Senators Discuss Solutions to Women’s Workplace Barriers

While working women are an essential part of the U.S. economy, policymakers need to address the many significant barriers to financial security that women face, witnesses and members of Congress said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Policymakers need to address the many significant barriers to financial security that women face, witnesses and members of Congress said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Tuesday. Equal pay via Shutterstock

While working women are an essential part of the U.S. economy, policymakers need to address the many significant barriers to financial security that women face, witnesses and members of Congress said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“Despite all the progress that has been made—all the glass ceilings that have been broken—women still face barriers that are holding them, their families, and the economy back,” budget committee chairman Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said during the hearing, entitled “Expanding Economic Opportunity for Women and Their Families.”

Those barriers, Murray and witnesses said, include lack of child-care access and family leave, the disproportionate employment of women in minimum-wage jobs, and outright job discrimination that women have too few tools to redress.

AnnMarie Duchon, a member of MomsRising, said that she experienced obvious, long-term, gender-based pay discrimination even at the “inventive and forward-thinking” university disability services office where she works. She loves her job and is allowed to have open discussions about her salary without fearing repercussions, which many workers in other industries cannot—but even under these favorable circumstances, she struggled to receive equal pay.

Duchon said that for seven years, she was paid less than a male co-worker who was doing the same job, had a nearly identical resume, and even graduated from the same school on the same day as Duchon. Her employer denied Duchon’s requests for a raise, reasoning that since the male co-worker had taken a pay cut to take the job, he deserved a higher salary. But Duchon said that she, too, had taken a pay cut to accept the position, and that her employer was engaging in “ridiculous stereotyping” that assumes men need higher salaries than women do. “My family depends just as much on my wages as my co-worker’s depends on his wages,” she said. She hoped that the disparity would be addressed when she and her co-worker were both promoted; instead, the wage gap increased by $1,400.

Duchon estimates that her family had lost more than $12,000 over the years in income—equivalent to a year’s worth of child care for their young daughter, or ten months’ worth of mortgage or student loan payments, all of which her family struggled to afford. When she came to her employer with a chart showing the long-standing pay disparity, the employer finally agreed to give Duchon a raise that would equal her male co-worker’s salary.

Duchon eventually received fair treatment, she said, but not all workers are allowed to discuss their salaries and redress their grievances like she could. She said one solution to such problems is the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would extend protections to all workers that President Obama already granted to federal contractors through an executive action. The bill would forbid retaliation against workers who discuss their salaries, make it harder for employers to legally discriminate, and enhance the civil penalties for discrimination.

Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, argued in the hearing that the Paycheck Fairness Act would lead to frivolous lawsuits and that women are already sufficiently protected under the law. But Schaeffer—who recently took the stage at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference to discuss how conservatives can appeal to womendid not mention the fact that workers often cannot even discuss their wages without being retaliated against under current law.

As for women’s place in the economy as a whole, research by Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, showed that between 1979 and 2012, the economy grew 11 percent because women started working more. About two-thirds of mothers earn either all or a significant portion of their family’s income, Boushey testified at the hearing, but too many of those mothers make too little for their families to get by. About two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and women in higher-paying (and often male-dominated) professions have seen their wages increase faster than women in lower-paying (and often female-dominated) occupations. Women in lower-paying jobs overwhelmingly lack the access to paid sick days, paid family leave, and child care that women in higher-paying jobs enjoy, and women workers who lack those benefits have higher turnover, less stability, and less opportunity for advancement, Boushey said.

Boushey highlighted three policy solutions that could address these problems: expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit; passing the 21st Century Worker Tax Act, introduced by Murray, which would reduce taxes on a secondary earner’s income; and passing the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act, which would allow all workers to take time off for an illness or to care for a loved one. Investment in early childhood education and child care is also crucial, Boushey said—when child care costs more than 25 percent of a single parent’s median income in every state, many families simply can’t afford it.

The skeptics of “big government” solutions to working women’s issues, represented in the hearing by Schaeffer and by budget committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), offered few specific policy propositions to help working women, especially those in lower-paying jobs.

Schaeffer pointed to professional organizations like 85 Broads and Negotiating Women that train women in networking and negotiating, invoked Sheryl Sandberg’s admonition to “lean in,” and said that companies will start catering to women’s needs more as the workplace evolves, more women enter it, and more workers demand flexibility. Her own organization, she said, keeps a virtual office to allow flexibility for the many mothers who work there. But these ideas have little to do with the realities faced by low-wage workers: Cashiers or servers can’t work virtually, they aren’t being offered more child care or family leave by employers who want to attract female talent, and they might have a bigger problem with being denied the wages they have already worked for than with not knowing how to negotiate for higher ones.

Sessions, who voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, settled for blaming “Obama’s economy” for the suffering of U.S. workers, offering standard conservative arguments about how the whole economy is held back by excessive regulations, anti-business energy policy, weak trade policy, and a burdensome tax code.

But opposition to “big government” and federal spending needn’t mean opposing new federal policies that could benefit families. Boushey pointed to family leave insurance programs in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island that are funded by a small tax on employees much like unemployment insurance, and to programs in San Francisco and Vermont that give workers the right to request flexible schedules.

Sen. Murray was also joined by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the Senate floor on Wednesday to highlight the issue of women’s economic opportunity.

“Women aren’t asking for special deals,” Warren said. “They just want a fair shot at building lives for themselves and their families.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX). We regret the error.