The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Change the system, not the women, argues Caroline Fredrickson

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Caroline Fredrickson’s grandmother came to the USA on a boat from Sweden over 100 years ago.  She came alone, with no money, no friends, and no English language skills.  She worked as a scullery maid, “scrubbing pots and pans until her fingers bled.”  She faced sexual harassment, no overtime pay or sick days, extremely long hours, and wage theft. 

Surely, we’ve come a long way since then.  Surely, our workers are treated better, and have more rights. 

Some do.  But definitely not all. 

Caroline Fredrickson is challenging the “Lean In” model.  Last week in downtown Seattle, I attended an American Constitution Society event where she was speaking, and was seated in a sea of lawyers, most of whom were women.

The event centered around Fredrickson’s book, “Under the Bus: How Working Women Are being Run Over,” in which she argues that though having a ‘self help book” (her words) such as Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, has some great ideas, it’s not nearly enough for most women. 

Lean In states that women should speak up for themselves, and that they can also ‘opt-out’ and stay at home if they desire.  But “most women can’t do either of those things” stated Fredrickson. “We need to have a different conversation,” because there are many people whose jobs fall outside of even the most basic labor laws. 

How is this possible?

1.  Labor laws hold a legacy of slavery

Many of our U.S. labor laws were created in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.   Think of what congress looked like at that time.  Roosevelt was president during the passage of several significant labor bills, and had to negotiate with congress members who adamantly refused to give certain people (read: people of color) equal rights.  Congressional records show US representatives in the 1930s and 40s referring to African-American servants as “God’s gift to the South” that should not be taken away.  A clear legacy of slavery and white entitlement. So Roosevelt negotiated.  And a lot of people got left out of those laws, in particular service industry and farm workers.

2.  Women’s work was not considered “real work” when labor laws were created

Common sentiment in political leadership at the time (which still lingers today) did not consider jobs like housekeeping and childcare "real" work, mainly because white men did not typically have to do that work.  So again, that work was not regulated.  And we see that reflected today in the lack of humane working conditions for jobs such as childcare, housekeeping, and home care workers, in which the majority of workers are women, particularly women of color.

3.  There are significant loopholes for businesses to deny worker rights, such as exemptions for small businesses, part time workers, and contractors.

“In reality,” Fredrickson explained, “the basic safety nets that we think all people have access to are often denied, particularly to people of color and women, because they fall outside the legal definition of employee.” Overtime, protection from harassment, paid sick time, paid leave—in the U.S., these can be denied from a very large percentage of the workforce.  The kicker: they are denied legally, because the Fair Labor Standards Act has significant exemptions. For example, benefits can be denied if an employee works less than 30 hours per week, so a common technique is to have many employees at 29 hours per week. Contractors are also exempt, and the definition is hazy. For example, you may be familiar with the lawsuit earlier this year that Uber and Lyft drivers brought against their employers. And again, people of color and women are impacted the most, because they hold the majority of low-pay, low-status jobs.

4.  The American workplace has not caught up with the rest of the world in treating workers like humans

“The (American) workplace is structured for some kind of robot man…we never really grappled with the idea that people have outside responsibilities.”  In other words, we haven’t built the legal or business infrastructure to support real people.  The USA and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world without some kind of paid parental leave.  Our strongest law is the feeble Family and Medical Leave Act, with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for businesses larger than 50 employees.  In reality, 40% of workers in our country don’t even qualify.  Being unpaid, even if you do qualify, many people can’t afford to take it.  We’re still “treating workers like widgets,” as Fredrickson put it.  And, unsurprisingly, women are the ones who are impacted the most by this, as they still hold a majority of family responsibilities that require time off.

5. Lately, the most progress has been seen at the local level. 

The past several years, it’s been tough to get bills passed in congress.  “We used to dream big,” lamented Fredrickson.  In the mid-20th century, we *almost* passed laws that would provide free childcare to all (!), and better working conditions nation-wide, she explained. But now, action is happening at the local level.  Seattle is pretty awesome in having passed the $15 minimum wage.  Other cities and localities are taking note.  But conservative groups are also paying attention, and responding.

6.  The linchpin: Conservative groups are attempting to block progressive laws by
deciding on state judges.

This was the cumulative moment in Fredrickson’s speech.  This is where it all comes together. 

The Temple of Justice , Home to Washington's State Supreme Court  by  Harvey Barrison   is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

The Temple of Justice, Home to Washington's State Supreme Court by Harvey Barrison
 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Imagine it’s time for your state to elect their judges.  Enter wealthy, conservative groups such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), who want to make sure a judge that will rule more in their favor will be elected.  They throw huge amounts of money into the campaigns they support.  They run smear ads on judges they don’t support.  More progressive judges begin to rule more conservatively, so that they won’t be the target of those ads, and so that they can be elected again.  The elections are held, and it’s clear that money does influence the outcome. 

Those judges then help determine laws that decide the fate of the entire state.  And the most dangerous thing of all—they may pass “preemptive laws” which essentially mandate that local city governments can’t make more progressive laws than the state law.  If Washington State had had a preemptive law on minimum wage, Seattle would never have been able to pass the historical $15 bill, that is now affecting cities worldwide. That’s not to say that progressive interest groups don’t also put money into elections, but recent events have shown that conservative groups are willing to spend huge amounts, and it’s working. 

7. The solution is hazy

I thoroughly enjoyed Fredrickson’s analysis of the legal state of laws that impact workers.  However, I was left unclear of what a solution would be.  Does it mean changing how we elect state judges?  Or refocusing on national laws?  Or something else altogether? I’m not sure.  I look forward to reading the book and I hope that there are also solution ideas for this urgent problem.