The New Republic, November 2, 2015
Shirley Chisholm broke ground as the first African-American woman elected to Congress. But back in 1970, she knew her story was the exception, not the rule. Speaking during a debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, she said, “Discrimination against women, solely on the basis of their sex, is so widespread that it seems … normal, natural, and right.”
Normal, natural, and right. With three simple words, Chisholm captured just how pervasive gender discrimination had become. But what about now? What exactly is the state of working women 45 years later?
Today women serve as doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and astronauts. We run big corporations like Yahoo and Pepsi. We are police chiefs and baseball umpires and electricians—jobs once reserved exclusively for men. And there’s a pretty good chance a woman will be leading the free world in January 2017. No one can deny that progress has been made.
Even as we celebrate the advancement of women in the workforce, the harsh reality is that too many of us continue to struggle when we shouldn’t have to. Sheryl Sandberg asked us to “lean in.” But most working women are already leaning in so hard that we are practically falling over. We are being forced to hang on, scrape by, and make do.
But, as usual, working women are rising to the occasion. We understand that our growing role in the workforce carries new responsibilities—financial responsibilities, for example, as heads of households, and decision-making responsibilities in our homes, communities, and jobs.
What we don’t accept—what we have to stop accepting—is the price society demands from us in return: little to no say over the days of our lives.
The status quo is not working. A typical woman who works full-time loses more than half a million dollars over her lifetime because we are paid less than men. Women are the majority in low-wage jobs. Women have a greater share of responsibility at home but, if we don’t have the benefit of a union, are unlikely to have earned sick leave or paid family leave.
This is especially the case for women of color. Women of color experience lower median weekly earnings, higher rates of poverty, and greater unemployment. While women overall make 79 cents for every dollar men make, black women and Hispanic women only make 63 cents and 54 cents, respectively. We must do better.
Unfortunately, corporate policies are making our schedules less predictable, less flexible, and less fair. Just look at the practice known as “clopening,” in which workers are forced to come in for back-to-back closing and opening shifts—with only seven or eight hours between. Working women are being left with less control over how much time we can spend with our families, and when.
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of CEOs are not sitting around thinking about ways to hurt their workers. What they are doing—what the corporate culture demands of them—is to cut costs and increase the bottom line. But the burden of this system, which is driven by money, is being endured exclusively by workers.
And society is quietly accepting this as nothing more than business as usual. We have to make quiet acceptance the enemy. We have the power to change this pattern. We need to join together and speak out for good wages, great benefits, fair scheduling, and equal pay for equal work. We need to demand paid sick leave, family leave, and child care. These things are accessible and available to us if we stand together for them.
In so many ways, it is a wonderful time to be a working woman. Finally, we’re able to reach our potential and contribute in whole new ways to our families, our communities, and our nation. But we are paying a high price for that progress, much higher than should be expected or accepted. Now is the time to step back and truly assess what we are missing and what more we can be doing.
Forty-five years ago, Shirley Chisholm described gender discrimination as normal, natural, and right. We have come a long way since then, but our work is still unfinished.
Working women are a formidable force. Together, we can make equal pay, paid leave, and fair scheduling the law of the land. Together, we can pledge never to shrink ourselves and to always stand up for our rights. Together, we can reject quiet acceptance and build an America where all working women can sustain their families and realize their dreams.
Today we are closer than ever. Tomorrow, if we do our job, it will be normal, natural, and right.