Working against the odds

Jeane AnastasI recently attended a special event at New York University that featured former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and philanthropist Melinda Gates talking about their “No Ceilings” initiative, co-sponsored by the Clinton and Gates foundations.

The project will better document the status of women and girls worldwide, including in the United States, so that both progress and problems can be more reliably identified.

As a framework for the range of issues to be addressed, Clinton referred to the Platform for Action, adopted at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, an event I was honored to attend.

This thought caused me to reflect again on the fact that the United States is one of only seven nations in the world (and one of only two U.N. member states) that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Each year NASW members call on the Senate to ratify CEDAW, and President Obama also supports ratification, but it has not happened yet.

Some of the conversation at the “No Ceilings” event emphasized that progress cannot be taken for granted. When Gates talked about her experiences working in the predominantly male profession of computer science, Chelsea Clinton, who moderated the event, noted that the proportion of women earning college degrees in computer science has declined from about one-third when Gates earned her degree to only about 22 percent today.

In an era when the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are seen as essential to future economic growth, the worldwide pipeline problem for women in these fields must be addressed.

Looking at the other end of the economic spectrum, in February the Center for American Progress, partnering with journalist Maria Shriver, issued the new “Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink,” a media resource on a range of economic challenges currently facing women and girls in the United States.

As the report documents, almost two-thirds of families rely on a woman’s paycheck as a source of income, and for more than 40 percent of families, that is the only paycheck they have. One in three women is living in poverty, including those with families who are working at minimum-wage jobs.

Finally, the proposed increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while not labeled “a woman’s issue” and not affecting women alone, would benefit many women and their families.

Two-thirds of workers now earning the minimum age are women. Raising the minimum wage alone would lift about 1 million people out of poverty. However, people also need paid sick leave and paid leave for family care that other legislation is currently proposing.

Too many workers in the United States — and their families — are “on the brink,” that is in a chronic state of income insecurity.

We need not only humane welfare policies — we need improved workplace policies as well.