fresh voices from the front lines of change







As women and their families continue to struggle with the demanding, and sometimes impossible, balance of work and family life, the Make it Work Campaign, launched earlier this summer, hopes to act as an outlet for their frustrations and an ally in their fight.

Vivien Labaton, co-founder of Make it Work, spoke with me Tuesday morning to discuss the issues working women and families are struggling with, and the ways the Make it Work Campaign is trying to help.

The campaign is primarily concerned with issues surrounding equal pay, caregiving, and work and family life. They are dedicated to achieving an increased minimum wage, affordable child care options, and paid family leave for workers, in an effort to “advance economic security for women, men and families across the country.”

Its inception could not be more timely. This year has already seen a sharp increase in the intensity of women’s anger over their working conditions and how those conditions affect their family – and with good reason. Women remain severely overrepresented in low-wage work, making up two-thirds of minimum wage workers. Moreover, working women in the United States are paid an average of $11,000 less per year than men, even though, in 60 percent of households, a woman is the primary or co-breadwinner.

While Make it Work is invested in minimizing the well-documented gender wage gap, some continue to stubbornly claim its existence is not due to inherent gender bias but is the result of women’s personal choices about their careers. Labaton admits that the issue is a complicated one. ““The pay gap issue is a complex one - it can’t be reduced to one singular cause,” she said. “The truth is that there is a complex range of factors that contribute to it.”

One such factor is that women have historically entered job fields that traditionally pay less. But what’s both troubling and illuminating is that, when men enter these fields, like nursing and teaching, they tend to earn more and be promoted faster and higher than their female counterparts.

In fact, as Labaton explains, “the pay gap starts early, before women have had children and left the workforce for other reasons.” In 2012, the average unmarried woman with no children working full time was paid 71.4 percent of what a man working full time was paid.

But while the pay gap itself may be invisible, its effects are very real and they can be devastating to American families. So, Make it Work is also devoted to collecting and sharing the personal experiences of working families, in order to build “a community of women and men who share the belief that hardworking Americans shouldn't have to choose between being there for family and earning a living.”

There is a “Share your Story” section on Make it Work’s website that invites visitors to tell of their own difficulties juggling work and family life. Labaton says that this has been a good tool for emphasizing that the work they are doing is important to all Americans. “One man shared his story as the primary caregiver for his daughter, and expressed his appreciation that the campaign acknowledges that many of the challenges we are taking on aren’t only impacting women,” she said.

Because of the tenacity of groups like Make it Work, Congress is starting to listen to their constituents demands. Earlier this year, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have revised the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to more completely protect women workers and equalize their wages with those of men. But it died in the Senate last April.

In December 2013, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would have entitled every working American to family and medical leave insurance. But, it has never, and likely will never, come to a vote in this Congress.

But while the prospect of congressional progress may be dim, the Make it Work Campaign offers hope. Labaton says that when they polled 800 registered voters, they found not only a high percentage of support for the campaign and the issues on which they focus, but also very high levels of intensity of support.

This is excellent news, considering that women comprised the majority – 53 percent – of the electorate in 2012. Looking ahead to the midterm elections this fall, women have the opportunity to sway the election once again in favor of politicians who will support, indeed fight for, policies that will help America’s vulnerable working families.

But while the chances of Democrats regaining control of the House this fall are slim, Labaton says that Make it Work’s goal is longer term. They are already looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election, when both Democrats and Republicans will have to be responsive to the demands of the American public.

Labaton says Make it Work’s “goal down the road is to get these issues front and center leading up to 2016, and we want to start now.” I’m glad they did. It means more support for working women, men, and families. And it might finally mean some progress for them, too.

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