on Technology. p. 27.
  53. Kalokerinos, Elise K.; Kjelsaas, Kathleen; Bennetts, Steven; von Hippel, Courtney (1 August 2017). "Men in pink collars: Stereotype threat and disengagement among male teachers and child protection workers". European Journal of Social Psychology. 47 (5): 553–565. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2246. ISSN 1099-0992.


  • 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
  • Ware, Susan (1982). Holding Their Own. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co. ISBN 978-0-8057-9900-2.
  • Woloch, Nancy (1984). Women and the American Experience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-53515-9.
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