Article

Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

What Do We Know, and Not Know, About Women With Disabilities in the Workforce?

Author(s)

Bonnie O'Day is a Senior Researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Washington DC

Roughly 21 million women (15.6% of all women) in the United States have a disability. For women ages 21-64 - the years during which people are most likely to be employed - about 13%, or 11 million, have a disability (Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics, 2007). What do we know about the relationship between disability and employment for those women with disabilities who are employed and those who are not? Unfortunately, not enough. Many questions about the connections between gender, race, poverty and employment for women with disabilities have not yet been sufficiently studied and answered. In the remainder of this article, we'll describe some of the data that are available, and suggest some areas in which further exploration is needed.

Differences in Work Participation

Fewer women with disabilities (34.5%) work for pay or in a family business 15 hours or more per week than do men with or without disabilities (41.9% and 85.6% respectively), or women without disabilities (71.2%) (Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics, 2007). Men and women with sensory disabilities, including vision and hearing impairment, are the group that most often works, followed by individuals with physical, mental, and self-care disabilities (see Table 1). And in all these categories the percent of women with disabilities working ranges from 11% to 1.5% less than the percent of men with disabilities.

Among questions this data raises are:

  • In what ways is gender a factor in employment participation among people with disabilities?
  • Why are there greater gender differences in workforce participation between men and women with sensory impairments than between men and women with other types of disabilities?
  • Are women with disabilities facing different work barriers or expectations about workforce participation than their male peers?
  • Do family and child-rearing commitments affect employment participation for women with disabilities differently than for men with disabilities?

These and additional questions about differences in workforce participation need to be more thoroughly investigated to better understand what might help or hinder women with disabilities from obtaining employment.

Table 1: Employment of Non-Institutionalized Working Age (21-64) Men and Women With Disabilities in the U.S.: Percent Employed More Than 15 Hours Weekly, by Disability Status

Disability

Men

Women

No Disability

85.6

71.2

Any Disability

41.9

34.5

Sensory

52.6

41.2

Physical

33.6

30.7

Mental

31.8

26.5

Disability Affecting Self-Care

18.0

16.5

Disability Affecting Going Outside Home

18.2

15.5

Disability Affecting Employment

19.2

16.4

Data from American Community Survey (2006)

Poverty and Women

The lower employment rate of women with disabilities most likely contributes to differences in poverty rates. About 31% of women with a work limitation live in households below the poverty level, as compared to about 26% of men with a work limitation (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).1 Numerous researchers agree that disability rates among single mothers in poverty are very high (Acs & Loprest, 2004; Foley, Marrone & Simon, 2002). Women in poverty may find themselves caught between conflicting policy inducements that work at cross purposes, such as TANF work requirements and SSI work disincentives, or at the very least, policies that do not intersect to enable this population to work. For example, disability employment programs do not routinely provide childcare assistance, while welfare systems are only recently addressing disability in the search for work (Foley, Marrone & Simon, 2002). Lustig and Strauser (2004) make recommendations to rehabilitation counselors about addressing the livable wage for workers with disabilities who despite working remain in poverty. They suggest that the evaluation of successful employment outcomes should consider community standards for livable wages and that rehabilitation systems should invest in human capital activities to promote marketable skills.

Questions for further exploration that are suggested by the data we have about poverty and women with disabilities include:

  • To what extent are women with disabilities supported to gain marketable skills that promote economic advancement?
  • How do welfare policies influence disability policies in the everyday lives of women with disabilities in poverty?
  • Do rehabilitation programs consider the needs of women with disabilities who are mothers?

Education a Factor

A woman's level of education influences her chances of employment. Only one-fifth of women with disabilities who have less than a high school education are employed, as compared to over half of female college graduates with a disability. Table 2 shows that education appears to be more strongly correlated with employment for women with disabilities than other groups. College educated women with disabilities are much more likely to work than women with disabilities with less than a high school education. They also have less disparity in employment rates with their non-disabled peers than any other educational group. This reinforces the idea that education helps create equity in employment.

Some of the unanswered questions about the connection between education and employment for women with disabilities include:

  • In what ways does education create equity in employment rates?
  • What are the specific practices that improve college attendance and college success for women with disabilities? Are these practices similar across disability groups?
  • Although there is more parity at higher education levels, significant gaps remain. What ameliorates employment barriers for college-educated women with disabilities?

Table 2: Employment of Non-Institutionalized Working Age (21-64) Men and Women With and Without Disabilities in the U.S.: Percent Employed, by Education Level

Education

Men with Disabilities

Women with Disabilities

Women without Disabilities

< High School

29.3

79.4

19.8

50.4

HS Graduate

40.9

84.4

32.2

68.1

Some College or Associates Degree

47.5

85.6

41.5

74.5

BA or Higher

58.3

89.4

52.4

77.7

Data from American Community Survey (2006)

Race and Ethnicity

Patterns of work appear to differ when comparing racial and ethnic subpopulations (see Table 3). Asian and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women with disabilities have higher employment rates than any other group of women with disabilities. This differs from their non-disabled female peers. African-American women with disabilities have slightly higher employment rates than their male peers, in contrast to African American women without disabilities, whose rates are lower than their male peers. African-American, Native American, and Hispanic women with disabilities have consistently lower rates of employment than other racial and ethnic groups among women with disabilities. Hispanic men with disabilities have one of the higher rates of employment among men with disabilities. The factors that contribute to all these differences are not well understood. To uncover the racial and ethnic implications of employment outcomes of women with disabilities researchers should include race, ethnicity, and gender as factors in determining the relationship between disability and employment rates. In order to do this, they need to pay adequate attention to sampling procedures. Some questions for further exploration are:

  • Why does gender factor differently in employment rates of subpopulations of race and ethnicity?
  • What improves the employment rate of African American men and women with disabilities?

Table 3: Employment of Non-Institutionalized Working Age (21-64) Men and Women With and Without Disabilities in the U.S.: Percent Employed, by Race and Ethnicity

Race/Ethnicity

Men with Disabilities

Men without Disabilities

Women with Disabilities

Women without Disabilities

White

43.8

87.1

35.5

72.3

Black or African American

29.8

77.7

30.3

72.9

Native American, Alaska Native, or Both

36.8

77.7

31.1

66.2

Asian

46.9

80.8

36.3

64.1

Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander

43.5

81.0

41.9

70.0

Hispanic

45.1

86.2

31.7

61.2

Non- Hispanic

41.5

85.5

34.8

72.8

Data from American Community Survey (2006)

Occupational Clusters

Table 4 shows that women tend to be clustered in occupations, whether by choice or not, in very different ways than men. Nearly half of women, regardless of disability status, are working in either administrative support or service sector occupations. These occupations may be more frequently part-time positions that offer more flexibility in the work week, a distinct advantage to those who may have caregiving responsibilities, unpredictable chronic health issues, or educational pursuits. And although the number of employees in service occupations is projected to rise faster than any other occupational category during the next 10 years, they also tend to be the lowest paid and least likely to be covered by health insurance and other benefits.

Table 4: Occupations of Men and Women With and Without Disabilities, 2004: Percent Employed in Each Type of Work

Occupation

Men with Disabilities

Men without Disabilities

Total Men

Women with Disabilities

Women without Disabilities

Total Women

Administrative Support

7.74

6.7

6.77

22.3

22.21

22.22

Agriculture

1.52

1.23

1.25

1.03

0.97

0.97

Blue Collar

42.22

36.25

36.67

10.53

7.01

7.25

Management

8.26

11.27

11.06

5.36

7.72

7.55

Management Related

2.56

3.76

3.68

3.41

5.13

5.01

Professional/Technical

11.2

16.7

16.32

18.85

25.22

24.78

Sales

9.61

10.93

10.84

12.06

12.16

12.16

Service

16.88

13.25

13.41

26.45

19.58

20.06

Data from American Community Survey (2006)

Women with disabilities are more likely than other women to be employed in the service sector, in occupations such as food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, dental and medical assistant, and personal care. They also participate in blue collar occupations at higher rates than women without disabilities. They are less likely to be in professional/technical occupations, such as teacher, lawyer, and counselor. Reasons for these occupational patterns are not well understood.

This data raises several interesting questions. Answering them may do much to improve employment outcomes for all individuals with disabilities:

  • Are women with different types of disabilities (e.g., sensory, physical, intellectual) concentrated in different occupations than their male peers and for what advantage or disadvantage?
  • Why are women with disabilities employed in professional/technical occupations at higher rates than men with disabilities?
  • The category of professional/technical occupations is very broad, including highly skilled occupations such as computer programmers and technicians, actuaries and accountants, architects, scientists, and community and social services occupations. Where are women with disabilities concentrated within this occupational category?
  • How does occupational category of employment correlate with type of disability, race, or educational status?

Conclusion

Women and men with disabilities face many of the same employment issues, such as work disincentives, transportation barriers, lack of training or skills, and discrimination (see the National Council on Disability for several reports that document employment barriers). While women with disabilities have made major strides in education and employment in recent decades, there are significant differences in the nature of their workforce participation compared to their male peers with, and their female peers without, disabilities. The diversity of women with disabilities defies blanket statements about workplace issues as multiple characteristics may combine to influence work status. The paucity of information about how gender, race, and disability interact in the workplace makes it difficult to confidently determine what factors assist or hinder women with disabilities. Further efforts to understand and disentangle the complex web that women with disabilities, particularly those in poverty, face in participating in the workforce are much needed.

Notes

1 This estimate is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (2004). Persons with a disability are those who have a "health problem or disability which prevents them from working or which limits the kind or amount of work they can do."

  • Acs, G., & Loprest, P. (2004). Leaving welfare: Employment and well-being of families that left welfare in the post-entitlement era. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

  • Foley, S. M., Marrone, J., & Simon, M. (2002). Cruise ships and kayaks: Welfare and rehabilitation approaches for women with disabilities in poverty. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 20, 659–680.

  • Kruse, D. (2008). [American Community Survey 2006]. Unpublished Data Analysis.

  • Lustig, D., & Strauser, D. (2004). A living wage for individuals with disabilities: Implications for rehabilitation professionals. Journal of Rehabilitation. Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0825/is_/ai_n6100338

  • Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics. (2007). 2006 disability status report. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

  • U.S. Census Bureau. (2004). Current population survey. Washington, DC: Author.