Voices for International Women’s Day

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

International Women’s Day is important for a myriad of reasons, but they all add up to one: achieving equality for women. This day calls on us to remember that women still have to achieve equal access to education, employment, health care, roles in government leadership, resources, and income.  Research from IWPR shows that it will take until 2056 for women to achieve pay parity with men in this United States, based on the pace of progress over the course of the past fifty years.

Slowing progress, women continue to dominate professions traditionally done by women, which typically pay less, despite sometimes having higher education requirements. Women now account for over 95 percent of all kindergarten teachers, librarians, dental assistants and registered nurses in 2009. As further evidence of this, women now make up 61 percent of the local government workforce, with the highest number—at 22 percent— working as elementary and middle school teachers.

Today on Twitter, many men and women used their voices to call for change and progress.

The conversation on the significance of International Women’s Day has been spirited. The Ms. Foundation for Women tweeted “We have far to go. U.S. ranks 37th out of 42 highly developed nations in terms of gender equality.” Musician and women’s rights advocate as Oxfam Global Ambassador, Annie Lennox wrote: “Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, earn ten percent of world’s income and own one percent of the world’s property.”

Some women may not have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of their rights, consumed with finding basics of survival. Médecins Sans Frontières tweeted about its efforts to bring surgery to women suffering from obstetric fistulas, which can be life-threatening when left untreated.

In the political arena, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced during the launch of the 100 Women Initiative aired live yesterday on the State Department’s website, “I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” And former civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) commented on Twitter: “On the 100th IWD, there are still too many women in too many parts of the world who are left out and left behind.”

These are just a few of the statements made today in honor of International Women’s Day. It is inspiring to see such an outpouring of support for women’s issues. This conversation should carry on beyond today as a reminder there is still work to be done.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The FMLA: Old Enough to Vote, but with Room to Grow

On the occasion of its anniversary, IWPR takes the opportunity to outline the main characteristics of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and its impact over the past 18 years.

by Kevin Miller

Saturday, February 5 marks the 18th anniversary of the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 into law. The law requires that employers with 50 or more employees provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave to any employee with one year of job tenure who has worked 1,250 hours within the past year. The law does not require employers to pay employees during this leave, though employees can substitute existing sources of paid leave such as sick days and vacation time in order to receive pay during FMLA leave.

 

Job-Protected Leave

In the 18 years that the FMLA has protected the right of (some) American workers to take job-protected leave, it has helped millions: mothers taking maternity leave and new child leave, fathers taking new child leave, and workers taking medical leave or leave to care for ill or injured family members (a child, spouse, or parent). It remains the only federal law that gives Americans a right to time off work, helping Americans balance work and family.

Gender Neutral

Though FMLA leave can be taken for maternity-disability reasons, it can also be taken to care for a new child regardless of whether that child was born to the employee, born to the employee’s spouse, adopted, or fostered. Nowhere in FMLA is access restricted by gender since the law applies equally to men and women.

Limited Eligibility

A 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that in 2005, 76.1 million workers were eligible for FMLA-protected leave, or 54 percent of the workforce. Of the 65.6 million ineligible workers, 47.3 million worked at establishments too small to be covered and 18.3 million lacked the job tenure or hours-in-job to be eligible.

Unpaid Leave

The United States is one of only five nations (along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea) whose workers lack a legal right to paid maternity leave. Australia, which previously guaranteed only unpaid leave, has introduced paid parental leave this year. Some American workers who are eligible to use FMLA leave are unable to afford taking unpaid time off from work: a 2000 survey commissioned by the Department of Labor found that among workers who said they needed FMLA leave but did not take it, 78 percent said that they could not afford to do so without pay.

Unequal Outcomes

Despite the gender neutral language of the FMLA, both the eligibility restrictions and the unpaid nature of the leave contribute to gender inequality. Men and women in the workforce are equally likely to work at a covered employer, but women with young children are 16 percent less likely to meet eligibility requirements than are men with young children. Among eligible workers with young children, however, women are more likely than men to take leave—76 percent compared to 45 percent. The unpaid nature of FMLA leave means that married couples may need to choose one parent to take leave while the other continues to work (and receive pay).

The average full-time female worker made 77 cents on the dollar compared to male workers in 2009, so it often makes financial sense for wives to take leave (or leave work entirely) while husbands remain on the job, a strategy that can leave women earning less for years after they eventually re-enter the labor force.

Room to Grow

Passage of the FMLA took eight years of hard work by advocates, researchers, and policymakers. During that time, provisions for paid leave were removed from the proposed legislation as a compromise, with the implicit promise that the law would be revisited and strengthened over time. The FMLA has been amended in recent years, but only to improve access to unpaid leave for airline employees, and military personnel and their families.

Successful efforts to provide paid leave have been limited to the five states with Temporary Disability Insurance systems (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island), with California and New Jersey expanding their systems to include paid family leave. A recent study of California’s paid family leave system found that implementation of the system had minimal impact on employers and greatly expanded leave for workers in low-quality jobs.

 

The signing of the FMLA in 1993 was a watershed event for American workers, finally providing Americans a job-protected right to time off work. The FMLA has helped millions of Americans take leave from work to care for a new child or family member. However, millions of Americans are not covered by or eligible under the FMLA, and some who are eligible cannot afford to take unpaid time off work. Advocates and policymakers continue to work to expand access to leave that is both job-protected and paid, with the hope that one day Americans will no longer be forced to choose between their jobs and their families.

Kevin Miller is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.