On International Women’s Day, U.S. Labor Policies Lag Behind Other Nations

By Liz Ben-Ishai

On International Women’s Day (IWD), the media, public figures, and global organizations join together to celebrate women’s roles as mothers, caregivers, and workers. But while the U.S. will participate in these celebrations, we frequently fail to support these roles financially, socially, and culturally. This has major consequences for women, families, and the economy. Today, as global leaders pledge to work toward gender parity and step up progress toward gender equality, our leaders at home should quickly close the gaps in labor protections and the social safety net. Women workers shouldn’t be left in a lurch when they must care for themselves or others.

In his message for International Women’s Day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon writes, “As a boy growing up in post-war Korea, I remember asking about a tradition I observed: women going into labour would leave their shoes at the threshold and then look back in fear. ‘They are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again,’ my mother explained.” Noting that he is still haunted by the memory, Ban explains: “In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life.”

In fact, maternal mortality in the U.S.—which is not a “poor part of the world”— remains shockingly high; roughly 700–800 women die during pregnancy or birth each year. That’s more than twice the rate of Canada. Reflecting widespread racial inequities in the U.S., data show that women of color are more likely than other women to die during pregnancy and birth.

There are many other disturbing parallels between the U.S. and less-resourced countries. The U.S. joins Papa New Guinea as one of two nations that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. Maternity leave access has life-and-death health implications. Research shows that longer leaves (which most women can only take when their wages are replaced) lower infant and child mortality, increase breastfeeding rates and duration, boost vaccination and well-child care rates, and support maternal mental health.

Only three states, including California, have established paid family leave programs. On the eve of IWD, Law@theMargins hosted “Making Paid Leave Work For All,” a webinar highlighting California’s progress—and shortcomings—on paid family leave.

Although California has led the nation on this issue, too many of its workers are not using the PFL program. In most cases, these workers are unaware of the program; lack job protection and thus fear job loss; or cannot afford to live on PFL’s partial wage replacement. A recent survey found that awareness and take-up of the program is particularly low among low-income, Latino, and new immigrant families. Panelists on the webinar called for an intersectional approach to advocacy that addresses race, gender, and class differences to ensure California’s program—and those being considered around the country—can meet the needs of a diverse array of workers. The California legislature recently passed AB908, which would expand the state’s PFL program. Now, supporters of the bill eagerly await the governor’s signature.

Jenya Cassidy, director of California’s Work and Family Coalition, noted on the webinar that some business groups have called the proposed legislation a “job killer.” To address these misleading claims, corporate sponsors of IWD should join with other businesses that have voiced their support for policies to improve job quality. We need their "pledges for parity" to include vocal support for public policy solutions that will improve the lives of women—on March 8 and every day.