Not equal by any measure

March 8, 2018

With protests and discussions planned for this year's International Women's Day, Elizabeth Schulte documents the second-class status still plaguing working women.

JUST IN time for International Women's Day, teachers in West Virginia have set an inspiring example with their nine-day walkout in a "right-to-work" state--and workers across the country are taking it up, including Oklahoma teachers preparing for a potential strike in April.

The attitude of state officials was little different from what politicians around the country think teachers deserve: low wages, high health care costs, classrooms starved of resources.

But by standing up and refusing to drop their demands, the West Virginia teachers, three-quarters of whom were women, found out who had their backs--students, parents and others workers, in West Virginia and all over the country.

"Other states and everybody, they need to realize that not only is it teachers who are fighting for everybody, but it's female teachers. We men are not the majority here at all," a striking teacher told

More than 100 years ago, women workers in the U.S. were at the heart of the first International Women's Day declared in 1910, when German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed it as a socialist holiday.

Taking to the streets for women's rights in San Francisco
Taking to the streets for women's rights in San Francisco (Charles Moehle | flickr)

It was inspired by the struggle of thousands of New York City garment workers, whose strike exposed the life-threatening conditions that the young and largely immigrant workforce labored under--and their collective power when they struck.

The international socialist movement's establishment of the March 8 holiday represented a recognition of the importance of working women's struggles--and, more generally, a commitment to ending women's oppression.

More than a hundred International Women's Days later, the conditions for working women around the world still deserve the same attention--including women working in the richest country in the world.

Last year, during the first year of the Trump presidency, socialists and other activists came together to commemorate the holiday with protests, meetings and other events, such as the International Women's Strike (IWS) and "A Day Without a Woman." Like the first Women's Marches a month and a half earlier, many of the International Women's Day actions last year reflected the anger and urgency of having an admitted--and downright proud--sexual abuser in the White House.

Today, activists will be taking part in campus speak-outs, meetings and events, including IWS actions such as a march in New York City. And this year, we have the West Virginia teachers' victory to look to as an example of women workers organizing on the job--and the massive outpouring by survivors of sexual abuse and harassment as part of the #MeToo movement to add to the urgency of taking on every instance of women's oppression, inside and outside workplaces.

READERS OF Socialist Worker are probably familiar with the statistics about women's wages and income inequality.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly wage of women who work full-time was only 82 percent compared to their male counterparts, a number that has stayed pretty much the same since 2004.

In just about every industry where men and women both work, women earn less than men, and jobs predominately held by women on average pay 66 percent less than jobs predominately held by men, reports the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR).

Over the last 50 years, little progress has been made in decreasing the pay gap, and the IWPR estimates that if the snail's pace continues, women won't reach pay equity until 2059.

The figures are even worse for women of color: If they are Latina, they won't gain wage parity until 2233; Black women will have to wait until 2124 for equal pay.

Women are also three times more likely to work in industries that pay poverty wages. "Among all occupations," the IWPR reports, "4.6 million women work full-time in occupations with median earnings for full-time work for women that are lower than 100 percent of the federal poverty threshold for a family of four, $468 per week in 2016, compared with 1.5 million men in occupations where median weekly earnings for men are below this poverty threshold."

Women are also nearly two times more likely than men to work part-time--29.4 percent versus 15.8 percent. For some women, this is a choice based on the limited availability to affordable child care. There are also many women who would prefer full-time work, but can't get it. One in five women who responded to a 2013 IWPR survey said they worked part-time because they could not find full-time work or had their hours at work temporarily reduced.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), Black and Hispanic women are the groups most likely to experience involuntary part-time employment and represented 21.1 percent of all involuntary part-time workers in 2015.

Along with part-time work comes erratic and unpredictable work schedules, with workers never knowing week to week when they will work.

Industries that hire the most involuntary part-time workers, such as retail and hospitality, want to create a "buffer pool of employees," explained the EPI's Lonnie Golden. "They operate under very lean staffing, so when there is a drop in demand, they tell people not to come in or send them home early."

But there is no such drop in demand or "buffer pool" at home--and for women workers with children, this can turn their lives upside down, trying to earn enough to feed their families and meet those families' schedules.

The absence of affordable child care in the U.S. means that women workers are at the mercy of whatever support networks they knit together to fill in the gaps in child care--and their employers' willingness or unwillingness to acknowledge the real-life situations of their employees.

THE LOW-WAGE and part-time jobs women work are also typically jobs where workers who go without paid family and medical leave, vacation and sick days, and employee contributions to their retirement.

Since women are typically the primary, or only, caregivers in the home, the lack of sick days or paid family leave brings with it sometimes insurmountable pressures.

A 2007 survey found that one in eight women and one in five women with children said they or a family member had been fired or disciplined by an employer for taking time off to cope with an illness or care for a sick child or family member. As Joan Williams pointed out in the report "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired":

Unlike in countries such as France, Sweden and Denmark, where high-quality child care is readily available and affordable, child care in the U.S. is both expensive and of highly variable quality. Consequently, working-class families typically patch together a crazy quilt of family-delivered care, with parents working different shifts and/or grandparents and other family members are drafted to help with child care.

These arrangements mean that if a parent or grandparent is forbidden to leave or is ordered to stay overtime, workers may well face discipline, or even job loss. The commonness of this situation is highlighted by a study that found that, in the month surveyed, 30 percent of those surveyed had to cut back on work for at least one day in order to address family care needs.

All this puts workers with families, and women in particular, in increasingly precarious living situations.

The 1993 federal Family Medical Leave Act ensures workers can't be fired for taking a leave to care for a family member or a worker's own illness. But it's unpaid and limited, and workers are required to fulfill a myriad of requirements and jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to qualify. Only four states in the country require employers provide paid family leave.

In Austin, Texas, supporters of legislation to require employers to provide paid sick days--which passed the city council in February--stressed the importance of sick leave for low-wage workers, who are disproportionately immigrant and African American, and of seeing it as a reproductive health issue.

Workers who are forced to delay needed medical procedures like abortion to fit their work schedules face more expensive, and sometimes prohibitively so, medical visits.

The Austin ordinance called on employers to include time for physical or mental illness or injury, preventive health care, taking care of a family member's illness, and time taken to seek medical attention or to participate in legal action related to domestic abuse or sexual assault.

BEYOND WAGES and benefits, the everyday realities of work degrade women on the job--and at the same time help reinforce all of the discrimination they face there.

The #MeToo campaign has allowed tens of thousands of women to step into the space opened up by high-profile women in Hollywood to speak about their own experience of sexual assault and harassment on the job, even if much of their protest may have been confined to the internet.

But the silence is only starting to be broken.

The statistics about workplace sexual harassment are astounding, but so are the descriptions of the obstacles women seeking justice face. An analysis of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) statistics by the Center for American Progress reported that nearly three-quarters of women who report sexual harassment at work say they were retaliated against.

Many women in this situation, according to EEOC, attempted to work around the situation by either avoiding or ignoring the harasser, downplaying the situation, or attempting to endure or forget the harassment.

This not only creates an atmosphere at work where women are afraid to step forward when they face abuse, and where the experiences of women who do speak out about abuse are minimized, but one where women's ability to control what happens to her own person is put in question.

And when a woman can't defend herself against physical harassment and abuse, the possibility of being treated as an equal in pay, hours and benefits seems infinitely far from reach.

Still more factors that appear to reach far beyond the workplace make women's inequality part of the fabric of U.S. society.

Women's ability to make decisions about their own bodies, whether or not to have children, exists under constant threat from both legislative attacks on reproductive rights but also attacks on the social safety net, which blame poor and working-class women. It's important to point out the impact that lack of reproductive autonomy and access to services has on transgender men and women, something this short article unfortunately can't do more than acknowledge.

WHILE REPRODUCTIVE justice seems like it's a million miles from the workplace, fighting on these fronts makes a difference in working-class women's lives, and our ability to push back the right that is attacking women's rights can play a role creating an atmosphere where women are respected in every facet of life--even on the job.

In a similar way, #MeToo has exposed what is happening in workplaces across the country--and significantly, taken steps toward transforming how women and men view what in a certain workplace at a certain time was considered acceptable behavior.

It feels like we have traveled many miles from where we were after the election of Trump, when political pundits proposed the idea that the country wasn't "ready" for a woman president. The reality of organizing over the last year shows that men and women are eager to stand together against sexism in U.S. society--but the narrow confines of the 2016 election wasn't the vehicle for doing that.

Hillary Clinton's campaign tried to claim that her election would represent a blow against sexism in U.S. society--even though she herself sat on the board of Walmart, a company that keeps millions of women workers in low-wage jobs. But the Women's Marches and #MeToo movement showed what actual opposition to sexism and sexual discrimination looks like--and how popular it can be.

There is a lot of organizing to be done--inside and outside workplaces--to improve the lives of women, but the past year has provided glimpses of the strength of organizing on the basis of solidarity and a commitment to liberation.

Further Reading

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