It Takes More Than ‘Leaning In’ To Lift Wages for All Women

According to a fall 2014 poll by Pew Research center, 77 percent of women and 63 percent of men agree that “this country needs to continue making changes to give men and women equality in the workplace.” Although women hold 49.3 percent of jobs, they only earn 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. It’s even less for women of color – Hispanic women earn 54 cents for every dollar white men earn, and African-American women earn 64 cents for every dollar white men earn.

The gender wage gap exists because of policies that fail to benefit American workers, and instead benefit their bosses.

On Wednesday, May 13, 2015, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. held a panel to explore the necessity of giving women meaningful equality in the workplace. Panelists discussed how structural differences in business regarding small employers and part-time workers keep the gender pay gap strong.

Panelist Caroline Fredrickson, author of “Under the Bus: How Working Women are Being Run Over” emphasized how certain views about how women should advance themselves in the workplace, such as those Silicon Valley executive Sheryl Sandberg wrote in “Lean In,” might work for professionals in full-time jobs, but do not address the majority of America’s working women. “There’s nothing wrong with ‘leaning in,’ but it doesn’t address the problems that many women face in the U.S,” she said.

In 2013, Sandberg rallied professional women across the country to “Lean In” and push for success in their personal and professional lives. Sandberg argued that women should speak up and have meaningful conversations with employers regarding paid leave, affordable child care, and other crucial benefits.

But “leaning in” cannot fix the structural problems that need to be addressed through policy changes. The gender wage gap does not exist because not enough women are “leaning in,” but because of a system that allows part-time workers to be denied benefits and to be discriminated against by small employers, and that does not pay living wages. Part-time workers, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and mothers are among the highest numbers of women being failed by our system.

“Farm-workers, temps, small business workers, part-time workers, etc.” are often left behind by policies that allow businesses to exploit workers with minimal pay and little to no benefits, Fredrickson noted. In her introduction to “Under the Bus,” Fredrickson wrote, “Few of us are aware of how the labor and employment laws leave out so many women.”

Part-time work is a job category dominated by women. In 2014, almost 33 percent of all employed women over the age of 16 in the United States were classified as part-time workers. According to Frederickson, “8 million of these workers are involuntary,” meaning, that no full-time positions are available to them.

Most workers in part-time jobs receive minimal to no benefits. It is also common for businesses to withhold hours from employees to exempt workers from benefit status. Paid sick leave, vacation days, and health insurance are typically unheard of.

The role of motherhood also affects the workplace. According to the Department of Labor, The labor force participation rate for single mothers with children under 18 years of age was 74.2 percent in 2013, and 67.8% for married mothers (spouse present) with children under 18.

Even with high numbers of mothers participating, mothers face some of the biggest hardships in the workforce. At Wednesday’s discussion, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO of noted, “Being a mom is a greater predictor of job discrimination than being a woman.” Becoming a mom and having a baby is also the number one cause of “poverty spells,” where income dips below what is necessary for basic living expenses, she said.

It is impossible for women to “lean in” if policies do not keep businesses from unfair labor practices. The United States needs to implement checks on our employment policies to protect workers and close the wage gap.

During the panel, Brigid Schulte, journalist for The Washington Post, stated, “the more I learn about how our work policies are structured, the more I learn that they don’t work for anyone.”

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act allows eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. However, according to Fredrickson, “it only covers a very small number of employees – over 40 percent don’t qualify, and most of those who don’t are young women and women of color.”

The U.S. also lacks policies to protect working mothers. Today, the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity and parental leave. Currently, 51 percent of new mothers receive no paid leave whatsoever.

Affordable childcare is also a huge problem; daycare can cost even more than college. Rowe-Finkbeiner explained the case for affordable childcare, stating, “For every dollar we spend on high quality childcare, we get $8 back – and for high-risk children, we get $20 back.”

Paid leave is also a crucial benefit that many cannot receive. Four in ten private-sector workers and 80 percent of low-wage workers cannot earn a single paid sick day. Paid sick days would ensure that women would not lose pay or their jobs because they or their child fell ill.

Even if more policies are put into place for paid leave, affordable childcare and paid sick days, one underlying force will continue to affect worker prosperity and the wage gap: the need for a living wage.

Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy stressed that “raising pay for all workers” would make a significant difference in the gender wage gap. Women currently make up two-thirds of workers in low-wage jobs. By implementing a living wage, 15 million working women would have a greater ability to support themselves and their families.

There is still a gender wage gap in 2015 because of a lack of policy measures to protect working women. Paid leave, affordable childcare, and paid sick days are all necessary benefits that would help to close the gap. Because women are disproportionately represented in part-time and minimum wage work, a living wage is also a necessity. Until fairer work policies are put into practice, the gender wage gap will remain persistent.

Rowe-Finkbeiner summed up America’s gender gap issue: “We’re living in a ‘Modern Family’ nation with ‘Leave it to Beaver’ policies.”

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