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July 01, 2010

The Women's Bureau: A Continuous Fight Against Inequality

by Sara Manzano-Diaz

The Work of this Bureau lies not in discovering the statistics, but in making the statistics human, so that we can know the public opinion -- based upon facts -- and that is what we do not have and what we need very much.

- Mary E. McDowell, head of the University of Chicago Settlement, March 4, 1920


Ninety years ago, in 1920, Congress created the Women’s Bureau as the public policy advocate for the country’s working women. The bureau was granted the authority to investigate and report to the Department of Labor on all matters pertaining to the welfare of women in industry, thus shaping federal policies addressing the issues and needs unique to working women. It was, and still is, the only federal agency to serve in this capacity.

The newly created Women’s Bureau took swift action to investigate and report on wages, hours, and other working conditions faced by working women, including African American and immigrant women. During that period, women comprised less than 21 percent of all employed persons, working long hours, often in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, for very low wages. The bureau also quickly conducted research on the extent to which women were permitted to take examinations for federal government positions, finding that only 40 percent of the examinations were open to women, with the prevailing entrance salaries much lower than those paid to men.

It was not long after the Women’s Bureau enacted these initiatives that women workers began to see progress. Within ten days of the bureau submitting its report Women in the Government Service (1920) to the Civil Service Commission, the commission passed a ruling opening all examinations to both men and women.

Throughout its history, the Women’s Bureau has served as a catalyst for change, becoming a critical partner in the development of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Ninety years later, the Women’s Bureau is still working to advance and protect the rights of women workers.

All the strides the agency has made over the decades begs the question: Do we still have a need for the Women’s Bureau? The answer is simply—yes. Women now make up almost 50 percent of the workforce, yet many issues, such as unequal pay and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, stubbornly persist. Although women hold the majority of post-secondary degrees and have made inroads into higher-paying, traditionally male jobs, many women still remain concentrated in pink-collar, lower-paying jobs, even within higher-paying occupational groups.

Women also still face many barriers in obtaining equal employment opportunity in the workforce and, thus, in achieving viable economic security on a par with men. Today’s full-time working women are, on average, paid only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. It has been estimated that this wage gap costs the average full-time U.S. woman worker between $700,000 and $2 million over the course of her work life.

For these reasons, and many others, the need for the Women’s Bureau is as vital today as it was in 1920.

As director of the Women’s Bureau, I envision to empower working women to achieve economic security during their lifespan and into retirement. Our strategy for achieving this goal includes focusing the agency’s efforts on four priority areas: equal pay, workplace flexibility, higher-paying jobs for women, and homeless women veterans.

Equal Pay: In fall 2010, the Women’s Bureau launched new public education efforts as part of several Labor Department initiatives designed to end wage discrimination and improve pay equity.

Workplace Flexibility: To amplify the message of the White House Workplace Flexibility Forum held on March 31, 2010, the Women’s Bureau will conduct additional workplace flexibility forums in several locations around the country. Policies that support the realities of work and life balance are essential for a strong, healthy economy and nation.

Higher-Paying Jobs for Women: The bureau has focused on enhancing the economic stability of women by increasing opportunities for women to achieve higher-paying jobs. In conjunction with the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations grant program, the bureau has created a “Woman’s Guide to Green Jobs” to increase the number of women entering nontraditional occupations in the emerging green economy.

Homeless Women Veterans: At this time in our nation’s history, more women serve in the military than ever before. The Women’s Bureau has embarked on a year-long course of research activities and community-level events with the objectives of gaining further insight into the factors that lead to homelessness among female veterans and improving services and resources for this population.

After ninety years of being behind the scenes—but ahead of its time on women’s issues—the bureau’s pivotal role remains critical in these challenging times. The issues surrounding today’s working women demonstrate that the Women’s Bureau continues to have an impact on them and their families. As long as there are inequities facing women in the workplace, the Women’s Bureau will serve as their advocate.


Sara Manzano-Diaz

On September 30, 2009, Sara Manzano-Díaz was nominated by President Barack Obama as the 16th director of the Women’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor. Manzano-Díaz has spent her career in public service advocating on behalf of working-class families, women, and girls.