By: Megan Deppen, intern at Niagara Foundation and Student at DePaul University / Photo via UIC
On March 13th, Niagara welcomed founding member and director of Women Employed, Anne Ladky, to facilitate dialogue about women’s equality in the workplace. Ladky is a nationally recognized expert on equal opportunity issues, workplace fairness, workforce development and higher education policy. Under her leadership, Women Employed has won numerous awards and empowered women to seek policy changes for the betterment of their work conditions.
Today, Women Employed focuses on women who make less than $32,000 a year, finding ways to improve their educational opportunities, their success throughout their education, their job stability, and the conditions in the workplace.
In the organization’s 41 years of existence, Ladky said, advocates of Women Employed have seen the drastic change in women’s working rights. In the early 1970s, female college graduates did not have the same job opportunities as their male counterparts. Women often worked menial clerical jobs with no opportunities to advance.
The women’s movement grew however by learning from the progressive movements around them, such as the civil rights movement. The question central to their movement, Ladky said, was “what could we learn from these [other] organizations that could help women advocate for their economic status?”
Ladky found that pressuring companies to improve work conditions and empowering unions was both a challenge and rarely successful. Without the tradition of union culture in their fields, employers were largely opposed to any union action in an office setting. Equal opportunity efforts however made significant progress during the Carter administration in the 1970s by defining sexual harassment and strengthening affirmative action.
Today, women dominate service industries such as foodservice, retail, caregiving, and cleaning. Ladky claims that 17 million women currently work for less than twelve dollars an hour, which she asserts is not considered a substantial income for economic stability. In response, WE has adopted two goals under their policy: quality education and fair workplace conditions.
A problem many women face when trying to return to school, Ladky asserted, is the costly nature of remedial education courses. The policies in place at many colleges force returning students, through placement tests, to take classes resembling high school courses. Often these courses are inapplicable to women’s careers, and in turn, many women drop out of college because they cannot afford the additional costs and time necessary to take these courses.
Women Employed is working to change this system. “Change the way they deliver that form of education,” Ladky said. “If you want to go into healthcare, remedial education will be taught in that health care context.
Women Employed is redefining financial aid policies for working women and mothers to go back to school, improving the counseling services for women at community colleges, and increasing child care accessibility.
Attendees to the forum identified with many of the issues Ladky addressed, such as the challenge women face going back to school when they have children to take care of. “Maybe I want a similar career as my husband,” a woman from the audience suggested. “Why is my life put on hold just because I’m a woman?”
Ladky also highlighted the increasing cost of living in the United States.
“Why did women go into the workforce? It was partly because they had contributions to make and they wanted to make them,” Ladky said. “It’s not just self-fulfillment, right? It’s also because that’s what’s required to maintain a decent standard of living.”
As far as the future of workplace conditions and equality, Ladky prefaced the harsh realities that lie ahead.
“I don’t see income inequality changing very much in the near future,” Ladky said. “but I do think there is the opportunity to raise the [workplace standards].”
Collecting the support of successful and economically stable women will help the women’s equality movement. We must “engage women who have influence of one kind or another” Ladky said. “[And for these women] to be visible vocal advocates for low wage working women.”
“We have interactions with [low wage women workers] every single day, but still they tend to be invisible in the conversation,” Ladky said. “We want other women to pass that success along. We think everyone can do something.”