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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

How the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau Is Disrupting Occupational Segregation

by Wendy Chun-Hoon

Gender stereotypes. Unequal family caregiving responsibilities. Limited access to networks and mentors. Gaps in educational attainment and training place women on different career paths. Wealth gaps. Discrimination. Hostile workplace cultures and harassment. These factors all contribute to the overrepresentation or underrepresentation of women in certain jobs—also known as occupational segregation.

Occupational segregation drives patterns of pay inequity for women. For example, the average annual earnings of those employed in the construction and extraction occupations is around $50,570. However, women represent just 4 percent of the skilled construction trades. By contrast, childcare workers—94 percent of whom are women and disproportionately women of color—are making an estimated $28,500. When women enter into an occupation in large numbers and the gender balance shifts, wages go down. The wage penalty in female-dominated industries is fueled by social norms and gender stereotypes about women and work, but it hurts everyone, not just women workers. This is why the Women’s Bureau (WB) is working to attack the problem at its root by fixing occupational segregation.

Disrupting occupational segregation has the potential to lift thousands of women and especially women of color out of poverty by opening up pathways to higher-paying jobs. Reversing the impacts of occupational segregation requires both expanding women’s pathways to high-paying jobs historically held by men while also increasing the value of jobs historically held by women. The good news is the Biden-Harris administration is working to make this a reality. As we invest trillions to rebuild American infrastructure, we have the unique opportunity to make sure the jobs created by those projects are good jobs that are open to all, especially those who have been long underrepresented in those career pathways. It also allows us to ensure while we are making needed investments in our infrastructure projects, we are doing the same to build up our care infrastructure to ensure that workers and their families are supported. At the WB, we are leveraging all our superpowers to advocate for increased job quality and safety for everyone across male- and female-dominated sectors alike. 

Disrupting occupational segregation has the potential to lift thousands of women and especially women of color out of poverty.

Disrupting occupational segregation has the potential to lift thousands of women and especially women of color out of poverty.


Continuing a century-old legacy of advocating for working women, the WB uses quantitative research and evidence-based policy analysis, grantmaking, and education and outreach to advance equity in employment and economic outcomes for working women, specifically including historically underserved communities. The WB also delivers significant technical assistance to federal, state, and local governments. Applying this coordinated three-pronged strategy, the WB implements our current priorities with maximum impact by: 

  • Creating opportunities for women to enter and stay in high-paying, good-quality jobs, while also raising wages and the quality of jobs most often held by women; 
  • Reducing the impact of caregiving responsibilities on women’s labor force participation by expanding access to paid leave and affordable child and elder care; and 
  • Eliminating pay discrimination and gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination in the workplace.

Recruiting and Retaining Women in Good-Paying Jobs 

Over the past five years, the WB’s Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) Grant Program has been expanding pathways for women to enter and lead in nontraditional and male-dominated industries through pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. The WB has awarded funds to 27 community-based organizations to provide hands-on technical assistance to employers and labor unions to successfully recruit, mentor, train, and retain women in the full range of industries in which women are historically underrepresented or disproportionately concentrated in lower-wage occupations. WANTO emphasizes the importance of not only expanding the pipeline for women to enter these industries but also removing barriers that have historically prevented women from remaining in these jobs by providing supportive, safe, and equitable workplaces. Research tells us that when women receive supportive services, they participate and succeed in job training programs at higher rates. This is why the WB allocates up to 25 percent of WANTO funding to be used for supports like childcare, transportation, tuition expenses, and work-related tools and gear. By using lessons learned from WANTO, such as the importance of supportive services, the WB is working to ensure the trillions of dollars being invested in infrastructure projects will be equitable and accessible for women working on those projects.

The Department of Labor’s Good Jobs Initiative is also focused on improving job quality and creating access to good jobs free from discrimination and harassment by providing critical information to workers, employers, and the government. Under this initiative, the Department of Labor entered into memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with other federal agencies to solidify their commitment to distributing Investing in America funds to support equitable workforce development pathways into good jobs. The department developed a set of “Good Jobs Principles,” in partnership with the Department of Commerce, that create a framework for job quality in the workplace, including that workers should have benefits which promote economic security like paid leave and caregiving supports. 

Strengthening Our Care Infrastructure and Improving Job Quality for Care Workers 

We can’t talk about advancing equity in workplaces without ensuring that workers have stable access to care. Without access to quality, accessible, affordable care, workers cannot participate in the labor market. The WB recently published a National Database of Childcare Prices—the most comprehensive federal source of childcare prices at the county level. Childcare prices vary substantially across the country, but prices are untenable for families even in lower-priced areas. The database highlights the need for significant investments in our care system to reduce burdensome costs on families.

However, affordability for families can’t be the only priority when investing in our care system, as that leaves out a critical piece of the puzzle—the care workforce. We also see the care workforce, the majority of whom are women, as critical infrastructure supporting other families’ success and supporting their own families’ economic security. Care workers must be compensated fairly and earn higher wages for the critical work they do to support our families and our economy. In April 2023, President Joe Biden signed a historic Executive Order containing more than 50 directives to almost every federal agency to both expand access to affordable and high-quality childcare and provide support for care workers and family caregivers. Under this Executive Order, the Department of Labor, including the WB, will conduct new research, collect new data, provide new tools and training, and support executive agencies to maximize funding for supportive services.

Ending Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the World of Work

A key piece to eliminating occupational segregation is ending gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work. The WB is working to end and prevent GBVH through our Fostering Access, Rights, and Equity (FARE) grant. This year, the FARE grant was awarded more than $1.5 million to support five community-based organizations working to prevent and respond to GBVH against underserved and marginalized women workers. Alongside our federal partners, the WB is working to implement the first-ever U.S. National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. This plan lays out a roadmap for a whole-of-government effort to prevent and address gender-based violence in the United States. One of the most monumental aspects of the National Plan is that it reflects principles from the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment, which recognizes that everyone has the right to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including GBVH. Convention 190 also goes beyond the scope of GBVH in the traditional physical workplace to recognize violence and harassment can occur in other settings, including on rest breaks; at workplace trainings, travel, events, and social activities; or through work-related communications. 

To further integrate these principles in the United States, the WB partnered with the ILO Office for the United States and Canada, in conjunction with the Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, to host a series of national and regional convenings that uplift the principles and promising practices featured in ILO Convention 190 throughout states, localities, and industries in the United States by engaging with workers, unions, employers, and government.

Centering Workers’ Voices 

By dismantling harmful norms and centering job quality, safety, and supports, we can ensure that workers have the choice to enter into good jobs that best fit their interests and skills. At the heart of the WB’s work is listening to the voices of women workers. With women’s labor force participation at an all-time high and trillions being invested in creating good jobs through infrastructure projects, now is the time to prioritize women workers to ensure we are investing in the workers and not just the work. We have the unique opportunity to not only invest in our infrastructure while growing our economy but also train and build a diverse and skilled workforce. In order to achieve all of those goals, gender equity must be at the center of the strategy. 

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Wendy Chun-Hoon

Director of the Women’s Bureau, US Department of Labor

Wendy Chun-Hoon serves as the 20th director of the Women’s Bureau, appointed by President Joe Biden. For the prior 10 years, she led Family Values @ Work, a national network of grassroots coalitions that have won more than 60 new paid leave policies, bringing new rights to 55 million workers and their loved ones.