“I’ve been taking copious notes!” smiled Washington State Senator Karen Kaiser.
On July 8, I was at a “salon,” a panel with a small audience, about economic security for women in Washington State, and it appeared the panelists were learning as much from each other as the audience was learning from them.
Marilyn Watkins and the team from the Economic Opportunity Institute, an independent policy research center that aims to "build an economy that works for everyone," brought together a mix of business leaders and politicians. This included Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz (a successful tech startup in Seattle), Anne-Marie Archer (who owns Archer and Associates, a recruiting consulting business), and Washington State lawmakers Senator Karen Kaiser, Representative Tana Senn, and Representative June Robinson.
Here are a few things I learned:
1. Economic security still favors men-and we haven't been improving much.
When this subject is brought up in dinner table conversations, the Equal Pay Act is often referenced—Washington was one of the first states to pass this law that aims to eradicate gender bias in pay. But it’s not enough, as is clear by the prevalent “gender pay gap” that hasn’t disappeared.
Representative Tana Senn sponsored a new bill earlier this year, the Equal Pay Opportunity Act, which did not pass in 2015, but includes critical aspects like banning the ability to fire employees if they talk about their wages (remember when #talkpay started freaking everyone out on Twitter?). Because “women don’t even know if they’re being underpaid if they can’t even talk about it.”
Of course, this would benefit any person who may be unknowingly paid less, particularly people of color. The goal of her bill? “I want every company to know that they cannot pay less unless they have a valid reason.”
2. Ending gender discrimination in the workplace is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business.
“Everyone at the organization has the same benefits. If I get something, everyone else gets it too,” said Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz, emphasizing with her hands, because “it’s the right thing to do!”
But there are also serious business benefits to more diverse staff and leadership, as well as supporting staff through substantial benefits.
You’ll attract better talent. Staff retention skyrockets—for both men and women. In fact, at Moz, all employees have 4 weeks paid paternity or maternity leave, because “this isn’t a woman’s issue…the whole family feels like they’re part of the Moz family.” Other business wins include less burnout, healthier employees, and something intangible, that Bird admits she can’t measure, but is a kind of camaraderie, knowing that “They work harder for me…because they are taken care of. It’s mutual. We do this for each other.”
3. Economic security is also about health.
Being able to actually take days off when you or your family need them is crucial to health. As Rep Robinson put it, “everyone knows this in your gut. When you’re at work when you really shouldn’t be, you’re not very productive. And when you do that month after month, year after year, it contributes to your own poor health.”
And, no surprise, women of color are hit the hardest, explained Robinson.
4. Politicians, business leaders, and regular employees need to talk to each other to make policies and laws for businesses that are going to work.
This may seem obvious.
But it’s something that’s easily overlooked when policy-makers are surrounded by others that, like them, “have always had time off… They’ve never been in the place where they could not leave the office from 9 to 5.” (Rep Senn).
Dialogue like at this event helps lawmakers pinpoint the issues CEOs are worried about with new laws. A big one was putting their company at risk when they have to take on new expenses like increased paid time off. Another was feeling attacked if it’s implied that you, as CEO, have been discriminating against certain employees.
So what should policy-makers do? First, learn what the real fears are for business leaders, and address them in the bill. Maybe that means slow implementation, or more clearly making a case for the business benefits. Second, as Sarah Bird put it, change the dialogue from “’you’ve been an asshole for 20 years’…to….’things have evolved, it’s a strategic business policy’….which feels less threatening.”
5. “All of us have that obligation to interrupt a culture that consistently devalues certain people” – Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz.