As the nation reflects on the first year since the #MeToo movement went viral, and its broader implications for women’s equality, the story of Janet Aviles comes to mind. Janet worked at a government contractor shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. In her workplace, management directed women to “shake it” as they walked by and laughed at sexually graphic depictions of them by male coworkers. Unsurprisingly, men outnumbered women 16 to 1 in that workplace, and management promoted the notion that women should be at “home making dinner” rather than pipefitting. The devaluation of women in the shipyard influenced not only their experiences and sense of safety in the workplace, but also their ability to be hired and promoted to the highest paying jobs, despite decades of experience.
Nevertheless, Janet persisted. With the help of Equal Rights Advocates, Janet led her female coworkers in a successful class action lawsuit that disrupted practices devaluing women workers and compensated them for their losses.
As Lilly Ledbetter observed earlier this year, “Sexual harassment isn’t about sex, just like pay discrimination isn’t just about pay. Both are about power. They are clear evidence that too many workplaces value women less.”
It is amazing how far we have come over the past year, and yet how far we have to go toward achieving women’s equality in the workplace.
The stories of millions, like Janet, helped us move past the question of whether sexual harassment and assault happen. It has happened to 80 percent of the nation’s women — to us, the authors of this blog. And, while there will always be a few members of the flat-earth society, most have accepted that women face a gender wage gap that is not explained away by so-called choices.
Moreover, we know that sexual harassment and pay discrimination work in tandem to limit opportunities for women in the workplace. Indeed, Equal Pay Days for moms and women of color, including tomorrow’s Latina Equal Pay Day, have become national days of action, complete with celebrity, Congressional, and corporate engagement. It has been inspiring and energizing to see so many women and our allies give voice to our pain, our anger, our frustration with misogyny, discrimination, and gender-based violence in and outside of the workplace.
But if nothing else, the Kavanaugh hearings reminded us that it is not enough to be vocal. It is not enough to be heard. It is not even enough to be believed. We have to make people care.
Our experiences of sexual harassment, exclusion from jobs, and pay discrimination as women and women of color must matter to those who employ us, to the businesses we support, and — most importantly in this season — to those we elect to represent us.
The Senate Majority’s Kavanaugh vote — and the many insults that preceded it — make it clear that the experiences of women do not matter as much as they should to those in power. If they did, the Trump Administration would not have rolled-back Obama Era workplace protections for women, including the gathering of pay data on the basis of race, national origin, and gender. Congress would not have failed to pass new anti-sexual harassment laws in the year since #MeToo went viral, including even the lowest hanging fruit — a bill to prevent harassment and discrimination by Members of Congress themselves. And the White House would not be cynically attempting to end government recognition of transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming persons under civil rights laws, including the recognition of many of our trans sisters.
If our experiences — if we — mattered, none of these things would have happened. But in our rage and disappointment, the solution to our problem, our pathway to mattering has become crystal clear.
From the oldest to the youngest among us, from those whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, through New York Harbor, across the Rio Grande, via the Middle Passage, to those who are native to this land, we vote.
We — women and our allies, our co-conspirators — vote.
We vote to change a Congress that has not passed major legislation to strengthen workplace equality for women since the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 — nearly a decade ago — to a Congress that will pass the:
- Paycheck Fairness Act, which will update the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to close enforcement loopholes and meet the needs of the modern workplace, limit the use of prior salary in hiring, re-institute pay data collection, and protect people from retaliation for discussing pay, thereby ensuring the right to equal pay for equal or similar work, no matter what state you live in;
- Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, which will prevent pregnant women from being pushed out of the workplace and require employers to provide reasonable accommodation to pregnant workers;
- FAMILY Act, which will create an insurance program to provide workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or family member; and
- EMPOWER Act, which will prevent employers from requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) as a condition of employment or advancement, establish a confidential tip-line at the EEOC for receiving reports about harassment, and require workplace harassment training.
We vote to shift the power imbalance that has worked to oppress us and rob us of the American Dream.
Last week’s release of the annual Women in the Workplace report from Lean In and McKinsey & Co. only serves as a reminder that women are still underrepresented in corporate America — the same corporate America that thrives on our consumer dollars. The cause of that underrepresentation? Not lack of ambition and commitment, but lack of investment by employers in hiring and promoting women at each stage of employment. We vote to ensure we have a Congress that will prioritize and hold hearings on women’s workplace equality, in addition to passing legislation to address the issue.
We vote for Janet, for Lilly, for us.
We vote to demand that our values and experience matter to our elected officials.
On November 6, we vote.
Joi Chaney is the Director of Equal Pay Today and Senior Policy Counsel at Equal Rights Advocates in Washington, DC.
Noreen Farrell is the Executive Director of Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, CA.