Collective Bargaining Rights are Key for Workplace Equality

Mar 23, 2011Barbara Arnwine

women-and-moneyRemembering Women’s History Month and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, New Deal 2.0 tells the surprising story of how women became citizens — and how their economic lives have evolved along with their rights. Barbara Arnwine explains why we've not yet entered a "post-gender" world when it comes to women's status in the workplace.

Women's History Month is a very special time to reflect upon both the particular challenges that women continue to face in the workplace and upon the new opportunities that will arise for economic equity. It's also a time is to appreciate the struggles of the Sheroes who came before us who opened the doors of opportunity.

It is up to us to recognize the significance of being women and also the importance of being a part of a broader collective that lifts the stature of everyone - male and female. We must ask ourselves, how do we both acknowledge the persistent disparities and concerns of the past while also looking to the future for continued upward mobility for all? Gender-based issues of increasing unemployment, job silos, unequal pay, sexual harassment and the "Old Boys Network" continue to haunt the American workplace and denigrate the economic status of women. And this affects everyone.

The fact is, it's not quite time for "post-gender" thinking. Take the latest unemployment figures. While we added some 192,000 jobs in February, the overall scenario for women was not rosy. The National Women's Law Center notes that over the course of the recovery, women's overall unemployment rate increased from 7.7 percent to 8 percent, while men's dropped from 9.8 percent to 8.7 percent. Even more disheartening, between July 2009 and February 2011 unemployment rates increased for single mothers (from 12.6 percent to 13 percent) and African-American women (11.8 percent to 13 percent).

Recently, we witnessed the crisis facing public workers in Wisconsin. Governor Walker's actions are of immense importance to women and stand in direct contradiction to our continued progress. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise 52 percent of state-level public sector jobs and 61 percent at the local level. The impact on state and local job cuts in the public sector will be especially devastating to women at a time when the recession has already disproportionately impacted us.

Women of color, already facing large pay gaps, are in danger of falling still further behind as bargaining rights disappear. Dr. Steven Pitts of UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education notes that black women in the public sector earn a median wage of $15.50 an hour, while the sector's median wage overall is $18.38 (white men make $21.24). This is not so surprising when you consider that African-American women comprise only 12.2 percent of labor unions. This data exemplifies the compelling need for workers to have the ability to bargain for equal rights in the workforce. The wage gap remains an important civil rights crisis for women. We have made gains in areas of education and employment, yet we know that we have not been fully acknowledged in the workplace when the paycheck arrives. This illustrates the distinction between the evolution of personal achievement and universal women's emancipation.

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Barriers still confront women in many professions and prevent us from achieving true equality. While we should appreciate the success stories, such as women's increased access to law firms, there are still challenges to overcome. The retention rate, for example, tells a bleaker story about how women fare in the legal profession. The attrition rate for white female attorneys within 55 months is 77 percent, while minority female attorneys at law firms have the highest attrition rate, at 41 percent within 28 months and 81 percent within 55 months. A Diversity and the Bar report notes that women of color often feel isolated in an "old boy's network" environment. It appears that white male attorneys share a greater opportunity for advancement, perhaps because often times those in power (white males) are connected most with people like them. While it is critical that law firms fulfill their responsibility to systemically address these barriers to women's achievement, women must also assist in advancing each other.

This year marked the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day. The United Nations highlighted, as I have, that despite the gains made, much remains to be done to eliminate gender discrimination. Until these vast disparities are addressed and systematically dismantled, this country's economic viability for the future will never be fully realized. The time for a level playing field is long overdue.  As women, we must find our voices and be active in advocating for real equality in these times. And we must always look beyond the headlines to find "her" story.

Barbara Arnwine has been the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law since 1989.

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