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Life-Time Self-Sufficiency: Eight Things Every Young Woman Should Know

By Minjon Tholen and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

An Institute for Women’s Policy Research study analyzing men and women’s earnings over a 15-year span found that women in the prime working ages of 26 to 59 made only 38 percent of what prime working-age men made during the same time span. This major gap is due to occupational segregation, discrimination, caregiving obligations, and other factors, and creates a critical obstacle for women’s economic security throughout their working years and into retirement. Depending on a woman’s socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity, this gap may be even larger. Here are eight things all young women need to know now to be self-sufficient later.

1. Education

Education levels are strongly associated with earnings. The median weekly earnings of bachelor’s degree holders are 65.8 percent higher than those with only a high school degree. Women increasingly recognize the need to further their education and now outnumber men among those graduating with bachelor’s degrees, yet women still earn less than men at every level of educational attainment.  Postsecondary education is therefore an important tool for young women to increase economic security over their lifetime.

2. Reproductive Choice

Since educational attainment is a major determining factor of one’s income levels throughout life, and completing high school or college is difficult to combine with child-rearing responsibilities, a woman’s ability to control her own reproductive life is crucial for her economic security. If you are in school and have children, familiarize yourself with and use the student parent support services available in your school and/or community, and advocate for more such services.

3. Occupational Segregation

Many women work in occupations that are traditionally female-dominated and are undervalued and underpaid compared to male-dominated occupations. As of the 1990s, after decades during which occupations increasingly became more ‘mixed’, further gender integration stalled. There are now proportionately fewer women in Information Technology occupations, which are generally well-paid, than there were 15 years ago. As a young woman choosing a career, explore non-traditional career options and keep in mind the implications your career choice may have for your ability to support yourself into the future.

4. Wage Gap

Women also earn less than men within nearly every occupation, indicating that occupational segregation is only part of the story. The gender wage gap begins early (with young women starting off at lower salaries than young men with comparable qualifications in comparable positions), widens over time, and can be larger or smaller depending on one’s race/ethnicity.  Part of the problem may be that young women are less likely than young men to negotiate for a higher starting salary or a raise.  Also, many employers work to keep pay information confidential; nearly half of all workers say they are either contractually forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with their co-workers. Knowledge is power. So, talk to your co-workers, do research on average pay in your industry, and negotiate your salary. Know what you’re worth and ask for it.

5. Discrimination and Harassment

Research indicates that a significant portion of the wage gap within occupations cannot be fully explained by known factors—such as education or experience—suggesting that gender discrimination is still a significant barrier to women’s economic progress. Everyone has a right to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment based on gender or race/ethnicity. Know your rights under the law, familiarize yourself with the policies and protections at your workplace, and speak up when you feel these rights are violated.

6. Work/life balance

Although the majority of women are active in the workforce, they remain the primary caregivers to children and other dependents. Balancing work and personal life can be a struggle for many women and taking time out of work can have a long-term impact on your earnings and job security. Find out whether your employer offers flexible work arrangements and is subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act, in order to know your rights and responsibilities when balancing your work life and personal life.

7. Social Security

Compared to men, women rely on Social Security for a longer period of time (because they live longer) and depend on Social Security for a greater share of their income.  Yet, women receive, on average, significantly lower Social Security benefits due to a lifetime of lower wages and periods of decreased employment due to caregiving responsibilities for children, parents, or others. As a young woman, be aware that there is strong likelihood that you will live alone for at least part of your retirement. Educate yourself on how to maximize your Social Security benefits, strive towards ensuring other sources of income in retirement, and work to protect this program which is so vital to so many women and men.

8. Assets, Savings, and Pension Plans

Women face specific barriers to acquiring assets, building up savings, and investing in a pension plan. Women’s lifelong lower earnings due to occupational segregation, the wage gap, and caregiving responsibilities make it difficult to accumulate assets and savings. Women are also significantly less likely than men to have access to and participate in employer-sponsored retirement or pension plans. On top of these factors, women who do receive income from their own pensions receive on average less than half as much as men. To offset reliance on Social Security, start thinking about other ways to supplement your income in retirement early in your life and career.

Be cognizant of how gender inequality impacts your ability to be economically secure.  These inequalities are reflected in policies, institutions, and attitudes that affect all of us on a daily basis.  Know you have the ability to change this by educating yourself and others, and advocating for women-friendly policies. For in-depth studies on the issues described above and many others, visit the Institute for Women’s Policy Research research portal.

Minjon Tholen and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson are Research Interns at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.

Author Finds Technology a Tool Not a Solution in Bridging Divide

By Leah Josephson

People often describe the “digital divide” in terms of high-income individuals’ having access to cutting-edge technology that helps them thrive socially and economically, while low-income individuals are left out. The divide is often cited as a significant source of economic inequality.

At a recent event at Busboys and Poets, Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, critiqued this diagnosis as overly simplistic. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Teaching for Change, and DC Jobs with Justice.

Eubanks worked with a group of low-income women who are members of the YWCA community in Troy, NY, and asked the women what they needed. The main problem was not the digital divide. Instead, “more buses, less racism, and fairer employment” were the most popular calls for help.

Eubanks expected these women to have few technological skills. Instead, she found two-thirds of them already working in high-tech jobs, such as data entry or network administration. However, these jobs were low-paying, had few benefits, and were unstable. Technology was ubiquitous in their lives, but they could not use it to improve those lives.

Eubanks realized that simply providing technology and training is not enough to improve women’s lives. Rather, projects need to be designed to account for deeply ingrained racial and gender oppression.

Eubanks, informed by the belief that those closest to problems can best find solutions, worked closely with the women to identify their needs. They created a community technology lab for the YWCA, staffed and sustained by residents, as well as what Eubanks called an “Angie’s List for social services providers,” where the women could provide feedback on their experiences at local assistance agencies.

Even so, access to tech tools was not a high priority for the women. They were more concerned with the basic structural and cultural challenges that affected them on a daily basis—a lack of reliable transportation and workplace flexibility, coupled with racist attitudes.

Eubanks emphasized that technology in itself cannot cure these problems, but it can play a positive role. “We all have a stake in the creation of a more just information age,” she said.

Eubanks noted the creation of new, high-end jobs in technological development—touted by politicians including President Obama as the solution to our country’s economic woes—requires the support of more service industry positions in food service, hospitality, and retail. These lower-income jobs must be fair, provide benefits, and allow for work-life balance to meet the needs of workers.

IWPR has identified other basic benefits that can drastically improve the quality of workers’ lives in the shorter term. For women and their families, guaranteed paid maternity leave (the U.S. is one of only five countries worldwide that doesn’t require employers to provide it) and paid sick days could improve health, well-being, and economic stability.

Pay equity is another problem Eubanks identified. The women would often accept minimal compensation for high-tech jobs, hoping to gain the skills necessary for a higher-paid position. In a society where open discussion of salary is often taboo, these women had little opportunity to identify and express grievances, and only rarely advanced in the workplace.

“Technology is not a destination, it’s another site for struggle,” said Eubanks. In making technological advancements we should consider the quality of life of the workers who perform and enable it. Technology can contribute to a more just society, as long as the privileged consciously use it as a tool to support social justice, and not a ready-made engine of social progress.

Leah Josephson is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Where’s My 20?

By Sara Manzano-Díaz, Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau

This is a guest blog post on the important theme of Equal Pay Day. The struggle to gain equality in pay for women is ongoing, and affects women and their families.


As the economy of the United States slowly recovers, one faction of the population is still struggling for wage equality—women. The American workforce today is more female and more diverse. Women account for nearly half of our nation’s workers. Yet, women on average still earn 20 percent less than their male counterparts.

Since passage of the landmark Equal Pay Act in 1963, the pay gap has steadily narrowed by just one-half a cent each year. Over the past five decades the landscape of pay equity for women has remained one of “haves” and “have nots.” This is particularly true for women of color. Data indicates that the wages of women of color significantly lag that of whites.

According to recent reports by the U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $657 compared to $819 for men. When you look at the wages of African American and Hispanic women, however, the wage gap widens.

For example, African American women earn about 70 cents and Latinas about 60 cents of every dollar paid to all men. These aren’t simply statistics, they’re real numbers that affect the pocketbooks of women who face the day-to-day bread and butter issues of taking care of their families.

So, why does the pay gap matter? The pay gap shines a bright light on the disparity of income available to maintain the households of American families, particularly those of single women and women of color. For millions of working women, the gap means 20 percent less income to pay for housing, gas to get to work, utilities, food, college education for children, and retirement savings.

Over a 40-year career, a woman cumulatively loses nearly $380,000 in earnings. For the average working woman that is almost $150 a week in lost household income to sustain their families. Equal pay is not just a woman’s issue—it’s a family issue.

As a woman and a public servant, I am proud of the Labor Department’s role in advocating for issues that positively improve equal pay for women and their families. And, we want to assure women that this administration will continue to enforce the laws that protect wages, to level the playing field for employers who play by the rules, and to work toward fixing policies that impact women in the workplace.

And as a working woman, I know what my missing 20 percent has cost me over my lifetime. What has that 20 percent cost your family?

More information on the impact of the pay gap is available at http://www.dol.gov/wb/equal-pay-toolkit-20110412.htm.

Sara Manzano-Díaz is Director of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

San Francisco Paid Sick Days Law Is a Proven Success

This is a guest post by Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families. It was originally published on the blog for the National Partnership of Women and Families.

A new study released today shows that San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance (PSLO)—the first citywide paid sick days standard in the country—has been proven a success. The report, San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees, released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), includes the results of a survey of nearly 1,200 workers and more than 700 employers in San Francisco. The findings are overwhelmingly positive for workers, businesses and the public—adding further evidence that policies that help working families meet their responsibilities at work and at home are good for everyone.

Sixty-one percent of San Francisco voters approved the city’s paid sick days law in 2006 despite the business lobby’s fierce campaign against it. Under the law, workers in smaller businesses can earn up to five paid sick days per year while workers in larger businesses can earn up to nine. Workers can use the sick time to recover from their own illness, care for a sick family member, or seek routine medical care.

This new study shows what researchers, advocates and the San Francisco public knew to be true: San Francisco’s PSLO has had a tremendous impact on workers’ lives with little to no impact on the city’s businesses. Two-thirds of the employers surveyed now support the PSLO. They overwhelmingly report that their profits haven’t declined as a result of the law and two-thirds report no difficulties with implementation.

The study results suggest that part of the reason the impact on business has been minimal is that workers only take sick days when they need them. Even though the law allows workers to take between five and nine paid sick days annually, San Francisco workers used a median of just three days per year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member. And one-quarter of workers reported that they didn’t take a single sick day. Commonly used arguments about employee abuse, just like concerns about hindering businesses, simply aren’t reflected in the real-life data coming out of San Francisco. It’s no wonder that the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, one of the chief opponents of the law prior to its passage, now concedes that there has not been an adverse impact on business closures or employee misuse.

This new data proves that access to paid sick days really does make a difference for working families. More than half of the workers surveyed said they have benefitted from the law. And the law has given workers who need paid sick days the most—including parents and workers with chronic health conditions—the time they need to care for their health and the health of their children. Every day we hear the stories of parents who are forced to choose between their children’s health and the financial well-being of their family; lower-wage workers who have to put off visits to the doctor and sacrifice their health to avoid losing their jobs; and workers with conditions like asthma and diabetes that require ongoing care but who are forced to put their long-term health in danger because they have no sick time. This study shows the power of a simple common-sense policy in improving the lives of these workers and their families.

One sobering note from the study is that not all workers have been able to enjoy the PSLO’s protections. Between one-fifth and one-third of the city’s employers are not complying with the law, either by failing to provide time off or by asking for more documentation than the law requires. The survey results are a call for greater employer education, outreach, and enforcement to maximize compliance and workers’ access to the protections the law provides.

As a whole, this new report adds to the growing evidence that paid sick days policies benefit working families, employers and our communities. Currently, 40 percent of private-sector workers in the United States don’t have access to paid sick days. And millions more cannot use the time they have to care for a sick child or family member. Washington, DC, and Milwaukee, WI, have already followed San Francisco’s lead by passing paid sick days laws, and states like Connecticut are seriously considering legislation that would guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days. There are no more excuses for lawmakers and employers not to do the right thing for working families. The scare tactics used by opponents have been shown to be baseless. It’s time for lawmakers to reject them and enact the common-sense policies that are proven to work for everyone.

Vicki Shabo is the Director of the Work and Family Programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families based in Washington, DC.

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