This week marks the 99th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, granting women (though not black or native women, in many cases) the right to vote. Read this op-ed in the Beckley Register-Herald.
This date has become known as Women’s Equality Day, but nearly a century later, women – and particularly women of color – still struggle for full equality, particularly in the workplace.
Despite some gains breaking into male-dominated fields and careers, women are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts. The gender wage gap is the result of interconnected factors including gender and racial discrimination, workplace harassment, job segregation, and a lack of workplace policies that support family caregiving. Though some of the contributing factors like job segregation and harassment are sticky problems with more opaque solutions, implementing family-friendly work policies is much easier and is good for workers and businesses alike.
In 2017, women in West Virginia were paid, on average, 74 percent of what men made. The pay gap is worse for women of color, with black women making 63 percent and Latina women making 60 percent of what their male counterparts made.
These numbers are stark, but even they don’t tell the whole story. Because family caregiving responsibilities are most often borne by women, working full-time over a lifetime is not possible for many women.
When we measure the wage gap over a longer period – 15 years – women are paid just 49 cents for each dollar paid to a man. This reflects the time women are pushed out of the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities. The loss of pay over a lifetime has significant consequences. Women are 80 percent more likely than men to live in poverty in retirement.
The gender wage gap is an important reminder of the high cost women and families are paying for our nation’s policy failure. The United States loses $500 billion in economic activity each year due to women being out of the workforce. And men are not immune to impacts from the wage gap.
Entire households suffer when family income is lower than it should be because women are unable to remain in the workforce or be paid for time off. Studies of the U.S. and other countries have shown that paid maternity leave increases labor force participation for mothers and reduces the chances that they leave their jobs after having children.
Paid family and medical leave can help close the gender wage gap by reducing the time mothers or other caregivers are separated from the labor force. In the year following a birth, new moms who take paid leave are more likely than those who do not to stay in the workforce – a win-win for workers, families, and the employers who get to retain skilled, trained employees. Paid leave can also help to equalize caregiving duties, giving dads the opportunity to take leave and share in a child’s direct care.
West Virginians value family, but we are failing to give families the tools needed to balance economic stability and caregiving roles. More children than ever before are living in households where all parents work, and a new child or sick family member should not require a choice between working and fulfilling that caregiving responsibility. West Virginia has the lowest labor force participation rate in the country – a reflection of the impossible choices that families are forced to make. We, more than any state, should be leading the way in ensuring paid family and medical leave for all workers.
In addition to paid leave, we can help close the pay gap and fulfill the promise of equality for all women by expanding access to child care, raising the minimum wage, enacting a state Earned Income Tax Credit, and passing and implementing meaningful equal pay and nondiscrimination policies. When family-friendly policies are enacted, women, families, and businesses benefit.