A Woman's Workplace Revolution

04/09/2013 01:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Women in the C-suite are getting some serious face time in the national media. For instance, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, recently released her book called, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In one interview promoting the book, Sheryl discussed being a "pompom girl for feminism," her words, not mine. Sandberg's book has garnered her a fair share of critics who jump to point out that "leaning in" might not do much good for women who are struggling to overcome systemic and structural barriers to career advancement.

It is true: Sheryl Sandberg does not speak for all women in her book, nor should she have to. Her book was constructed with a particular audience in mind and she ought not be ostracized for telling her life story. That being said, I'm pleased her book has sparked so much passionate dialogue about the systemic barriers keeping women from climbing the economic ladder. Sandberg's publicity is shedding light on an undeniable fact: that when it comes to women's career advancement across all income levels, the workplace is in need of a policy revolution. A true "workplace revolution" has very different meanings for Chicago's women but two things remain constant: women want equal pay and a minimum wage that is not stuck in the dark ages.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

Within the "women's workplace revolution," equal pay for equal work is a high priority. Equal pay is a war we've been fighting for fifty years and for women in the middle class, it has been an ongoing battle. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 aimed to end gender wage disparities, but here we are in 2013, still working on this unfinished business. Today, women continue to make 77 cents for every dollar men make in wages. According to CFW grantee Women Employed, the gap becomes wider when we look at the intersection of race and gender with African-American women making 62 cents and Latina women 54 cents for every dollar made by their white male counterparts.

Because of unequal pay, women must work longer than a man for the same amount of pay. Soon after the Equal Pay Act was passed, a group of organizers started Equal Pay Day. Since 1966, people have gathered on this day as a public awareness event. This year, Equal Pay Day is April 9 and here in Chicago, hundreds of women and men from various organization, professional associations, labor groups, civil rights organizations and others are showing their commitment to equal pay. The rally will be held at Daley Plaza at noon and various speakers and presenters will discuss how to solve wage inequity.

Increase the Minimum Wage

A second priority within the "women's workplace revolution" would be an increase in the minimum wage. Did you know that Congress has raised the minimum wage only three times in 30 years? In February 2013, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed an increase in the state's minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 an hour over the next four years. According the National Women's Law Center, the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460), a federal law, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and increase the tipped minimum cash wage from $2.13 per hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage.

An increased minimum wage is a win-win for the nation, especially for women and people of color. If $10.10 per hour was the new minimum wage, families would see an increase of annual earnings by $5,700 to $20,200. While this is nowhere near the requisite hourly wage needed to ensure a single working mother can pull her family out of poverty, it is a move in the right direction: because women make up six in ten Illinois workers who were paid minimum wage or less in 2012, the boost in their wages would get them closer to fair pay.

Of course, these are just two policy changes that ensure all women have the equal opportunity to advance in their careers and thrive. Indeed, there are many more issues to consider -- like affordable childcare and paid sick leave.

Sheryl Sandberg says, "If we could get to a place of true equality, where what we do in life is determined not by gender but by our passions and interests, our companies would be more productive and our home lives not just better balanced but happier." I could not agree more. While I appreciate the main thesis of Sandberg's book, that as individuals women must take it upon themselves to propel their career toward professional success (and encourage other women to do the same), we must have fair access. As others have pointed out, without addressing the systemic and structural issues prohibiting women from true career advancement, and the type of workplace revolution I've begun to outline, how can we truly expect most women to "lean in" much more than just getting through the day and ensuring their children are cared for?