Structural Barriers Prevent Women from Achieving Workplace Equity

Stefanie Chambers Testifies on “Women in the Recession” at State Capitol

​HARTFORD, Conn. – Although much attention has been paid to the significant job losses suffered by men during this time of great economic distress, women have also been hard hit by rising unemployment, the lack of pay equity and the undervaluing of “pink jobs,” – those jobs that are traditionally held by women, Stefanie Chambers, associate professor of political science, testified at a State Capitol hearing on Tuesday.

“At the same time that all Americans have been touched by the recent downturn,” Chambers said, “I would argue that many of the structural barriers women face in our society exacerbate the problems faced by women economically and place all families at risk.”

Among those barriers are the wage gap, the undervaluing of pink jobs, the fact that women are more likely to have part-time or contract positions and employed in sectors where job security is fragile, the lack of affordable child care, and the economic hardships faced by women who leave their jobs to care for children and then re-enter the workforce.

Chambers was one of three expert witnesses asked to speak at a hearing sponsored by the state Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). The agency holds a “Woman’s Day” each year at the Capitol, and this year’s summit focused on key challenges facing women, including the lagging economy, family-friendly policies and workplace security.

The PCSW has endured the pain of the state budget ax, having had its funding cut this year by 65 percent, and its staff cut in half. “But we’re still here fighting,” said PCSW Executive Director Teresa C. Younger. “This year we needed to make sure that women’s voices would be heard.”

Chambers, who spoke before a standing-room-only crowd in the Legislative Office Building, has not been immune to the economic realities caused by the prolonged economic downturn. Juggling two children and a career, Chambers said that she temporarily had to support her family when her husband lost his job.

In fact, that’s been a challenge borne by growing numbers of women. As during the Great Depression and World War II, more and more homemakers have been forced to obtain jobs, resulting in more than 2.1 million wives whose husbands are unemployed supporting their families, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“This finding is particularly troubling because research indicates that women’s earnings fall 10 percent each year they are out of the workforce, putting women who reenter the workforce after a prolonged absence in a very unfortunate position,” Chambers said.

Chambers cited other interesting facts and statistics:

Although 78 percent of job losses have occurred in male-dominated fields, traditional female-dominated fields such as retail, hospitality, and personal business services have experienced the same downward trend.

Today, 72 percent of men are employed, compared to 60 percent.  Sixty years ago, the figures were 86.5 percent for men and 34 percent for women.

Even so, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in comparable positions.

For women of color, the wage gap is even greater. African-American women earned just 70 centers for every dollar earned by men in 2007, and Latinas earned just 62 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Even though large numbers of women have entered the workforce, women have lost 2 million jobs as a result of the recession.

The growth in the number of women in the workforce is not necessarily a sign of progress for women, but rather evidence of employers’ demand for cheap labor because women often work part-time or work on a contractual basis and thus don’t qualify for benefits.

In sum, said Chambers, “women’s jobs are not immune from this recent downturn.”

Chambers offered eight recommendations for addressing the economic vulnerability of women.

Pay equity would ease the burden on women and their families. Raising awareness of pay inequality is the fastest and most effective way to continue the process of closing the gender pay gap.

Job training and re-entry programs must be created to help women retool for the new economy.

There must be meaningful health care reform so that “women should not be in a situation where they must choose between preventive reproductive health care options or paying their bills.”

Flextime, telecommuting and job-sharing programs should be made available to women in these tough economic times.

The state should find creative ways to subsidize childcare and increase the number of child-care providers so that families don’t have to pay a steep price for women’s participation in the workforce.

Although Connecticut has a family leave law that allows employees to take a leave of absence for medical reasons without fear of losing their job, employers are not required to pay the workers. Consideration should be given to a paid sick-day policy.

Reliable public transportation options must be developed with the goal of linking poor communities with areas where jobs are plentiful.

Women should be encouraged to run for public office, serve on commissions, and climb the corporate ladder. Women, and particularly women of color, continue to be vastly under-represented in these important areas.

“In conclusion,” said Chambers, “I hope that my remarks today highlighted the important role women play in moving us through these critical times. The policies supported by the PCSW reflect some of the most important priorities for our state as we explore alternative economic recovery strategies with an eye toward ensuring that women and their families regain fiscal stability.”

Chambers, who has been a member of Trinity’s faculty since 2000, has expertise in the fields of U.S. politics, urban politics, urban education policy, race, ethnicity, and gender. She is the author of Mayors and Schools: Minority Voices and Democratic Tensions in Urban Education.