International Women’s Day now means progress without equity

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By Elizabeth Kristen

International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide this past weekend, started out as  “International Working Women’s Day” in 1911. One week later, the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 broke out, killing over 140 workers – mostly women – who were trapped inside the factory. The horror of that fire and the working conditions imposed on the women locked inside the factory galvanized the labor movement and the women’s rights movement. Even though the name may have changed, this annual day honoring women is the perfect time to take account of the barriers working women still face today.

Working women in the United States confront challenges ranging from workplace discrimination and harassment to unequal pay and inadequate leaves of absences.  The 2014 Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink collects essays that detail how these barriers impact not only working women, but their families, the economy and society as a whole.

Discrimination and harassment – Women continue to face unlawful discrimination and harassment on the job based on sex, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin, disability, and many other characteristics.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces our federal civil rights laws published its statistics for charges filed in Fiscal Year 2013.  Charges of sex discrimination constituted approximately 30% of the charges filed with the EEOC.  The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the state agency that enforces our state civil rights laws published its statistics for 2012. This data showed that sexual harassment charges were approximately 60% of the charges filed regarding sex discrimination and harassment.  These statistics demonstrate that employment discrimination and harassment continue as serious problems for working women.

On the legislative front of women’s rights issues at the federal level, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would strengthen the protections for working pregnant women.  We also need the protections of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity across the country.  But these laws must also be enforced, which means vigilant leadership and restoration of the funding cuts that have undermined the California and federal agencies charged with civil rights enforcement.

Gender-Based Wage Gap – Despite the fact that gender-based pay discrimination has been against the law for over 50 years, women in the United States still face a significant wage gap.  Recently, there has been little progress in closing the gap in wages between women and men.  As of 2012, women’s median earnings were 81% of men’s.  And the wage gap is worse for women of color.  Because women are breadwinners for their families, the impact of wage discrimination is felt across the board.  The Paycheck Fairness Act, pending in Congress, would help fight gender-based pay discrimination

Leaves of Absence – Women are still the primary caregivers in the U.S. and they also often must take time off work for pregnancy and childbirth.  Yet the U.S. lags behind nearly every other country in the industrialized world in terms of how much leave it provides for caregiving, pregnancy and childbirth.  The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for job-protected leaves of absence for caregiving as well as for pregnancy and bonding leave.  However, the FMLA is unpaid leave and many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.  The FMLA also provides no protection for those workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees at or near their worksite, those who have worked for the employer for less than a year, and many who work part-time. Additionally FMLA takes a narrow view of what it means to be a family member, drawing a tight boundary around the nuclear family– parent, child, and spouse.   Grandparents, siblings and other extended family are not included.

The California Paid Family Leave Law, the first of its kind in the country, provides partial wage replacement to workers who take time off to care for family members or bond with a new child.  As of July 2014, California workers will be able to take  paid family leave for a broader group of family members that will include grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, and parents-in-law.

Some federal legislators are already taking the cue from California with a pending bill in Congress to provide paid leave nationally.  They should keep up the momentum and improve the FMLA to extend coverage to more workers and to widen the circle of who is considered “family.”

The United Nations’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Equality for Women is Progress for All.”  The global gender gap index shows a strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its economic competitiveness. Given the fact that women are at least half of the potential workforce, a nation’s economic competitiveness depends on how it treats women. Improving the lives of working women will enhance progress for all working families and our national economy.  When that happens, we will all be able to proclaim “Happy International Women’s Day”!

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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