In the News

Viewpoints: State, Businesses Must Recognize Workplace Gender Shift
Special to The Sacramento Bee, October 31, 2009

By Mary Wiberg and Netsy Firestein

For the first time in our nation's history, women constitute almost 50 percent of all workers. And the number continues to grow. However, our social institutions have not kept pace.

The shifting roles of women and men have affected our society enormously in ways that cannot be ignored. We applaud "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," recently released by California's first lady Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, for being right on target.

The premise of the report is that when women make up nearly half the work force, everything changes - and Shriver is right. It is high time our policymakers and political leaders take notice of this transformation and implement policies that address the new reality of our families and workplaces.

According to the report, today's reality is that:

In California, there have been repeated attempts to address this reality. In 2002, advocacy efforts by a labor-community coalition made California the first state in the nation to establish comprehensive paid family leave. This groundbreaking law went into effect in 2004, and millions of workers in California can now get time off with partial pay for up to six weeks to care for a new child or seriously ill family member.

While this was a major victory for working families, subsequent efforts to make workplaces more family-friendly have been repeatedly thwarted. In 2007 the California Work and Family Coalition helped to pass bills expanding paid and unpaid family leave laws to cover more workers, but they were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That year, he also vetoed legislation that prohibited discrimination against workers merely because they have caregiving responsibilities. In 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, the governor vetoed other measures that strengthened laws prohibiting gender-based wage discrimination.

The shift from women as primarily homemakers and caregivers to women as significant breadwinners needs to be reflected in our workplace policies. Shriver's report suggests that government needs to update its laws to include family-friendly workplace policies and reform anti-discrimination laws to prevent employers from disproportionately excluding women from workplace benefits.

The report also recognizes the need to expand family leave and require employers to provide paid sick days. But the governor's actions, and the business community's strong opposition to important reform and characterization of family-friendly proposals as "job-killers," do not reflect this same understanding of the needs of today's working families.

It's time for Gov. Schwarzenegger and California businesses to give up their stubborn insistence on antiquated policy that is out of touch with reality. Instead, they need to step up and support workplace reforms that reflect the needs of California families.

Real family values mean recognizing and supporting real families. Until government and business stop operating on outdated assumptions about families, there cannot be workplace equality for women, and as a result women, men and families will all pay the price.

Mary Wiberg is the Executive Director of the California Commission on the Status of Women. Netsy Firestein is the Executive Director of the Labor Project for Working Families and Chair of the California Work and Family Coalition.