Ever since women began entering the U.S. workforce in large numbers during World War II, they have been paid less than their male counterparts. What is more, occupations in which women predominate offer lower pay than in majority-male professions.
Women earn a median wage of $706 per week in the U.S. today, while men earn $860. A 2012 study from the Center for American Progress found that the average full-time working woman loses more than $430,000 over her lifetime compared with the average full-time male worker.
Women have fought this injustice for a long time; it was a major issue in the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1970s and ’80s. And yet the gender pay gap persists.
The problem seems intractable. How can women, who continue to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes, ever catch up? But with the possibility of a woman becoming president in the United States, some companies are taking steps to fix their gender pay gaps. Coupled with a wave of grass-roots organizing for women’s equality, the renewed interest in economic justice issues affecting women suggests that we may finally reach a tipping point in 2015.
As Hillary Clinton ramps up her potential presidential campaign, advocates for women’s rights and labor are seizing the chance to highlight the gender gap issue. Moreover, as Tara Siegel Bernard recently reported in The New York Times, some companies are quietly and seriously overhauling their pay structures to fix the gender pay gap. Other companies are shepherding more women to the upper tiers of middle management and fixing discrepancies between men and women’s pay for equal work. In Boston, for example, 54 companies have signed onto a compact to make their base salaries and bonuses public and to report other job-related data that could affect women’s pay.
An employer opting to change its workplace is a positive step in addressing the gender gap. Retrofitting corporate structures could have a profound positive effect on middle-class families and cause many women to earn hundreds of thousands more over their lifetimes.
Women are leading campaigns by low-wage employees and domestic workers and support policies that offer major benefits to female workers in the service industry. 2014 saw growing fast food, warehouse, restaurant and other low-wage worker sectors organizing — and winning — a higher minimum wage and paid sick days in many cities and states across the United States. These developments come on the heels of new rules from Barack Obama’s administration requiring that federal contractors report more details on how they pay men and women.
Despite these rumblings, however, making workplaces fair for women will require more than just addressing pay inequity. It means promoting policies to make offices more family friendly. The U.S. still lags far behind other industrialized countries in implementing family-friendly policies that can boost women’s earning power and create security for working families. Fortunately, advocates at the state and local levels are now pushing practical measures through which we can catch up — and their efforts are worthy of support.
Campaigns such as Family Values @Work, Jobs With Justice, OUR Walmart, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and A Better Balance are leading the way in turning opportunity into results. They are calling for policies that seemed impossible a few years ago but are both pragmatic and cost effective. In 2015 advocates hope to build on past successes around a series of family-friendly policies. These include:
Paid family leave: One landmark gain for families came in 1992, when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, giving workers 12 weeks of protection from being fired while they take time to care for an immediate family member who is ill. While a big step forward, the law had serious loopholes. For example, those who needed to care for family members such as siblings and grandparents weren’t covered. Advocates are now calling for expanded family leave policies that would build on the gains from the Clinton years. In the last 10 years, advocates have won victories for paid family leave in three states: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. There are active campaigns for this law in New York, Washington state, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
Just hours: Many hourly workers suffer under unfair practices such as being scheduled to work on a moment’s notice and having their work hours cut when they arrive at the job. Just-hours policies would ban such practices, ensuring that workers have at least two weeks’ notice on their schedules and those who wish to move from part time into full time are able to do so. Receiving work schedules in advance allows working parents to schedule doctor appointments and attend community or school events they might otherwise miss. In 2014 San Francisco passed a Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights, establishing just hours for 40,000 chain store retail workers in that city. Buoyed by this victory, advocates will be scouting other cities where such victories may be possible in 2015.
Pregnant worker protections: Accommodations for pregnant workers made headlines in 2014 with the U.S. Supreme Court hearing arguments in Young v. UPS (PDF). In this case, the company refused to accommodate the temporary physical needs of a pregnant worker. Although the court will likely not rule on the case until spring, grass-roots advocates have taken up this issue, aggressively shaming companies that refuse to accommodate pregnant employees. In response, retailers such as Walmart are coming up with their own pregnant worker accommodation policies. However, the voluntary policies they are implementing often contain ambiguities. For example, pregnant workers may still be fired for trying to obey their doctors’ orders at work — even on directives as simple as carrying a water bottle. Twelve states and five cities have passed laws requiring some employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers. In 2015 groups such as the National Partnership for Women and Families hope to close gaps in federal workplace protections to address the needs of pregnant workers. They are urging Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act to achieve this critical step.
A domestic workers’ bill of rights: Domestic workers, including home-care workers, personal care aides, nannies and housekeepers, have historically been excluded from wage and hour protections afforded under existing labor laws. Over the past five years, the nonprofit National Domestic Workers’ Alliance has made tremendous gains in addressing disparities. After years of organizing, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii and California have in the past five years adopted a bill of rights for domestic workers, guaranteeing basic minimum wage and safety protections for these workers. The alliance, the labor union SEIU and other workers’ rights groups are pushing for more states, including Connecticut and Illinois, to pass similar bills in 2015.
The feminist movement of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s made huge strides in establishing the rightful role of women in the workplace. Now that women are pursuing careers in numbers comparable with men, it is past time that we finish the work of making those career paths truly equitable.