Author Archives: Lauren Sugerman

Part of the Solution to End the Wage Gap: Eliminate Occupational Segregation by Gender

I’ll be joining with my colleagues and tradeswomen friends at Chicago Women in Trades later today to meet with the Deputy Secretary of Labor to discuss Equal Pay Day. But please don’t wish me Happy Equal Pay Day! There is nothing to celebrate about the gender wage gap—it continues to be an unfortunate reality of our labor market. Nonetheless, I am grateful for a day that calls awareness to this unconscionable inequity. Moreover, I’m appreciative for the opportunity to urge the Department of Labor to pay more attention and commit resources to one significant way to eliminate the wage gap – by ending occupational segregation by gender. It is a solution/strategy embodied in the stories of the tradeswomen he’ll meet and it’s my own story too – and why it has been my passion and career for over thirty years.
When I made my first steps into the labor market thirty five years ago as an official college dropout, I didn’t have any specific data about the wage gap. However, I did know that it wasn’t going to be easy to support myself in either of the two jobs I had ever done- as a waitress or as a temporary census worker for the government. These traditionally female jobs offer low wages and no employment benefits. And I knew that men’s jobs (when I was growing up we knew there were men’s and women’s jobs because up until 1973 that’s how the help wanted ads were segregated), especially those that were union, might offer more promise for economic independence and security. It was in my search for one of those good union jobs, that I heard about the Chicago Urban League’s program to train women and men of color for jobs in the steel mills. I enrolled and one day the trainer invited me to consider applying to be an elevator constructor. This wasn’t just good fortune shining down on me – no, it was the result of a newly awarded federal contract that required the contractor to take affirmative action to truly open jobs for women and men of color – which then meant actually hiring someone – not just demonstrating good faith efforts to hire.
When that door opened to me (well it didn’t really open, I had to do some kicking – but that’s another story), I was immediately on equal footing – at least in terms of wages, with all my male colleagues. I didn’t know then how much that opportunity and choice could mean over the course of a lifetime. The difference between the wages I might have made if I stayed a waitress, versus the wages I earned as an elevator constructor could top one million dollars. And wage equality is only the first rung of the ladder – it doesn’t take into account the free on-the-job training I received, the health insurance benefits and the pension contributions that nearly doubled the total wage. Not to mention that all of that economic advantage set me up to be able to own my own home, live in the neighborhood of my choosing, help support family members, and build equity and assets that contribute to my economic security.
My experience working in the trades fixing, maintaining and building elevators and escalators, which for the most part I loved, eventually led to the work I do now – advocating and organizing so tradeswomen could get equal treatment beyond just the wages on the job and so more women would find the doors to these careers open to them. I never expected to make a career of this – nor did I think we’d still be fighting for wage equality all these years. The older I get the more ridiculous this seems, especially since the tradeswomen’s movement has been making some pretty good recommendations on how to end occupational segregation. So here is what I’ll be suggesting to the Assistant Secretary so we can speed up this process:
Women’s occupational segregation is built on sex stereotypes, lack of outreach and information, limited pre-vocational skill training, disparate impact of selection criteria, sex discrimination in hiring, and the challenge of being a pioneer in a male-dominated environment. These are pervasive and persistent issues, but they are not without solutions – so let’s tackle these head on by:
• Establishing and enforcing gender equity policy and practice in our job training and career and technical education systems,
• Allocating resources for preparing women and girls to be competitive candidates in jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields,
• Improving and enforcing equal employment opportunity and affirmative action policy and goals for federal contractors and for apprenticeship training,
• Offering technical assistance and training to help public institutions and industry partners make culture change to ensure gender equitable, neutral and sensitive training programs and workplaces
• We need public policy that allows all workers to have paid leave time to address family and medical needs
If you are a tradeswomen, ally or advocate, I hope you will join with me in sharing your own story and your ideas for ending occupational segregation by gender and closing the wage gap. I’ll be happy to forward to the Department of Labor and to our industry leaders. And I still hold out hope, that maybe next year I won’t have to write this blog all over again and instead I’ll be able to report on the dynamic changes the Department of Labor is implementing to end occupational segregation. But don’t just stay tuned, stand up, organize and demand women’s wage equality now.


Herstory Matters: Break Down the Firewall for Women in IT

The first time history really made sense to me was in the seventh grade, when I first started learning about the struggle for women’s suffrage. I recognized that the story of the fight for the right to vote, and of the women who were leading it was inextricably linked to my life. We didn’t have a women’s history month then, and I didn’t realize how little of it would be part of my formal education. That’s why I still get excited when March rolls around and we get a whole month focused on women’s history- or as I prefer to call it, herstory.

I especially like International Women’s Day (IWD), because it links women across the world in recognition of the interconnectedness of our struggles across cultures, nations, races, and geography. I love knowing that IWD has its roots in the U.S. women’s trade union movement. March 8th was the date of two worker demonstrations, one of garment workers in 1857, and another fifty-one years later in 1908, of women in the needle trades. In each case women workers marched and picketed for better, safer working conditions and equal rights for women. This herstory is important to me because it serves as a reminder of the power of organizing to create social change. We still have a long way to go towards women’s full equality, especially in the workplace, but much of what these women fought for – an eight-hour day, women’s right to vote, and laws prohibiting child labor – are protections we now take for granted, at least in this country.

WOW’s history also is rooted in working women coming together and organizing for change. As we celebrate WOW’s 50th anniversary we have been digging up some of the stories of our founders that describe WOW’s evolution. It was in the seventies that WOW started to analyze the problems of occupational segregation by gender. This was a direct result of finding that traditional women’s jobs such as clerical and nurses’ aides did not offer wages that would lead women to economic security. It didn’t take long for it to be clear that it was in non-marginal jobs, jobs traditionally held by men, that women could find economic security. In addition to better wages, those jobs offered on the job training and future upward mobility. Not only did women embrace these new opportunities wholeheartedly, it signaled a profound shift for WOW, into the policy arena, where we began to fight to expand and enforce equal employment laws and to ensure that public employment and job training programs treated women equitably.

It wasn’t easy back then; there was resistance from employers, male workers, policymakers. WOW found that even the regulations requiring federal contractors to set goals and timetables for women’s inclusion in male-dominated jobs were often unenforced and public job training programs still segregated women into low-wage sectors. WOW crafted sex equity language for the Department of Labor that recognized that training funds could be used to address the needs of special populations, including women. It was known as the “WOW paragraph.”

Forty years later, WOW is still in the forefront of opening up nontraditional jobs to women and continuing to make herstory. While we can definitely point to progress, it is a bit alarming to look back at our history and realize we are still fighting some of the same battles WOW took on in the seventies and eighties. However, history reminds us of the example of our foremothers who fought for over sixty years for women’s suffrage. Although the change seems long in coming, the every little step and each one of our efforts brings us closer to equality. We are taking one of those steps this week as WOW tackles the low representation of women in IT.

Women were only 8.9 percent of hardware computer programmers and only 19 percent of software computer programmers in 2013. Nevertheless, with some reminders from our herstory we learn that these jobs haven’t always been difficult for women to enter. In fact, last year, WOW’s Matt Unrath posted a blog about the computer programmers history forgot – women. His blog, following an NPR report on the same topic, describes the roles of Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Jean Jennings Bartik in the expansion of modern computing. We Facebooked, tweeted, and instagrammed the blog and our intern took a Vine of our CEO trying to send a Snap Chat thanking Matt for his post. And we can thank many of the women you can read about here for starting our culture down the path to that sentence even making sense to anyone!

As we enter the second full week of Women’s History Month, WOW is hosting the New Jersey Forum on Women in Information Technology at Essex County College. We’re bringing together experts in community college instruction, representatives from the workforce development system, members of local government, employers and students to address women’s underrepresentation in the IT sector. We won’t be marching and picketing in the streets like our foremothers, but we will be carrying on the struggle of women for good work and full equality in the workplace through education, coalition building and promoting effective strategies for equitable workforce training. Moreover, we will be encouraged by the knowledge of our herstory, that each of these steps matter!


A Conversation about Women’s Workforce Issues with Secretary Perez

I was honored to represent WOW at meeting with Secretary of Labor Tom Perez this past week, along with twenty other partner organizations.  Our conversation centered on improving our country’s workforce development system and ensuring equal opportunities for all Americans to earn the skills they need to succeed in today’s economy. Secretary Perez echoed the president’s support, voiced in his State of the Union address, for training programs outside of four-year degree programs. Attendees concurred that it was exciting to see job training being elevated in public discussions as a means to achieving economic security.

The Secretary shared the administration’s vision for creating a dynamic workforce development system, highlighting the following five goals:

  • Sustaining and expanding industry partnerships, and strengthening the collaboration between the DOL and the Dept of Commerce;
  • Achieving synergy between the many job training programs and agencies that administer them and “imploding the stovepipe”;
  • Improving quality control in programs;
  • Spurring innovation, flexibility and experimentation to see what works – including looking at how to utilize emerging technology and building a stronger apprenticeship system; and
  • Showcasing promising practices and establishing some common performance measures.

I shared that my own career benefited from both apprenticeship training and the Department of Labor’s affirmative action enforcement. I thanked the Secretary for his commitment to apprenticeship and long history working for civil rights. During our discussion of the Secretary’s goals, I chimed in to point out that another key plank of the President’s State of the Union was addressing women’s economic equity and moving policies for women in the workplace into the 21st century. I urged the Secretary and the Department to marry the two focal points in the State of the Union, since a workforce development system that perpetuates occupational segregation by gender (and see our previous blogs that demonstrate significant evidence of this) won’t address the persistent wage gap women face. As I moved to share our recommendations for creating a dynamic job training system that also works for women, Sec’y Perez nodded eagerly and said, “Oh, good, was just going to ask how we do that”.

I proposed the following five point plan:

  • Establishing goals for women’s participation in job training for high-skill, high-wage jobs in male-dominated sectors and increasing and enforcing the existing goals for industry partners and apprenticeship programs for women’s inclusion and equitable treatment;
  • Using administrative guidance and technical assistance like WOW has been offering in our GreenWays Initiative with Jobs for the Future to help job training programs and the workforce systems build their capacity to meet goals;
  • Expanding funding for women’s training for nontraditional occupations. There are several dedicated multi-million dollar programs to support training for youth, ex-offenders, and veterans, but only one, with less than $1 M, for women;
  • Data collection to let us know how we are doing in moving the needle; and
  • Creating a “Concrete Floor” Commission to set an annual agenda, oversee programming for women, benchmark progress and focus public attention on this issue.

The Secretary closed the meeting, reflecting on our nearly two-hour conversation, and outlining nine takeaways and questions he wanted us to answer for him. Concerned that not one of these questions addressed women, I shot him a worried look. Ending the meeting on a great note for women in non-traditional occupations and assuaging my fears, Secretary Perez announced he’d taken copious notes on my recommendations and appreciated having such a specific plan to which he can respond.

But, it didn’t end there. Our recommendations grabbed the attention of other invitees to the meeting, including the National Urban League’s President Marc Morial, who said the issue of women also “piqued his attention” since a majority of the clients they serve in their nearly 100 job training programs across the country are women. Leaders from the National Association of Workforce Boards, the National League of Cities, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, and National Economic Council at The White House, each came up to me to express interest in pursuing the issue with WOW further. We’ve got a lot of work ahead to follow up with the Secretary and these organizations, but we’re happy to have the opportunity to advance our agenda for women in nontraditional occupations!


Women in the 113th Congress: A Non-Traditional Job

Women in Congress

WOW, what a year – epic battles to preserve women’s rights, ongoing challenges to the labor movement, and proposals to cut the safety net programs so many Americans need to survive in this yet to thrive economy. I feel especially lucky to work in an organization like Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) and to know so many colleagues and friends that are fighting back.

I am also glad that we had some victories to celebrate as well. It is gratifying to see women continue to advance into one of the tougher male-dominated fields, the U. S. Congress, which this year boasts the largest group of women in the House and Senate.  While a nearly 20% female congress is something to celebrate, we still have a quite a ways to go before reaching full parity. Nonetheless, those growing numbers give me confidence that we can and will continue to open the doors of high-wage, high-skilled jobs in the skilled trades and other nontraditional fields to women. And, as the pay gap persists in shortchanging women, who still only earn 77% of men’s wages, it has never been clearer that these career opportunities are critically important to helping women and their families achieve economic equity and security.

Those numbers inspire my work at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) with eight green job training programs across the country to help them increase women’s participation. Their embracing of new strategies and commitment to inclusion have lead to female enrollment, completion and placement rates rising from 12% to an average of 27%. Many of these women are entering the skilled trades – creating new generations of tradeswomen who are building their own economic security and paving the way for more women to achieve economic equity.

WOW is especially proud that our collaboration with the Women’s Committee of the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) to add a gender lens curriculum to the BCTD’s new Multi-Craft Core Curriculum for pre-apprenticeship programs, will mean that more of our industry partners will have the tools to support women’s success and advancement in skilled trade jobs. And we are excited to be collaborating once again in planning the third Women Building California and the Nation conference, planned for April 5-7th in Sacramento, which offers a critically important venue and forum for tradeswomen to gain support, resources and leadership skills.

So as tradeswomen and our allies organize on the ground, we hope the new heightened presence of female policymakers in DC will help us preserve and expand those programs and policies that support women’s access to and retention in nontraditional fields. As Congress considers legislation for workforce development and training and education equity provisions, and the administration reviews policies on equal employment opportunity and affirmative action in apprenticeship and construction contracts, we hope we can count on their voices and  and yours to help end occupational segregation by gender. Women deserve and need full economic equity and, WE CAN DO IT!


Is Laboring for Less Women’s Work?

As we welcome the Labor Day weekend, it is important to note that for many, and especially women in low wage jobs, there will not be much to celebrate, or even a day off. Women’s labor continues to be under-valued, both in the jobs we are actually paid for and in all the work we do as family care givers, children raisers, homemakers (and no – celebrating Mother’s Day once a year doesn’t count!).

Most women labor well beyond the traditional work hours to earn what men earn.  Many women workers have to work four months into the following year before they reach the equivalent of a man’s salary earned in a single year. Women continue to earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Figures are even more stark women of color: African American women wages are 68%  of men’s and Latina women only 59%. This wage gap has remained stagnant for a decade.

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