Since the creation of the Women’s Bureau by Congress in June 1920, one aspect remains the same – women are still struggling to fight wage inequalities. From its inception, the Women’s Bureau has worked to advance the status of working women. At that time, the Bureau was concerned with the 8 hour workday, safe working conditions for women and equality with men’s wages. Records housed at the National Archives offer a glimpse into the evolving way women have been viewed throughout history. Soon the Women’s Bureau will also be providing access to its very own historical documents through the re-launch of our Web site.
Over time, women workers have seen progress. Throughout its history, the Women’s Bureau has served as a catalyst for change, becoming a critical partner in the development of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which, for the first time, included women, set minimum wages and maximum working hours; the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. These protections afford women and their families the assurance that they will not lose their jobs because of the need to protect themselves or care for their families.
Ninety years later, the Women’s Bureau continues to advance and protect the rights of women workers. Today, women now make up almost half of our nation’s workforce; yet many issues, such as unequal pay and unsafe working conditions persist.
Forty-eight years ago, President Kennedy made a promise to women in our country, a promise that we would get equal pay for equal work. Nearly five decades after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, we’ve narrowed the gap, but not enough. In fact, in the past ten years the gap has barely changed at all. Today, a woman is paid, on average, only 81 cents for every dollar paid to a man. It’s approximately 72 cents for African American women and about 62 cents for Latinas.
Despite these challenges, we are working diligently to improve the way women work and live. Our strategy for achieving this entails focusing the agency’s efforts on four priority areas: promoting fair compensation in order to narrow the gender wage gap; promoting higher paying innovative jobs for women, especially green occupations, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and non-traditional jobs; promoting workplace flexibility to help balance work and life responsibilities; and improving services for women veterans experiencing homelessness.
While the Bureau has been working to combat challenges women encounter in the workplace, the Department of Labor has also been busy identifying the issues these women face. The Secretary Hilda L. Solis recently released the latest report in a series detailing the experiences of women workers in the current U.S. labor force. Titled, Women’s Employment During the Recovery, the report provides important insights about women workers in America, relevant information about the Department’s focus areas and what we are doing to support and train women for success in the 21st century. Secretary Solis introduced this report via a conference call with nearly 500 stakeholders nationwide and some of the Department’s own working mothers – Chief Economist Betsey Stevenson and myself.
Women still face many barriers in the workforce which keeps us from achieving economic security. The Bureau continues to work cooperatively with employers, unions, working groups and other supporters to improve the prospects for 21st Century working women.
Sara Manzano-Díaz is Director of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau