The Myth of Equality in the U.S. Workplace

02/01/2016 02:25 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2017

By JoAnn Kamuf Ward & Hillary Scrivani

Women in the United States have strived for, and achieved, equality in many areas, and have some freedoms that are unparalleled in many countries around the world. However, despite the United States' array of legal protections, women continue to face barriers to equality and the full enjoyment of their human rights.

The ways that human rights might advance women's rights was a key focus of a recent visit by U.N. human rights experts to the United States. The members of the U.N. Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice spent two weeks in the U.S., and met with stakeholders around the country, including government representatives, lawyers, and advocates in Washington, D.C., Alabama, and Oregon. The Working Group's conclusion: the United States "lags behind" human rights standards in protecting women's rights. And the Group's findings echo a sentiment we hear all the time: "[t]here is a myth that women already enjoy all these rights and protections under U.S. law. However, there are missing rights and protections."

During the visit from November 30th through December 11th, A Better Balance presented twice to the Working Group about issues facing caregivers and pregnant workers in employment and advised on policy solutions. Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance presented to the Working Group in Washington, D.C. about the need for policy changes that support caregivers who work such as paid family leave, flexible scheduling, and the need for access to paid sick time. In addition, Hillary Scrivani, Kennedy Fellow at A Better Balance, met with the Working Group in Montgomery, Alabama to discuss how women in Alabama, particularly women of color are negatively affected by poor employment and leave policies, and a lack of pay equality. The presentation in Alabama was based on ABB's report focused on pay equity; workplace accommodations; equitable treatment of caregivers; and paid family leave, sick leave, and safety leave, done in cooperation with the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic.

Overall, the Working Group was taken aback by the degree of U.S. workplace hostility to women workers, particularly when it comes to pregnant workers and workers with caregiving responsibilities. And rightly so. There are significant gaps in protections in the arenas of gender pay equity, workplace accommodations for pregnancy, and paid leave, among others.

What does this mean for American women? The answer depends, in part, on where you live.

Alabama, one of the states visited by the Working Group, demonstrates some of the harshest challenges facing women - it ranks 48th nationally with respect to the provision of support services for working parents, making it one of the worst states in which to be a caregiver of children. In Alabama, women are paid 73 cents for every dollar paid to men, with a yearly wage gap of $12,109. For women of color in Alabama, the disparity is even greater, as black women earn 57 cents for every dollar that white men make, while Latina women earn less than 41 cents.

Alabama has no state level protection for pregnant women requiring employer-provided accommodations in the workplace to enable them to remain employed. Employers do not have to allow pregnant workers to carry around a water bottle or sit down when needed, for example, and can push these workers out on leave rather than allow them to work through their pregnancies. The lack of policies that ensure common sense pregnancy accommodations leave these women exceptionally vulnerable to discriminatory treatment by their employers. In many cases, women in Alabama and around the country are forced to choose between a paycheck and a healthy pregnancy. With infant mortality rates above the national average in Alabama, and maternal mortality rates on the rise in the rural South, there is an urgent need for policies to ensure that pregnant workers can maintain their health.

Once women have children, they continue to face myriad challenges in balancing workplace responsibilities and caregiving.

Currently, the U.S. is the only industrialized country that fails to ensure workers are provided paid parental leave. As a result, only 12 per cent of the private sector workforce is eligible for paid family leave, offered voluntarily by their employer. Yes, that means the majority of working women do not have access to paid family leave when they have a baby. This has real and tangible psychological, physical, emotional, and economic consequences.

The U.S. also fails to provide paid leave to care for ill family members and there is no national guarantee of paid sick time. Nationally, upwards of 40 million workers are not entitled to a single paid sick day, and 38 per cent of employees in the private sector have no paid sick time. In Alabama, which lacks any sick time protections, 44.6 per cent of private sector employees (more than 670,000 workers) have no ability to earn paid sick time. There are also significant implications for the approximately 700,000 children who live in families in which both parents work, or in single-parent households.

In many states, like Alabama, existing protections are a far cry from human rights standards. Yet there are cities and states that are working hard to make progress.

Human rights call for equal pay for men and women; for maternity leave with pay; for policies that enable parents to balance family obligations with work responsibilities; as well as for special workplace protections for pregnant women. These protections are laid out in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty on women's rights, also known as CEDAW. International human rights experts have also specifically called on the U.S. to introduce paid parental leave and to address the pay gap.

There is cause for optimism that the U.S. is moving in the right direction. In the absence of federal movement on paid family leave, paid sick time, and pregnancy accommodations, three U.S. states have enacted legislation requiring employers to provide paid family leave insurance to their workers. Four states, the District of Columbia, and twenty localities now have paid sick time laws insuring a minimal amount of paid sick time to most workers. Additionally, sixteen states, the District of Columbia, and four localities have protections that offer at least some accommodations for pregnant workers.

These are positive steps, but further action is needed at the state and federal levels. Federal legislation that has been introduced such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the Schedules that Work Act, the FAMILY Act, and the Healthy Families Act would contribute to improving gender equality in the workplace and prove better support for families. If enacted, these laws would bring the U.S. much closer to human rights standards for fair treatment in the workplace.

Grounding our thinking about gender equality in human rights terms offers us a framework to shape the types of laws that will better protect women, children, and families.

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JoAnn Kamuf Ward is a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School & the Associate Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at the Law School's Human Rights Institute; Hillary Scrivani is the Kennedy Fellow at A Better Balance.

The Authors contributed to this submission to the UN Working Group. A Better Balance has written more here about its presentations to the UN Working Group during the visit in Alabama and Washington D.C.