50 Years Later: Women, Work and the Work Ahead

by Latifa Lyles on December 20, 2013 · 0 comments

“[W]e have by no means done enough to strengthen family life and at the same time encourage women to make their full contribution as citizens. If our nation is to be successful in the critical period ahead, we must rely upon the skills and devotion of all our people. … It is appropriate at this time … to review recent accomplishments, and to acknowledge frankly the further steps that must be taken. This is a task for the entire nation.”

Those words were spoken by President Kennedy in 1961 as he signed an executive order establishing the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, but they are every bit as appropriate today.

In the fall of 1963, the commission issued a groundbreaking report titled “American Women” that investigated the socioeconomic status of America’s women. It called for “greater development of women’s potential and fuller use of their present abilities,” and made recommendations on education, employment and legal protections.

It was an era when many women faced significant discrimination in the workforce – if they were lucky enough to overcome the steep barriers to entry and get hired in the first place. Often this discrimination was disguised as an effort to “protect” women from exploitation, but too often that offer of protection – as opposed to equality –was just another barrier.

The public response to the “American Women” report was dramatic. Within five years of its publication, all 50 states had established commissions to study the status of women, as did many individual cities. The question today is, so is the legacy of this historic report?

Infographic about women's issues in 1963 compared to 2013Since 1963, working women have accomplished a lot. However, women are still making 19 percent less than men, are over-represented in low-paying or minimum-wage jobs, and face many forms of gender discrimination.

Last week at the Women’s Bureau, we held a symposium to commemorate the report’s 50th anniversary. We used the opportunity to commission new studies on issues facing today’s working women, ranging from paid leave to pay secrecy, as well as reasons why the pay gap persists despite women’s increased academic and professional achievements.

For me, the event embodied President Kennedy’s call to action: we reviewed the gains made by women over the past 50 years, but also took a hard look at the work that remains.

During the first day of the symposium, Laura Fortman, principal deputy administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division, moderated a panel on the realities of working families and caregivers, highlighting the challenges faced by women and mothers who serve as breadwinners. Avra Siegel, the deputy director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, pointed out that when “women are bringing home less money than a man in the same job, that affects the bottom line for the entire family.”

Unfortunately, the second day of the symposium was postponed due to inclement weather. The day was scheduled to include remarks by Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, more panel discussions, and a ceremony to induct Esther Peterson into the department’s Hall of Honor.

But the conversation will continue – look out for national and regional webinars on topics originally slated for the second day, updates on our website and more information right here in the blog. You can also stay up-to-date with the Women’s Bureau by following the department on Twitter and Facebook.

Women have made great strides over the past five decades, but there are even greater things on the horizon. Your voice is a critical part of this ongoing dialogue.

Latifa Lyles is acting director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.

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