The Labor Day news has been dominated by strikes at fast food restaurants, essays on growing income inequality in the United States and even reports about how increasingly unaffordable higher education is going to make the current generation less likely than their parents to climb into a comfortable middle class life.
All these challenges, and more, are worth the attention of policy makers and lawmakers was we mark another Labor Day, a holiday created in 1896, by the way, as an olive branch to workers by the anti-labor union President Grover Cleveland. We should also add to our list of policy and societal concerns the continuing challenges and inequality that confront women in the work place.
Those fast food strikes aimed at a higher minimum wage are, as Slate points out, mostly about women. “This is a labor movement that is structured largely around the needs articulated by the working mothers in it, women who, with or without a partner, are often trying to raise families on minimum wage jobs. Women make up two-thirds of the fast food work force, and a quarter of workers are raising children.”
At the other end of the economic spectrum – the high end - Fortune reckons that only 21 of the companies in the Fortune 500 are run by women. A 2011 report by Catalyst, an outfit that tracks “critical statistics to gauge women’s advancement into leadership and highlights the gender diversity gap,” found that only 16% of all Fortune 500 board positions where held by women. Fewer than 3% of companies had a woman chair the board of directors, only 1% – a decline from a previous study – had as many as 40% female board members and 11% of the Fortune 500 had absolutely no women in governance roles. Predictably the numbers are even worse for women of color; 3% of board seats of the biggest companies in the United States are held by women of color and 70% of the Fortune 500 have no women of color at all in governance roles.
Some Idaho specific numbers to contemplate when next your order that Whopper from the woman behind the counter: the median income of a working woman in Idaho in 2012 was $18,772 – dead last in the nation with Utah and Montana ahead. (All these numbers are from the website USA.com.) And just to put that $18,722 in context, the poverty level – as officially calculated by the government – is $23,550 for a family of four. A working mom in Idaho who is bringing home the state’s median income and supporting a couple of children is, to say the least, struggling.
But Idaho must be doing better for women in the management and professional ranks, right? Not so much. Nearly 47% of the Idaho work force is made up of women, which is slightly below the national average and just over 35% of those women are employed in “management or professional” positions. That number puts Idaho well below the national average as the 49th state in the nation for women in more traditional “white collar” jobs. Idaho is just ahead of Nevada and Hawaii, states with a particularly high level of service oriented jobs due to their tourism based economies. Idaho’s regional neighbors do substantially as measured by a percentage of women working in white collar jobs: Utah is at 41 in the nation, Montana 28, Oregon 25 and Washington at 15.
So what’s going on here? From the highest reaches of corporate America to the neighborhood coffee shop women seem not to be sharing anything like parity in the work place with men and the gaps haven’t been closing much at all.
Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of The End of Men, says we’ve focused too much on the “wage gap,” the well-worn statistic that women only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Rosin says there are many reasons for the wage gap, and many are not comforting, including the fact that women often work few hours a week than men, men more often belong to unions (and generally get paid more as a result) and, perhaps the big one, women, despite overtaking men in educational achievement, still gravitate (or perhaps are forced to gravitate) to generally lower paying jobs.
The bigger issues, Rosin says, are “the deeper, more systemic discrimination of inadequate family-leave policies and childcare options, of women defaulting to being the caretakers. Or of women deciding that are suited to be nurses and teachers but not doctors. And in that more complicated discussion, you have to leave room at least for the option of choice—that women just don’t want to work the same way men do.”
Author and educator Stephanie Koontz, who incidentally will speak at a major and sold-out Andrus Center conference on women and leadership this week at Boise State University, made essentially the same point in a New York Times essay earlier this year.
“Astonishingly,” Koontz wrote, “despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the F.M.L.A. turned out to be the inadequate end.
“Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of ‘work-family reconciliation’ acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.”
As an old friend use to remind me – “all things are political.” Whether its the paltry percentage of women in corporate governance in America, the unlivable minimum wage or work place friendly policies that impact working women and their kids, the public policy response to women who work has, as Stephanie Koontz says, not just stalled, but “hit a wall.” Even Barack Obama, who most thought would take major steps to correct the gender balance in major presidential appointments, has a record leaving much to be desired.
A couple of weeks ago the Nixon Library was in the news as it released the last of Richard Nixon’s White House tape recordings. Less notice was given to some 30,000 pages of documents from the Nixon years that were released at the same time. Two of the pages where a typewritten 1971 memo from Nixon staff assistant Barbara Franklin to White House political advisers Fred Malek and Jeb Magruder. Franklin had just been to a Washington, D.C. conference on the “status of women” – the delegates she wrote were not “radical feminists” but “establishment women” appointed by the nation’s governors – and she wrote excitedly about the standing ovation that had been given at the conclusion of remarks by a woman named Betty Friedan who had issued a stirring call for woman to seek greater political power. [Friedan's pace setting book The Feminine Mystique had been published in 1963.]
Franklin told Nixon’s political guys in the concluding lines of her memo, “I’m absolutely convinced the ‘women’s issue’ is gathering momentum. We should be listening and thinking!!” Unfortunately that is still appropriate advice to politicians 42 years later.
As Dr. Kootnz has written we need to “stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.”
Women and minorities have provided the electoral power in the last two presidential elections, finally breaking one glass ceiling and putting an African-American in the White House. A woman may well be next and perhaps that will be, at long last, the catalyst for a policy agenda that really addresses women who work.