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December 01, 2008

What Women Need: A Policy Agenda for the New Administration

by Marcia D. Greenberger and Jocelyn F. Samuels

The statistics are alarming. One in four girls drops out of high school, resulting in an average annual income that falls $9,100 below even the low wages earned by male high school dropouts. More than four decades after enactment of the Equal Pay Act, women working full time still earn about 78 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to men. More than fourteen million women—one in eight—live in poverty; single women, elderly women, and women of color are especially vulnerable. More than seventeen million women have no health insurance, and federal child-care assistance is provided to only one in seven eligible children.

These numbers illustrate some of the enormous challenges that women face and why immediate action is urgently needed. Your administration and Congress can, and must, take concrete steps to help women and their families reach their potential and lead economically secure lives. The National Women’s Law Center has prepared a comprehensive agenda on how you can meet the needs of women and their families in many aspects of their lives ( We set forth below some of the highlights of that agenda.

Supporting Women in the Workplace

While women working full time today earn, on average, only 78 cents for every dollar paid to men, the numbers are even worse for women of color. An African American woman earns only 69 cents and a Latina, only 59 cents for each dollar earned by men. Women also continue to face pervasive limitations on their opportunities at work—including, in addition to wage discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and unfair treatment on the basis of pregnancy. And women across workplaces face challenges in meeting their work and family commitments, exacerbated by the fact that 40 percent of workers are not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act and that that act does not guarantee paid leave.

To address these persistent problems, your administration should, among other things: spearhead the push for enactment of legislation to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the Fair Pay Act; improve benefits for all workers by working with Congress to further raise the minimum wage, expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, and provide paid sick leave; restore broad protections against all forms of sex discrimination in the workplace by championing legislation, like the previously introduced Civil Rights Act of 2008, to overturn Supreme Court decisions that have undermined civil rights laws and to ensure that women who are subject to workplace discrimination can receive fair compensation for their losses; and enable women to break through the glass ceiling by making sure that federal policies, including agency enforcement and technical assistance activities, encourage employers to expand opportunities for women in nontraditional fields and at the highest levels of their professions.

Building Economic Security

Far too many women are poor. Indeed, more than one in three single mothers, more than one in five African American and Latina women, and one in five elderly women live in poverty. This alarming fact only worsens as women age. Women, whose lifetime earnings substantially lag behind those of men, have lower retirement income and smaller savings than their male peers. Moreover, for too many families—especially, but not only, low-income families—high quality child care is unaffordable or unavailable.

Particularly in these times of economic turmoil, it is essential that your administration take steps to ensure the economic security of women and their families. For example, it is critically important to strengthen income and work supports by urging increases in the benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit, expansion of the Child Tax Credit, improvements in child support enforcement, elimination of arbitrary barriers in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Security Income programs, and expansion of access to unemployment insurance; provide women a secure retirement by strengthening Social Security and opposing privatization efforts; expand access to employer-based retirement plans; and establish spousal pension rights in defined contribution plans; ensure access to high-quality, affordable child care by championing development of core health and safety and child development standards, funding of statewide quality rating systems to promote higher quality care, increases in the reimbursement rate for child-care assistance, and increased funding for child-care assistance and the Head Start and Early Education programs; and reform the tax system by closing loopholes for wealthy taxpayers and special interests and ending the preferential treatment for income from investments over income from work.

Improving Women’s Health

More than seventeen million women in the United States lack any health coverage. Women pay a particularly heavy toll because women have both greater health-care needs and lower incomes than men, and are thus more likely to be underinsured and to delay or forgo necessary care due to prohibitive costs. At the same time, the weakening of Roe v. Wade and the enactment of increasingly onerous restrictions on a woman’s right to choose have placed women’s reproductive rights and health in dire jeopardy.

Your administration must address these crises by taking the steps necessary to guarantee accessible, affordable comprehensive health coverage by creating a health-care system that leaves no one out, provides comprehensive benefits, is simple to use and understand, and is sufficiently and fairly financed; promote women’s health by increasing funding for research and programs that help prevent and treat health risks for women and their families, including research on key women’s health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, depression and eating disorders, and programs for pregnant and postpartum women; and promote reproductive health and rights by expanding access to affordable birth control, investing in comprehensive sex education, ending federal funding for abstinence-only programs, and protecting a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion.

Improving Women’s Education

Despite the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 more than thirty-five years ago, women and girls today continue to be denied equal opportunities in many important educational programs. Girls represent only 15 percent of students taking classes in traditionally male, and higher paid, fields such as carpentry, masonry, and welding. Women receive less than one-fifth of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering. Sexual and other forms of harassment remain a pervasive problem in schools across the country. And girls and women still lack equal opportunities to participate in sports—and lack equal treatment when they are allowed to play.

This sex discrimination is compounded by other significant problems that face too many of our nation’s students. The dropout rate is alarmingly high for both boys and girls; one out of four girls fails to complete high school with a diploma in the standard four-year time period. Moreover, federal funding for education at every level is woefully inadequate.

To address these critical problems, your administration should ensure equal access to all educational opportunities by pressing for passage of legislation to restore strong protections under Title IX, including tightened standards for holding schools accountable for sexual harassment, encouraging schools to take proactive steps to expand access for women to programs in which they are under-represented, rescinding new Title IX regulations that have led to a vast—and potentially unlawful—expansion of sex-segregated education, and requiring high schools to provide information to monitor gender discrepancies in high school athletic programs; reduce school dropouts by tailoring prevention programs to the needs of both girls and boys, holding schools accountable for monitoring dropout trends, and targeting programs to pregnant and parenting students; and ensure adequate funding for education at all levels, by working with Congress to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act and to provide the financial support necessary for low-income students to pursue post-secondary education.

Guaranteeing Equal Rights

Women lack the broad-based fabric of protections against sex discrimination that they sorely need and that many other groups facing discrimination have had for many decades. Rights that women do have, moreover, have been threatened by recent court decisions that have narrowed rights and limited hard-won legal protections.

Your ad ministration can correct the increasing judicial hostility to legal rights of importance to women, and can help to fill the gaps in protection against sex discrimination. It is important that your administration promote a fair and independent judiciary by nominating individuals with diverse backgrounds and a demonstrated commitment to upholding long-standing legal protections and principles, consulting broadly during the nomination process, and recognizing the robust advise and consent role of the Congress; ensure broad legal protection against sex discrimination by working with Congress to enact a comprehensive federal ban on sex discrimination, secure full constitutional protection against sex discrimination, and adopt the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and protect women from domestic violence and human trafficking by fully funding and implementing the Violence Against Women Act.

Some of the concrete action steps set forth in this memo randum can be adopted and implemented quickly; others will take more time. But all demand immediate attention. All will improve opportunities for women and their families, and all offer critical means to improve women’s welfare in these economically perilous times.


Marcia D. Greenberger is founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Jocelyn F. Samuels is vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.