Martha Burk at her house outside of Albuquerque, N.M., explains the New Mexico Pay Equity Initiative. (Caroline Cataldo/MEDILL)

Workplace Rewind

By Caroline Cataldo

After the ’64 Civil Rights Act, women retrofitted their schedules and family lives to fit in at work. Today, a movement is afoot to makeover work so it fits the needs of America’s one true majority — women.

Each morning, J. Vega and her three boys wake up, eat breakfast and are out the door by 7:15 to make their way by bus, and foot, to school.

Then Vega, a 37-year-old single mother, takes the subway from their home in Brooklyn to the sports club in downtown Manhattan where she works as a customer service manager.

A few months into her job, Vega’s schedule became increasingly unpredictable for unexplained reasons.  When Vega addressed this with her supervisors, they waved her away, saying her hours “were not up for discussion.”

“The changing hours didn’t matter much to some, but even an hour made a difference to me and my family,” says Vega, who asked that her first name not be used to protect her job.

Her 10 a.m. to  7 p.m. schedule allowed her to help her kids with homework, make them dinner and make sure that they got to and from school safely.  Earlier starts or later finishes meant her kids, two of whom are autistic, would miss therapy.

Even though the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned overt workplace discrimination against women, 50 years later there are still subtle practices that hold women back.

Census reports show that on average women earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns — the obvious evidence of gender discrimination.  Experts like Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn say 60 percent of the wage gap can be attributed to things easily measured like a woman’s time out of the workforce due to pregnancy and childcare, and the different occupations and industries in which women tend to find careers compared with men.

But the other 40 percent of the wage gap, experts say, cannot be explained with data and statistics.

Martha Burk at her house outside of Albuquerque, N.M., explains the New Mexico Pay Equity Initiative. (Caroline Cataldo/MEDILL)
Martha Burk at her house outside of Albuquerque, N.M., explains the New Mexico Pay Equity Initiative. (Caroline Cataldo/MEDILL)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC,  which monitors discrimination of all kinds in the workplace, points to gender stereotyping during the hiring process and inflexible workplace policies as two major obstacles facing women, like Vega, attempting to balance their roles as mothers and employees.

Sarah Jane Glynn, the associate director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, says the unexplained percentage points are the side effects of centuries-old understandings of a women’s place in the family.

In 1964, 11 percent of women held dual roles as breadwinners and caregivers.  Over the past 50 years, that percentage has steadily increased to 40 percent, bringing women out of their homes and into the workforce.

Gender Stereotypes and Inflexible workplaces

In 2007, the EEOC issued enforcement guidelines outlining unlawful treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities.  Though there are no specific federal laws protecting workers with caregiving responsibilities from discrimination, many claims that women make fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  When caregiving responsibilities collide with gender biases and stereotypes, the EEOC says “employment decisions based on stereotypes about working mothers are unlawful.”

Quoting the opinion of Justice William Brennan in the Supreme Court case Price Waterhouse v.. Hopkins, a famous sex discrimination case in which the court ruled the plaintiff was not promoted to partner in a law firm because she was a woman, the EEOC states that individual workers must not be evaluated by employers based on stereotypes but by their own merit.

“Any time an employer is making assumptions about their workers without actually checking in on them, that’s a problem.  When those things add up, they have really negative impacts,” Glynn says in similar studies she has conducted at the Center for American Progress.

The EEOC outlines those gender stereotyping assumptions, consciously or unconsciously made during the hiring process and throughout employment:

  • Caretaking responsibilities interfere with work;
  • Caring for a child makes women less dependable than male employees, regardless if they are or will become pregnant;
  • Women with young children should not work long hours ;
  • Women are less committed to their jobs as compared to before they had children;
  • Part-time workers care less about their work than those who work full time;
  • Women with children do not want to relocate to a new city, even when a promotion is involved for fear of disrupting their children’s lives.

In addition, the EEOC identifies what it calls the “double bind” that women face as they try to survive in the workforce.

Pamelya Herndon, executive director at the Southwest Women’s Law Center, talks about the issues facing women today. (Jillian Turner/MEDILL)
Pamelya Herndon, executive director at the Southwest Women’s Law Center, talks about the issues facing women today. (Jillian Turner/MEDILL)

According to the EEOC report: “Once female workers have children, they may be perceived by employers as being less capable and skilled than their childless female counterparts or their male counterparts, regardless of whether the male employees have children. These gender-based stereotypes may even place some working mothers in a “double bind,” in which they are simultaneously viewed by their employers as “bad mothers” for investing time and resources into their careers and “bad workers” for devoting time and attention to their families.” 

Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and nationally known expert on work-family issues, emphasizes that asking a woman if she can “have it all” directs work-life balance away from employers’ responsibility to their workers and toward a mother’s ability to be both an employee and a mother.

“Framing this issue as ‘women have to make hard choices’ glosses over the reason why women have to make hard choices,” Williams said.  “If you design the good jobs around a man married to a homemaker, then of course it makes life difficult, not only for women but also for men who are married to homemakers.”

When Vega’s work hours began to shift, she was forced to make hard decisions.  Even taking an hour off to go to her son’s parent-teacher conference put her at risk of losing her job.   She felt stuck, helpless and uncertain about why her employers were unwilling to accommodate her.

Vega says employers should embrace working mothers just as much as any other employee.

“We take our work personally,” she says.  “We embrace our jobs because we know we are working for a greater goal— our families.”

Williams backed Vega’s assertion that employers should be more flexible with  mothers in the workplace.

“The fact that the adult has other important commitments does not mean the adult is not committed to their job,” Williams says, who founded the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The remaining 60 percent

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington,  says occupational segregation, which is a major factor in the pay gap, occurs when men work in occupations normally held by men and women work in jobs usually held by women.

In an analysis of the 2013 gender wage gap, the institute compared the 20 most common occupations for women and for men.  The data show how the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity affects the wage gap.

The researchers found that for the 20 most common occupations for men and women, a woman’s median earnings per week were lower than the earnings of a man — $706 and $860, respectively.  The report states those numbers have a lot to do with the kind of jobs women tend to hold— the top five most common professions for women, including nursing maids, waitresses, cashiers, and personal care aides earn average salaries that place women at or barely above the poverty  line.  That means 6.8 million women earn full-time wages and are still at the poverty level while 3.7 million men fall into that category.

The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research also compared the average earnings of men and women in two highly specialized fields, requiring a certain level of skill — software developing, a male-dominated field and registered nurses, a field dominated by women.

In both professions, men earned more.  Male software developers earned an average of $1,737 per week versus women at $1,370.  Women earned an average of $1,086 as registered nurses, while men earned an average of $1,236.

Mentors and advocates

When Amy Williams, a consultant physician at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, sat down as a guest lecturer with young female leaders at an annual conference, she asked them what they thought they needed to succeed.

“They told us they don’t particularly want academic mentors, they want career mentors helping them navigate their career and private practice,” Williams said.

“So often, women with education create their own glass ceiling,” Williams says.  “We take ourselves out of the running for jobs and promotions, because we give up too early.  There is an unconscious bias and we have to be attuned to it, encouraging our male colleagues to call it out.”

It is through female mentors and leaders who are willing to help women get a leg up that Williams believes women, especially in her field, will be able to close the gap.

For Vega, change did not come until she was close to reaching her breaking point.  One day, in a “fit of rage,” she combed through Internet searches for an answer to her problem.  There, she found A Better Balance, a New York-based legal center dedicated to helping caregivers balance family life and work without losing their economic security.

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, Phoebe Taubman, the lawyer assigned to Vega’s case, said Vega would be able to apply for leave at the beginning and end of the work day — covering the hours she had to miss so she could get her children to and from school without fear of losing her job.

Changing leave policies

The Family Medical Leave Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, requires employers to provide up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for employees to take care of a new child, a seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own serious health or medical issue. Because two of her children suffer from autism, Vega qualified for these benefits.

At first, Vega found it difficult to get her employers to assemble the necessary paperwork to apply for the program.  But, after Taubman and Vega explained to them her home life situation, they were much more eager to accommodate her.

Only about 60 percent of caregivers meet the requirements to qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act; and those who do often cannot afford to take unpaid leave, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, a non-profit organization that has advocated for women’s rights for four decdes .

According to a report prepared for the United Nations in 2012, the United States and just five other  countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland — do not have some type of federal paid leave system for new mothers. At the state level, only three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have paid family leave laws.

And for this reason, paid leave is a hot topic for Glynn and her colleagues at the Center for American Progress.  Without access to paid leave, women are forced to quit their jobs or are fired, she says.

“[Unpaid leave] creates this system that forces women out of the labor force and keeps them out for extended periods of time,” Glynn says.

And this problem is particularly relevant to women who are pregnant or recently gave birth, she says.

  • The Center for American Progress estimates that between child care, pregnancy and subtle forms of discrimination the amount of earnings lost over a woman’s lifetime could be as much as 37 years of groceries for a family of four or seven four-year degrees at a public university.

Working with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines 

To remedy this, the EEOC has published multiple reports establishing guidelines and recommendations aimed at protecting pregnant women and female federal employees from discrimination.

In 2011, there were 5,797 charges filed with the EEOC and state and local Fair Employment Practice agencies around the country alleging pregnancy discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For the first time in 30 years, the EEOC in July issued new guidelines clearly spelling out that mistreatment of women for current pregnancies, past pregnancies and future pregnancies is illegal under federal law.  According to the EEOC, an employer must accommodate a pregnant woman as much as an employee who is similarly unable to complete a task because of a disability.   This covers everything from providing a woman a place to sit to creating spaces for pumping breast milk.

The guidelines were written in response to increasing numbers of pregnancy discrimination allegations and in an effort to clarify terms of federal discrimination laws, according to the EEOC.

Similarly, in December 2013, the EEOC created a report looking at the obstacles women faced in the federal workplace.

Specifically, the report highlighted inflexible workplace policies, wage disparity between men and women, unconscious gender bias and stereotyping, as well as how women are unable to obtain high level management positions in the workplace.

What’s next?

New Mexico began research in 2010 to monitor and remedy the gender wage gap for state government contract workers.  Though the initiative is still in early stages of implementation, it is the hope of pay equity advocate groups that their salary, gender and job reporting template and analysis techniques can be replicated in other states and cities around the country.

Martha Burk, lead consultant of the New Mexico initiative, says the only way women will find equal footing with men is by requiring state and local governments as well as private businesses to hold themselves accountable for nondiscriminatory hiring and pay practices.

Burk believes the government made some “serious mistakes” with civil rights, pay equity and pregnancy laws in the ’60s and ’70s.

“All of our civil rights laws were incorrectly conceived, in my opinion,” she says.  “Every civil rights statute that we have is complaint driven.”

According to Burk,  that means the plaintiff, in this case a woman, needs to prove she was discriminated against while the employer just has to “sit back and wait to get sued.”

“Instead of being complaint driven, we need to write laws so there is an affirmative obligation to do something,” says Burk, a women’s issues expert  who co-founded the Center for Advancement of Public Policy in Washington.  “Instead of saying, we are prohibiting pay discrimination, we need to say, ‘You must pay women and men equally for comparable work and skill.’ ”

The EEOC, Center for American Progress, Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a variety of other women advocacy groups have outlined recommendations for employers as well as local, state and federal governments to better meet the needs of the more than 66 million women in the workforce.

“I just want laws to start changing,” Vega says.  “We live in a diverse world— all benefits shouldn’t be impossible to fill for mothers, especially as the number of working families increases.

“At the end of the day I’m a mom.  A career cannot deny me that right.”