On Women’s Equality Day… Are We There Yet?

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By Linda Meric

Each year, on August 26, we celebrate Women’s Equality Day to pay tribute to those brave suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Ida B. Wells Barnett, who led the struggle for American women to win the most critical tool of democracy—the right to vote.

Women today not only have the right to vote, but we’ve made significant advances in the world of work, in education, in business, and in many other arenas. Still, Women’s Equality Day 2009 offers the chance for a temperature check. Are we there yet? How close have we come to full equality? And what steps can we take now to come closer?

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Women in the U.S. still earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. African-American women and Latinas experience an even bigger pay gap. The pay gap persists despite occupation, despite personal choices, despite income, and despite education. In fact, women earn less than their male colleagues just one year out of college, even when the work is exactly the same. And the gap widens after that.

At the rate we’re going, women will have to wait until the year 2050 to reach pay equity. But we can’t afford to wait that long. We need stronger fair pay laws and vigorous enforcement to end pay discrimination. We need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act now.

We must also address workplace policy that ignores women’s dual responsibilities—work and family. Consider this: The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world that does not guarantee paid time off for new parents. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks leave for major illness and the birth or adoption of a child. But not everyone is covered and the leave is unpaid. To move toward equality, we must expand family and medical leave now and make it more affordable, for more workers.

Additionally, we must provide legislative relief for the nearly 60 million workers who lack paid sick days. Three cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee – have passed ordinances that allow workers to keep their jobs and incomes while caring for themselves or a loved one in times of occasional illness. But now is the time for Congress to take federal action.
Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, with one hundred House co-sponsors, have re-introduced the Healthy Families Act (HFA) in Congress. The proposal would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year.

Paid sick days protect the public health, provide a safety net for workers in a tough economy, and are good for business. Studies show that businesses that offer their workers paid sick days have less turnover, higher worker morale, and higher productivity.

Providing workplace pay equality and sick days for all workers will not be easy victories, but it is attainable. We must all speak out. Tell your story. If we are ever to see a full vision of women’s equality, we must honor the legacy of those brave women who went before us.


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