The fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, explored in this issue of Human Rights, marks an important milestone. And, like all milestones, it represents an occasion for us to pause and reflect on women’s long national journey toward full equality—both in how far we have come, and how much further we still need to go.
In terms of the American economy, we have seen a transformation in recent years that suggests women are now full participants in the workforce. In fact, for the first time in our history, half of all American workers are women—not because of any sort of temporary wartime surge, as when “Rosie the Riveter” and the “Government Girls” flocked to work during World War II. It is simply the way things are.
Two-thirds of women in America today are either the sole breadwinner or co-breadwinners in their families. Women are also more likely than men to graduate from college. They run more than 10 million businesses with combined annual sales of $1.1 trillion and are responsible for making 80 percent of consumer buying decisions.
As A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, a comprehensive report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, found last year, the “battle of the sexes” is for all intents and purposes over, particularly among the younger generations. Now, negotiations between men and women—about work, family, child care, and other issues—are the order of the day.
What does this mean? It means that the presence of women in the workplace on an equal footing with men is taken as a fact. In public polls, 70 percent of men are comfortable with women working outside the home, and three-quarters of Americans view the rise of women in the workplace as a positive development for society. These are considerable achievements and a welcome sign of how much the American workforce has changed over the past several decades.
But lingering structural inequities throughout our economy continue to affect women in the workforce, inequities that we must now work harder to address.
For, while women and mothers working constitutes arguably the greatest social transformation of our time, our political and social institutions have not kept pace with this extraordinary change. As labor experts Heather Boushey and Joan Williams have noted, our social and economic policies are still basically tailor-made for the American workforce of the 1960s. So, now is the time to redouble our efforts to ensure that our laws at last reflect the shape of the twenty-first century workforce and answer the needs of today’s American worker.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
Fifty years ago, the problem of equal pay for equal work loomed large for America’s working women. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower argued that “legislation to apply the principle of equal pay for equal work without discrimination because of sex is a matter of simple justice.” Seven years later, in what has been deemed landmark legislation, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act to end the “serious and endemic problem” of unequal pay for women.
But forty-seven years later, that serious and endemic problem sadly persists. Women still make only 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Women of color are even worse off—African American women make 68 cents on the dollar compared to the highest earners, while Hispanic women make only 59 cents. Unmarried women—single, widowed, divorced, or separated—earn an average annual household salary that is almost $12,000 lower than that of unmarried men, and they make only 56 cents on the dollar compared to pay for married men. That’s at least 21 cents, and sometimes as much as 44 cents, missing from every dollar on every paycheck. This difference adds up, costing women anywhere from $400,000 to $2 million over a lifetime. And that means less income in the end toward calculating pension and, in some cases, Social Security benefits. As a result, 70 percent of older adults living in poverty are women.
Take two recent examples of pay discrimination: A jury recently found that the pharmaceutical company Novartis has been systematically underpaying its female employees—$105 less per month, on average, than men with similar experience and tenure. And the New York Times recently reported that in 1995, six years before a sex discrimination lawsuit was filed, Walmart knew that its male employees were earning 19 percent more than women and that men were five-and-a-half times more likely than women to be promoted to salaried, management positions.
Very early in the 111th Congress, we passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which ensured that women who are discriminated against have the right to sue as long as their unequal pay continues. This was a good first step that voided that terrible 2007 Supreme Court decision in the Ledbetter case. But there is another piece of legislation that I have been working on for thirteen years—the Paycheck Fairness Act—which will mean real progress in the fight to eliminate the gender wage gap.
The Paycheck Fairness Act ensures that employers who try to justify paying a man more than a woman for the same job must show that the disparity is not sex-based, but job-related and necessary. It prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who discuss or disclose salary information with their coworkers. And it strengthens the available remedies to include punitive and compensatory damages, thus bringing equal-pay law into line with all other civil rights law.
So, in other words, the Paycheck Fairness Act is a modest, common-sense solution to the lingering problem of pay inequity. The House of Representatives has already passed this critical legislation twice now. The president has forcefully called for the Senate to take up the bill and make it law, and many organizations—including the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the American Association of University Women, Business and Professional Women, and the National Women’s Law Center—are working hard to make this the new law of the land when it comes to equal pay for women. I really believe that we are on the cusp of seeing it done. After all, it is a matter of basic rights and fairness that half of the workforce is paid as much for the same job as the other half.
Access to Nontraditional Jobs
Along with ensuring equal pay for equal work, we must also make sure women have equal access to good, high-paying, nontraditional jobs. Right now, more than half of America’s working women are clustered in only 25 of 504 occupational categories. And, except for nursing and teaching, many of these categories are among the lowest-paying ones. For example, women only make up only 1 percent of electricians in America. And women working in retail or clerical jobs could make as much as 20 or 30 percent more by moving into fields such as information technology, construction, and green jobs.
To ensure this equal access, we must revamp our worker training programs so that they work better for American women—and, for that matter, for all our workers. Again, our laws have not kept pace with the times, and it is critical that we overhaul our training programs to make them more responsive and adaptable to the needs of American women.
That is why I, along with Congressman Jared Polis of Colorado, and fifty-five other colleagues, have introduced the Women and Workforce Investment for Nontraditional Jobs Act, or Women WIN Jobs Act. This bill improves and expands the seventeen-year-old Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) program, once focused entirely on construction, to help recruit, prepare, place, and retain women in all kinds of high-demand, high-wage, nontraditional jobs.
A related bill that I have introduced is the Pathways Advancing Career Training, or PACT, Act. It provides assistance to states to “scale up” training programs that have proven successful in helping unemployed and underemployed women train for and thrive in high-wage, high-skill work.
Right now, more than 6.4 million single mothers and nearly 4.3 million displaced homemakers in the United States struggle below or just barely above the poverty line. The Women WIN Jobs and PACT acts will help do what our current job-training system has failed to accomplish: They will open doors for these unemployed and underemployed women and make opportunity real in once-untapped job markets. And they will prepare women for employment in high-wage or highly skilled fields where they are too often underrepresented.
According to a 2008 study recently cited in the New York Times, women are more likely than men to obtain higher-paying work as a result of job training. It is time to revamp our training programs to open more job-training opportunities for America’s working women.
Family-Friendly Labor Policies
Ensuring equal pay and access to nontraditional jobs are two important steps forward for women in the workplace. Another is to make sure our labor standards and social insurance programs reflect the realities of the twenty-first century workforce.
In many ways, this is not a new problem. As historians such as Linda Gordon and Alice Kessler-Harris have shown, the creation of Social Security in 1935 incorporated certain notions about the role of women in the workplace that were erroneous even then. It is evident in the split between unemployment insurance, which was expected to go mostly to men, and Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), later Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), meant to go mostly to women.
In Gordon’s memorable phrase, women were considered “pitied but not entitled.” Under Social Security as designed, men received federal money on the assumption that they were workers, women on the assumption that they were domestic providers. Even Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet official in American history, then argued that women with jobs were primarily “pin-money workers,” who labored only to supplement their husbands’ paychecks or have money for nonessential items.
Increasingly retrograde even in the 1930s, this view is, needless to say, obsolete nowadays. And yet our entire social insurance system is predicated on these same archaic assumptions—that men work and women stay home and look after the children. We must modernize our labor policies and social safety net to reflect the social transformations of the past half-century—that both parents, father and mother, now spend their days in the workplace.
For example, a huge challenge for women—and men—regardless of income is the lack of access to quality child care. It was a huge problem when I served as chief of staff to Senator Chris Dodd thirty years ago. We worked on it constantly, culminating in Senator Dodd’s getting the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) passed in 1990. And it was a huge problem a decade ago when I organized the Congressional Child Care Caucus. It is still a huge problem today.
I believe the CCDBG is a strong foundation for a federal commitment to child care, but we need to do more with it. We have to expand our funding of the program to support more child care facilities, particularly in low-income areas, and double the number of children it serves nationwide. And we have to make sure that all child care in this country meets basic health and safety and child development standards.
This is important not only for working mothers and fathers, of course, but especially for their children. We continue to learn more and more about language, social, and even brain development of young children, and it all points to the fact that early engagement is essential for kids’ success. Obviously, child care becomes no less important as children grow. The parents of more than 28 million school-age children work outside the home, and a third of those children are poor or would be poor if their mothers did not work.
In short, we need to help these two-income families get by. Good child care is not only extremely expensive—it is essential. I am delighted that the recent funding bill for the Department of Health and Human Services includes almost a $1 billion increase for the Child Care Development Grant—the first sizeable increase in more than ten years. To my mind, we should keep moving in this direction.
Similarly, we have to recognize the problems posed by a sick child in an economy where both parents work. Nearly half (48 percent) of private-sector workers do not have a single paid sick day to care for themselves or a sick family member. And so these workers, men and women both, are forced to lose crucial income—and even put their jobs on the line—every time they take a day off.
Right now, 57 million Americans do not have the right to take time off work when they are sick or when they need to stay home to care for their ailing children or elderly relatives. That is unacceptable. Given what we saw with the H1N1 outbreak last year, when many different government officials—including President Obama—encouraged citizens to stay home if they felt sick, it is time we recognize paid sick days as a basic right.
That is why 125 cosponsors have supported my Healthy Families Act, which would require companies to provide a minimum of seven paid sick days to their workers. Paid leave should be an elemental right at work, and in fact it is in 145 other nations, including nineteen of the top twenty most economically competitive nations on earth. (The United States is the twentieth.) But it is also common sense. We have to recognize the new realities posed by the two-income economy and find ways to help working men and women accordingly.
Time to Act
Even though recent polls show that an overwhelming number of men and women feel government should do more to ease work-family conflict, be it through paid leave, child and maternity care, or other policies, we have been slow to act on these issues in Congress, in part, I think, because of a perception that they are “soft” women’s issues. But, soft or hard, we are talking about policies that would greatly benefit all families. Taken together, they represent a clear path for policymakers to take in order to help women reach full equality in our workforce.
To be sure, we have made very real gains in the past few decades, and many of the struggles we have been engaged in for generations have come to fruition. Women now work in great numbers in every field of American employ, and the vast majority of men have accepted them as coworkers, equals, and bosses. For those of us who have been around for awhile, like my ninety-six-year-old mother, who began her own career at age fourteen in the sweatshops of New Haven, Connecticut, this is no small thing.
So, as we pause to reflect on our situation, we should take strength in our successes over these past few decades. But we should also recommit to pushing on. The way forward for full equality for women in the workplace is clear. We need only the political will to make it happen.