The Ever-Changing Woman’s Nation

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a worldwide celebration of the social, political, and economic advances made by women in the face of violence, oppression, and hardship. This occasion, however, also compels us to reflect upon the difficulties that women continue to face around the world—as well as here in the United States. While women have made considerable gains in both the public and private spheres, it remains clear that we have much work to do before equality is truly realized for our nation’s women.

A recent White House report documents the pervasive and persistent wage gap women still face in the workplace. According to the report, women, who now comprise half of the labor force, continue to make on average roughly 75 cents for every dollar that a man makes for comparable work. And analysis of long-term outcomes shows more troubling disparities: Women continue to be poor in higher numbers and rely on social safety nets in higher numbers than do men. This is despite the fact that women are making great strides in education, experiencing higher graduation rates from high school than men, as well as similar—but rapidly increasing—rates of college graduation.

The Center for American Progress, in collaboration with Maria Shriver, released “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything” in the fall of 2009. The report was a comprehensive analysis of the rapidly changing role of women in American society, brought about by increasing labor force participation rates, decreasing marriage rates, and shifting perceptions of the role of women held by men and women alike. Similar to the White House report, the Shriver Report uncovered many of the difficulties that continue to impede the progress of women, the wage gap being chief among them.

Shortly after the release of the Shriver Report, CAP experts Heather Boushey and Ann O’Leary published “Our Working Nation: How Working Women Are Reshaping America’s Families and Economy and What It Means for Policymakers.” The authors of this paper used the findings of the Shriver Report as the foundation for tangible policy suggestions that would help combat the injustices faced by women around the nation. In light of the White House report on the status of women in the United States, we find these suggestions worth revisiting.

Ensure predictable and flexible work schedules. Especially for workers with families, predictable and flexible work schedules increase workers’ abilities to meet the stressful demands of both the workplace and the home. Inconsistent yet rigidly enforced work schedules can force able workers out of the labor force. This effect is most pronounced in women.

Create and enforce equitable leave laws. Paid family and medical leave is the cornerstone of achieving equality in the workplace. Without it, many women are forced to choose between working and having a family. Should they choose the latter, re-entering the labor force later becomes a difficult if not impossible task.

Provide paid sick leave for workers. Ensuring the adequate provision of paid sick leave gives workers greater freedom to care for themselves and their families without jeopardizing their employment and income.

Pass stronger workplace antidiscrimination laws. Current laws need to be bolstered by new efforts to prevent workplace discrimination, especially against pregnant and/or caregiving employees. Employers should not be able to retaliate against workers for taking the necessary time off to have a baby.

Provide better direct support for caregiving. Entering the workforce is an extremely difficult task when individuals have to simultaneously care for the young or elderly. Increased government support of caregiving for the young and old alike would help individuals with dependents be more productive as laborers.

Improve information on family-friendly workplace policies. There is currently insufficient data about the true effects of family friendly policies around the country. Expanding and streamlining our analysis of such programs will help inform the creation of better policies in the future and is a necessary component of any progress toward workplace equality.

As the release of the White House report suggests, these policy prescriptions are just as pertinent now as they were one year ago. We hope that on the occasion of International Women’s Day, and in light of the continued inequities women experience in the workplace, Congress and the Obama administration take seriously our recommendations. In doing so, we can create a more just and welcoming work environment, and in turn a stronger labor pool and economy.

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