5 Signs the US Is Failing to Protect Women's Rights in the Workplace

Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, Chicago and Northwest Railway Company. Clinton, Iowa, April 1943. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. (Credit: Creative Commons / Library of Congress)

5 Signs the US Is Failing to Protect Women's Rights in the Workplace

The Prime Minister of Morocco recently compared women to "lanterns" or "chandeliers," saying that "when women went to work outside, the light went out of their homes." His remarks, which ran counter to Morocco's constitutionally-guaranteed rights for women, promptly provoked both street demonstrations and an "I'm not a chandelier" Twitter hashtag.

The Prime Minister of Morocco recently compared women to "lanterns" or "chandeliers," saying that "when women went to work outside, the light went out of their homes." His remarks, which ran counter to Morocco's constitutionally-guaranteed rights for women, promptly provoked both street demonstrations and an "I'm not a chandelier" Twitter hashtag.

But before we celebrate our culture's moral superiority over a Middle Eastern nation - which sometimes seems to be a reflexive instinct in this country - perhaps we should stop and consider the fact that the prime minister's remarks would not have been out of place in many of our own nation's political and media conversations.

What's more, our country's bias against women in the workplace isn't just cultural. As is true elsewhere, evidence for it can be found in both policy choices and economic data.

What's a glass ceiling, after all, if not another place to hang a chandelier?

Here are five signs that much more needs to be done to ensure equal workplace rights for women in the United States.

1. Women are working more, but they're still carrying most of the workload at home, too.

As a new report from the Center on Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows, the number of paid hours worked by the average woman rose from 925 hours per year to 1,664 hours between 1979 and 2012.

But, as the report also notes, a number of studies have shown that women continue to do about two-thirds of unpaid child- and elder care and at least 60 percent of routine housework.

2. The wage gap hasn't improved.

Years after passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the wage gap remains unchanged. Why? The Ledbetter Act allows employees to challenge wage discrimination. But the Paycheck Fairness Act, which provides a toolkit for establishing wage equality, has not yet been passed. "Giving women my Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without the Paycheck Fairness Act," said Ledbetter herself, "is like giving them a nail without the hammer."

"Congress and President Obama both need to stop resting on their Ledbetter laurels," said Linda D. Hallman, executive director and CEO of The American Academy of University Women. The AAUW recently published a study which showed that the wage gap between men and women remained unchanged over a 10-year period. It still stood at 77 cents on the dollar as of 2012, the fourth year after the passage of the Ledbetter Act.

A major conservative talking point was challenged by the report, which found evidence of a pay gap even among women without children.

The study, which drew on government data sources, also showed that the pay gap can be found in nearly every profession; that it gets worse over time, as men and women age into increasingly different pay levels; and that it's worse for women of color.

3. Austerity cuts are disproportionately harming working women.

Private-sector job gains are already far too weak, even in good months, to provide the employment gains our economy needs. Now, a new study by the National Women's Law Center shows that public-sector job cuts have offset even these modest gains or women. "Women accounted for 40 percent of the 217,000 jobs added last month," said the NWLC's Joan Entmacher, "but their loss of 8,000 public sector jobs cut into their private sector gains."

(A clip of our recent interview with Entmacher on The Zero Hour is available here.)

Long-term unemployment remain at record-high levels for both men and women. What's more, May's job gains for women were disproportionately in low-wage occupations.

As we've noted in the past, our political discourse celebrates the creation of private-sector jobs while ignoring, or even demonizing, the public-sector employees who teach our children, provide health services, or keep our cities moving. Politicians who boast about their plans for private-sector job creation are perfectly capable of bragging simultaneously about job-killing cuts to public services. That's austerity economics in a nutshell.

As it turns out, it's also an approach that has disproportionately harmed women since the financial crisis of 2009. As the NWLC report notes, public-sector job losses have wiped out 13 percent of women's private-sector gains since that time, while public-sector job losses have wiped out 5.6 percent of men's private sector gains.

4. School cuts have been especially harmful to women.

Ben Casselman notes in the Five Thirty Eight website that school funding is faring worse in the recovery than it did in the recession. Stimulus funding initially helped to offset some of the impact of the crisis. But Washington's austerity fixation has led to ongoing cuts in education budgets. As a result, federal per-student spending fell more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2012, and has continued to fall, while state or local funding remained essentially flat.

Total school funding fell in 2012 for the first time since 1977. As Casselman notes, urban school districts have been especially hard-hit by these cuts. "Nearly 90 percent of big-city school districts spent less per student in 2012 than when the recession ended in 2009," he writes.

These cuts hurt women in several ways. As of 2011, when this National Center for Education Information study was conducted, 84 percent of public school teachers were women. That means they are struck disproportionately hard by staffing cuts. Their workload is also made more difficult by budgetary constraints that lead to larger classrooms, unavailability of important supplies, and other factors.

What's more, women who teach are also frequently women with families. Given the fact that family responsibilities fall disproportionately upon women's shoulders, cuts in educational budgets force many women to bear the burden for everything from reduced after-school activities to making up for lost professional attention with informal tutoring.

5. Hostility to education spending doesn't extend to high-tech.

And yet, despite our political culture's fixation on government spending cuts, the political elites' hostility to education spending doesn't seem to extend to high-tech expenditures. This recent news item, for example, triggered neither controversy nor debate: "FCC to Spend $2 Billion to Improve Wi-Fi in Schools, Libraries," a headline in the Wall Street Journal read.

We're not disputing the idea of upgrading school Wi-Fi. It seems like a good idea. But with so many other good ideas for public expenditure under challenge, how did this one avoid pushback? The average starting salary for teachers in the United States last year was $36,141, and yet both staffing numbers and teacher's pay are under constant political assault. So how did a figure that amounts to more than 55,000 new teachers' salaries go unchallenged in austerity-minded Washington?

As we've said, political realities are often dictated by both economic and cultural biases. When our political system is hostile to human hiring but eager to embrace the purchase of costly technology, one suspects that both are in play. Somebody will sell that hardware to our schools, after all. Then there's the fact that Wi-Fi may seem somehow more glamorous to some people than hiring another elementary school teacher.

But which will benefit our children more? Which expenditure would do more for the nation's working women? And what does it say about our culture when it's more acceptable for our government to buy $2 billion worth of new technology than it is to hire teachers for our nation's classrooms?

Beginning to See the Light

Even as women make inroads in the workplace, too often that progress comes at a price. As the NWLC found, the pay gap can be found today in many different professions. Even women who achieve CEO status face everyday bias, as the recent exchange between GM's CEO Mary Barra and television's Matt Lauer demonstrated. (Lauer's time would have been better spent on more follow-up regarding GM's recent scandal.)

Things are tough - but they are far from hopeless. That CEPR report which cited the average number of hours a woman works per year also concluded that "unions can provide substantial support to women trying to balance their paid work and their unpaid care responsibilities."

The CEPR report reached the following conclusion: "Since unions disproportionately raise wages at the middle and the bottom of the wage distribution, and since unions reduce gender wage disparities both across and within occupations, unionization works to reduce the gender pay gap."

The report also cites a recent analysis that found that "the size of the gender pay gap for union workers was only half the size of the gender gap for non-union workers."

Unions also help provide better benefits for health and retirement, as CEPR observes. Women (and men) will need even more organizational help if they are to obtain the added benefits that today's working families need, including child care, parental leave, and familial care leave.

Nontraditional labor groups like those profiled in this Think Progress piece may also play a significant role in strengthening the rights of women on the job. We're already seeing significant successes from groups who are working to raise the minimum wage, and a majority of minimum-wage workers are female.

Organized labor is only one front in the battle for workplace equality. We also need to end the cultural patterns that lead to discrimination, harassment, unequal pay and lost opportunities for women at all income levels and in virtually all professions.

That's one of the reasons why the work of organizations like the National Organization for Women and UltraViolet is so important. We need to keep confronting and challenging the biases that affect our thinking at so many social levels and in so many corners of our lives - including journalism and policy analysis. (And it's definitely time for The Washington Post to fire George Will.)

It's easy for Americans to scoff at Third World politicians who compare working women to chandeliers. It can even serve to make us more comfortable in our own prejudices. It's much harder to shine a light on the flaws in our own society. But that is the work we are called to do if we want to live up to our nation's egalitarian ideals.

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