Background

  • Advancing gender equity is at the forefront of the Administration’s agenda, as underscored by the formation of a new Gender Policy Council in the White House, and Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation.  As we recognize the history and achievements of women this March for Women’s History Month, Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), provides context and analysis of the top gender equity challenges currently facing the United States, including health and reproductive rights, combating sexual harassment and violence, and income security and workplace fairness, especially in light of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the workforce.  She also discusses the advocacy of the NWLC on these issues.  As a career litigator and nationally recognized legal, policy, and culture change expert, Goss Graves has a distinguished track record in advancing opportunities for women and girls, with a particular focus on outcomes for women and girls of color, and regularly testifies before Congress and federal agencies.  She is also among the co-founders of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which supports individuals who have experienced sexual harassment or retaliation at work.

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR:  Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s briefing on advancing gender equity, the latest entry in our Understanding America series.  My name is Jen McAndrew, and I am today’s moderator.  First I’ll introduce today’s briefer, and then I’ll give the ground rules.

As we recognize the history and achievements of women this March for Women’s History Month, we are delighted to have Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, here today to provide context and analysis of the top gender equity challenges facing the United States.  As a career litigator and nationally recognized legal expert, Goss Graves has a distinguished track record in advancing opportunities for women and girls, with a particular focus on outcomes for women and girls of color, and regularly testifies before Congress and federal agencies.  She is also among the co-founders of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, which supports individuals who have experienced sexual harassment or retaliation at work.  Thank you, Fatima, for giving your time for today’s briefing.

And now for the ground rules: This briefing is on the record.  The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State or U.S. Government are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.  Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.  We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website.  Ms. Goss Graves will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.  And with that, I will pass it over to our briefer.  Over to you, Ms. Goss Graves.

MS GOSS GRAVES:  Thank you, Jen, and thank you to the Foreign Press Center and to everyone joining from around the world.  It is so good to be with you.  As Jen said, I’m Fatima Goss Graves.  I’m president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.  We are a national gender justice organization for – whom fights for equality, equity, justice for women and girls.  We’ve been doing this work for almost half a century, but especially in those communities that are most marginalized by discrimination and bias due to their identity.

And we believe in a more just and equal future.  And we know that the way to get there is through reform for not just our laws and our policies, but also our culture.  And that couldn’t be more true in this particular moment.  In this moment, we are sitting with centuries of systemic racism and sexism that has really permeated the fabric of our society.  And we’re coming off of four years of an administration that was openly hostile to gender justice reforms.  And now we are with a new administration that I’m sure feels like it has a lot on its plate.  They were sworn in just two weeks after our nation survived a white supremacist-led riot at the Capitol where members of Congress and their staff were in hiding in their office, where lives were lost.  And in the weeks that have come since, there has been a laser focus on restoring dignity and equity in this country, restoring justice in this country.

And in the early days of any new administration, there is the work to get people in place, and that work is proceeding ahead, although also slowed by the time it took to set up leadership and shift control of the Senate, slowed by delays in efforts to block some nominees, and some – slowed by some obstruction that we have seen acutely for nominees of women of color.  That is a thing that we are watching very closely at the National Women’s Law Center.  We’re very concerned about what we believe to be the real risk of double standard play out for women of color nominees.  That was a thing that we thought played out for sure in the nomination and the ultimate withdrawal of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget at the White House.

And we are also paying very close attention to nominees that are coming forward, really excellent nominees like Vanita Gupta, who would be the first woman of color to be the associate attorney general at the Department of Justice, and is facing a million-dollar ad campaign that is trying to somehow paint her as radical.  Or Kristen Clarke, who’s an extraordinary civil rights leader who would be the first black woman, and actually the first woman confirmed in any role, to be the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice, and we’ve already seen efforts to make her into a caricature of herself.

So we are watching the makeup of people in the government very closely and very concerned, and wanting to be sure that the sort of double standard that we saw applied to Neera Tanden does not apply to these other highly qualified and exceptional nominees.

But the administration also has a lot to do to not just undo the harms of the last four years, but to take on the systemic reforms that we so desperately need, especially as we are still suffering through the effects of a global pandemic that has devastated really our very way of life.

And to say that this pandemic has disproportionately harmed women, especially women of color, that even would be an understatement.  Women have really been decimated by this pandemic.  The progress we have made towards economic equality has regressed past – back decades.  For women in this country, their employment rates are now back to the levels that they were in the 1980s, and I’ll come back to this in a minute.  But I also want to just name that in this type of period, we will also and have also had some wins.  So before I go into some of the details around the work ahead, I want to really tell the story of some of the wins that we have had even in the earliest of days that we believe will further gender justice.

And actually, the National Women’s Law Center put out a campaign that we have called a hundred wins in a hundred days to precisely name our priorities and marshal those who care about progress for the fights ahead.  And some of the wins we have had so far have been broad-reaching.  We have seen this administration put out really critical executive orders on racial equity, on LGBTQ equality, on DACA, on minimum wage and contractors – women are far more likely to be minimum wage workers in this country, even more so for women of color – putting out rules on worker safety.  Those things will be really important.  They have also announced that they are establishing a gender policy council and that they have selected really veteran leaders in the gender justice movement to lead that work.  Jen Klein, who has decades of working in the women’s movement and is a deep policy expert, and Julissa Reynoso, who comes with broad and longstanding expertise including in the global space and is also the First Lady’s chief of staff.  But the two of them will co-lead the Gender Policy Council.  What we’re still waiting for is the details of the work of the Gender Policy Council and the theory of the case from the administration on how gender policy will be organized throughout the government.  We’ve been told that they will put out an executive order that gives us those answers.

And so we are excited about many of those early, early wins, but there is always more work to do.  And as I said, the impact of COVID-19 on women and on our economy has put us at a very serious breaking point, one that is a – basically, a national emergency.  To just give you a glimpse, in September when schools came back online, 865,000 women left the workforce as compared to 230,000 men.  In December, there were 156,000 jobs lost – all by women, while in that period women gained 16,000 jobs.  And I should also be clear that these are largely women of color losing these jobs.

And part of it is that you have the confluence of several things coming together.  One is that women are more likely to be deemed essential workers.  In fact, for black women, one in three black women who are working were working in jobs that were deemed essential, so jobs you could not do in your home in the way that my job is allowing me to do it in my home.  And what that means is you have to have an ability to be out there and in those roles, even as our care infrastructure has fallen apart.

It is also the case that women are vastly over-represented in jobs in sectors that have been disproportionately hit by this pandemic.  That’s especially true in the hospitality sector, sectors that shuttered and sectors that have not made it back in the same way.  Women are also disproportionately in care jobs, which have been so unstable even in a time where there is so – such deep, deep need for care supports.

And so we are having to worry about economic safety and security in this time and in new ways.  And when you add to that the existing and longstanding wage gap, it meant that women did not enter this pandemic with the types of nest eggs they needed to survive and thrive.  Black women make just 61 cents on the dollar, which equals about $940,000 of lost earnings over the course of their career.  For Latino women it is 55 cents on the dollar, and that translates to about $1.1 million in earnings.

The bottom line is we can do better than that, and there are actual policy solutions that would make a difference.  The most immediate and urgent one is around the American Rescue Plan, which has passed the House and which the Senate will be considering over the next week.  That plan is a priority for the National Women’s Law Center, but it’s a priority for so many people in this country.

It’s a priority because it will ensure that the benefits cliffs of unemployment insurance – that those insurance provisions will expire in a matter of days if we don’t do something about the rescue plan.  It’s a matter of urgency, because if we don’t do something about the impending housing crisis in this country, we will see a dramatic number of people who have no place to be who lose their homes in this moment.  It’s a matter of priority, because if we don’t do things around food assistance, we will be – find ourselves in deep, deep trouble as unemployment still hovers in really, really large numbers, especially for women of color.

And if we don’t have a significant and major investment in care, including in child care, we will be in trouble.  One out of six child care jobs has been lost during this pandemic.  Providers have shuttered their doors throughout the country and left even bigger areas of care deserts that were terrible even before the pandemic.

So what we know is that we need to move the American Rescue Plan.  It will stabilize the care sector.  It will stabilize women and families in the country.  And then we need to get to work to build on a longer-term set of ideas and policies to ensure that people have the jobs they need and the infrastructure to ensure that we are not in the same situation again.

So some of our priorities beyond what is in the American Rescue Plan, they include things like ensuring that we actually have real paid sick and family leave for all workers.  It’s ridiculous that these protections expired at the end of last year.  We have shown that it is possible to have these sorts of really important protections, and COVID has shown what happens to families in this country when we don’t have them.

We also are seeking to raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour through the Raise the Wage Act, and that includes one fair wage for tipped workers.  And we have our eyes on moving the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help strengthen our equal pay laws.  We also need Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would ensure that workers who are pregnant aren’t making decisions about their ability to hold a healthy pregnancy and their ability to maintain a job precisely when they need income.  We’ve been working on this legislation for nearly a decade.  States around this country, from South Carolina to California, have passed versions of it.  It is time to have a clear and unequivocal national standard around how we support our pregnant workers.

And we need the sort of investment for the long term in child care that goes beyond the even historic investment that we will see in the rescue plan.  We need this sort of investment to ensure that the child care sector is stable, that recognizes that child care is a public good in the United States, plain and simple.

And make no mistake, many of these things in this conversation might sound still like kind of the bare minimum to get us by, but there’s nothing like a pandemic to focus the mind on what you need and what family needs to get us by, but also strengthen these systems for the future.

And as we’re working through this crisis, the law center is also preparing and fighting for the more just future that we know is possible, for example, on reproductive freedom; includes access to birth control, access to abortion care – and yes, that’s a word we say out loud that is critical to the health of people in this country.  It’s a fundamental tenet of health care, and the idea that we have had to every single year face up against extremist elected officials who have been chipping away at those rights, it undermines freedoms for everyone.

We also know that we can take on and end sexual harassment and violence, not only perpetrated by individuals, but also enabled by institutions.  We have been fighting for these laws like BE HEARD In the Workplace; for safe spaces in work and on campuses where students attend, where survivors can share their stories and seek justice and healing.  At the law center, we house and run the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.  It is only three years old, and in that time we’ve been able to serve almost 5,000 individuals.

And each person who comes through, a common story that we hear is that a person came through because they saw somebody else.  That sort of culture work of understanding that you are not alone is shifting and changing radically, and it gives me great hope for the future.  And for black survivors in particular and other survivors of color, part of our important role right now is to ensure that they see themselves in this work, that their stories are not dismissed, that they are not disbelieved in the way that they have been.

We’re also focused on passing the Equality Act right now.  The fact that in 2021 we’re still even dealing with this bill and that it would face any opposition is really unbelievable and unthinkable.  It’s a vital step towards closing the gaps in our law that leave many lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women and girls exposed to poverty and isolation and violence.  The Equality Act would also provide important new protections against sex discrimination in public spaces and in federal spending, closing longstanding gaps that hurt all women.  And the Senate has a historic opportunity to build off the step that the House took just over the last week to put us in that place for that future.

There is so much more that the law center is focused on, but I definitely want to leave time for questions.  And so with that, I will close with basically where I started, and that is that I believe in a more just and equal future for women and girls, especially for women and girls of color, for LGBTQ people.  And I believe in centering that belief in the actions this administration takes is key to a more just and a more equal future for all of us.

So thank you again, and I guess I will turn it back to Jen.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much for that.  We will now start the Q&A.  As a reminder, you can raise your hand in the participant field to ask your question.  You can also submit a question in the chat field, which I will then read.  So over to questions.  Does anyone have one?

I know we did have a submitted question that came in advance from one of our journalists from Japan, about the effects of the pandemic on women in the workplace.  I know you have spoken a little bit about that in your opening remarks, but maybe you could delve a little bit more into it.

MS GOSS GRAVES:  Sure.  So – excuse me – one of the things that we know is that since the onset of the pandemic, women in this country lost 2.5 million jobs.  And in September alone, you saw an extraordinary sharp uptick in job loss, and for any person who’s doing what many of us have been doing for many months, which is trying to work while also care – in some cases also potentially homeschooling – that September uptick came as no surprise, because that is when schools came online and people were put in impossible situations.  That’s when we saw over 800,000 women lose jobs as compared to about a little over 200,000 men lose jobs.

But in December, we were sort of floored when we saw the number that basically all those job losses that happened in December in yet another spike in job losses, that those job losses went – were to women of color.

So what we know is that there are actual solutions.  It’s going to take a multipronged approach to ensure that women can actually get back to work.  Some of that is understanding the sectors that they were in.  And so our job and recovery plan, it absolutely has to be different from the ones we’ve had in the past.  It is not just about building roads and bridges, although that sort of infrastructure is important.  It is also about looking at the jobs that we have actually determined are essential to our lives that are in-person jobs, in the hospitality sector, in the care sector, in the health care sector, and ensuring that those jobs are both quality and that they pay dignity wages.  And we will not get out of this circle of harm for women without addressing the care crisis.  That includes a major investment in child care; it includes long-term care.  It also includes ensuring that we have real paid family and medical leave.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thank you.  I’ll do one more call for questions.  You can virtually raise your hand or submit in the chat box.

If there are no questions, then I will turn it back over to Ms. Goss Graves to make closing remarks and then we’ll conclude the briefing today.

MS GOSS GRAVES:  Well, thank you so much.  And it has been a real great pleasure to be with all of you around the world.  I would say that this is a time where things feel really fraught for women and their families in this country, fraught because of this pandemic and economic crisis and care crisis, fraught because our democracy frankly feels fraught.

But it is also a time where there is tremendous opportunity and hope.  We are this close to making the sort of investment to stem the tide and to ensure that families can make it through this recovery.  And we have an administration that has named – that it plans to have a real plan for jobs and recovery and there’s a chance to put the care economy at the center of that.  So we will continue to do the work at the National Women’s Law Center for sure, alongside so many partners.  But I am hopeful by what is to come and ahead.  Thank you very much.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Ms. Goss Graves. That concludes today’s briefing and good morning to everyone.  Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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