Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Empowering Women, Building Our Economy – Keynote Address by Marilyn Watkins

2nd Annual Women’s Equality Day Celebration
Sponsored by Eastside Democratic Women, August 25, 2013

It’s great to be here today to celebrate the real progress we have made towards women’s equality. But I suspect many of us are also here today because we recognize how far we still have to go.

When I was girl growing up in 1960s, the expectation for at least white middle class women was that they would have a career as moms, housewives, and volunteers. I grew up in a family with five kids, and can remember my father saying one night at dinner, “If we can’t afford to send all of you to college, then the boys will will be the ones to go since they’ll have to support their families” – even though when he was a child, his family depended largely on his mother’s earnings.

Now by the time we actually got to high school and college in the 1970s, my father and mother both strongly encouraged and supported their daughters’ education, and are very proud of our professional achievements.

My father’s attitude change was part of a general shift, a shift that was pushed by the women’s movement for both legal and social change. Now women make up about half of the U.S. workforce and over half of new college graduates. Professional schools are no longer closed to women, and Title IX has opened sports to girls and women.

But we’re still a long ways from equality. We are going to have to push for another level of policy change beyond anti-discrimination in order to take the next big step closer to the time when little girls and little boys grow up with truly equal opportunity.

Let’s look at some statistics:

  • The Wage Gap – Women who work full time, year-round earn 77 cents for every $1.00 earned by men. In the Seattle-Bellevue metropolitan area, we have the worst wage gap in the nation, with women earning just  73 cents to a man’s $1.00.
  • Job segregation –  Eighty percent of computer and math-related jobs in the Seattle metro area are held by men, with median annual earnings of $91,000 for men, and $75,00 for women. On the other hand, 80% of personal care service jobs are held by women, with median earnings of $16,000 for women and $22,000 men.
  • The Glass Ceiling – Men hold 60% of management occupations in the greater Seattle area. And while the typical man in management makes $90,000, the typical woman only makes $60,000.
  • Poverty – We have shockingly high rates of single mothers in poverty. In Washington,  51% of single moms with children under the age of 5 have incomes below the federal poverty level.

The impacts of women’s lower wages are far reaching. Kids in poverty have poorer health and struggle in school.  When women earn less, they have less income in retirement, too. And when women have more income, local businesses have more customers, which means they can hire more people – we get an upwardly spiraling economy that’s good for everybody.

So what’s it going to take?

At a recent forum on gender pay equality, every panelist touted math and science education for girls and teaching women how to negotiate better as the route to overcoming the wage gap. Now I’m all for STEM education and encouraging individuals to think big, pursue their dreams, and ask for what they are worth. But when problems are this big and this pervasive, they are not result of millions of individual failings.

Not everybody can be a software engineer or brain surgeon. We’ll still need childcare teachers, baristas, home care workers, restaurant servers, and store clerks no matter how well educated our population is.

Advances for women – like winning the right to vote, and hold a credit card in their own name, and keep a job after marriage, and participate in school sports – happened only with an organized movement that pushed for changes in law as well as in attitudes.

We will only change the status quo in the work place now with an organized movement for legal change.

Here are some of the policy changes we need in order to make every job a job that empowers rather than impoverishes women:

  • Paid Sick Days. We need to pass paid sick days laws through the Washington state legislature and in Congress, similar to those that have already passed in Seattle, Portland, Connecticut, and other places. Staying home when you have the flu or your child is sick shouldn’t mean the loss of that week’s grocery budget – or your job.
  • Family and Medical Leave Insurance. We need to get family and medical leave insurance up and running here in Washington, like programs that already exist in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.  Having a baby should be a joyous event, not a time of huge financial stress. Those first weeks should be a time when the mom can recover her strength, mother and father both bond with their child, and the baby flourishes. The early months of a baby’s life lay the foundation for all that follows.

Supporting people who are caring for a newborn or recovering from surgery or caring for a parent who’s had a stroke or a spouse with cancer is not only humane, it’s a smart public investment that saves public money on health care, public assistance, and long term care, while building a stronger economy where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

  • Early learning and care. We need quality affordable childcare and preschool – with good wages for teachers – to support working parents and set all children on the path to educational success.
  • Fair pay. And we need paycheck transparency and fair pay in all jobs – not just better negotiating skills.

The good news is we have policy models right here in US for all of these advances, and we have organized coalitions working for change. But to succeed, we will really have to amp up the level of pressure on our public officials – because we can be sure that they are getting lots of pressure from the top 1% to keep the status quo.

This is the 93rd anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States. But the Seneca Falls Convention that launched the women’s rights movement in this country was held 72 years before that. Throughout those 72 years, people argued that women didn’t have the intellectual capability of voting or that women didn’t need to vote because they had their fathers and husbands to speak for them, or that women’s suffrage would destroy the family.

It was smaller, local victories along the way that disproved all those arguments and kept the campaign going. Women won the right to vote in school elections, and then in a few western states. We won the vote here in 1910, a decade before the 19th amendment was finally ratified.

Twenty years ago the federal Family and Medical Leave Act passed. It gives workers in big companies the right to take 12 weeks unpaid leave for a new child or serious ill family member, or their own health condition. In the decade long fight for that bill, opponents argued that companies would stop hiring women and that it would destroy profits – but passage was followed by a decade of economic growth and more women than ever in the workforce.

During the campaign for Seattle’s Paid Sick Days bill we heard that businesses would flee the city – but you know what? Business is booming in Seattle.  And some companies, like MOD Pizza and Tutta Bella, decided to offer sick leave to their employees outside the city, too.

The American Constitution talks about forming “a more perfect Union.” We are still trying to get there as a nation. Continuing to fight for an economy that works for women and children and families puts us in good company.

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