Anne Ladky, Executive Director of Women Employed, has been fighting for women’s employment and educational advancements for decades. Even as many of the issues she’s dedicated her career to advocating for — pregnant workers’ rights, equal pay and paid leave — take center stage politically, she’s not slowing down. But, lucky for us, she took some time to chat with us about these crucial matters.
1. You founded Women Employed in 1973. How has the equal opportunity/workplace fairness landscape for women changed since then?
We’ve come a really long way. When we started Women Employed, discrimination was so overt. Employers would tell us “we don’t hire women for those kinds of jobs.” By putting pressure on companies and getting the government to enforce affirmative action requirements, we broke through those barriers, and today, millions of women are in jobs that used to be closed to them.
Forty years ago, pregnant women were routinely sent home once they started showing. Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name—it was just something women had to endure at work. Now we have laws in place against pregnancy discrimination and workplace harassment. We’ve made some small gains on work-family issues. Even though we focus our energies on all that remains to be done, it’s good to remember that by coming together and working for change, we’ve made real progress.
Today, working women still face big challenges—and their wages are more important to family well-beings than ever before. We haven’t made enough progress on pay discrimination or on guaranteeing the paid leave that so many workers need. Millions of women work in low-paying, low-opportunity jobs in retail, restaurants, caregiving, and other fields. Women make up two-thirds of low-wage workers, and 42 million women in America are living in or on the brink of poverty. We have to make it possible for more women to become economically stable—after all, they’re doing work we all depend on.
2. There are myriad forms of discrimination and issues that women, particularly women of color and low-income women, face. What was your inspiration for focusing on education and employment?
We know that being economically stable is the key to so many things in life—affording the basics, being able to care for a family, participating in a community, aspiring to any number of dreams. Our analysis is that women need both fair working conditions in the jobs they do and access to quality education if they need additional training to get to their goal. These two areas of our work are very interrelated. For example, if a woman working in retail has a very volatile schedule, she never knows how much she’s going to earn, and she certainly can’t enroll in college or training. She can’t make ends meet, nor can she gain the skills she might need to move out of retail.
We are working to win changes in public policies so that decent working conditions become the norm across all industries, and we’re working with educational institutions, particularly community colleges, to make their programs work better for working adult students, ensuring that the programs really lead to good jobs.
3. Women Employed is based in Chicago and works on issues at the local and state levels as well as at the national level. How does Illinois compare to national trends with regard to workplace fairness, specifically equal pay, paid sick leave and treatment of pregnant workers?
Illinois could do a much better job of ensuring fairness for women workers. I’m proud that we were able to pass a bill last year that requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers who may need relief from lifting or even just a place to sit down for a few minutes during the workday. But given how little is possible at the federal level these days, we really need the Illinois legislature and our governor to step up to ensure that all workers can earn a reasonable amount of sick time, protect the rights of domestic workers, and create some minimum standards for fair scheduling practices. And it’s time we recognize that most minimum wage jobs today are being done by adults raising families, not teenagers, so we need to raise that floor.
Opportunities to make progress at the city level are increasing, we believe. We’ve made progress on the minimum wage this year, although we haven’t done enough for tipped workers yet. We’ve built a strong coalition of organizations to build support for a local paid sick days ordinance, and we’re optimistic that Chicago will soon join the eighteen other cities that have passed paid sick days laws.
4. What does a truly equal and fair workplace for women look like to you?
Our vision is a world where every woman can support herself and her family and achieve her aspirations. Today, one big barrier to that vision is the view among many employers that their front-line workers are just a cost, not an asset, to their businesses. It’s a very foolish point of view, as so much research has demonstrated. A truly fair workplace, where both employees and the business can thrive, would have fair wages; opportunities to advance based on qualifications, not influenced by race or gender or parental status; earned sick time; paid family leave; access to health insurance; reasonable flexibility and predictability; and safe working conditions, free from harassment. These are elements that professional workers often take for granted, but they are extremely rare in low-paying industries.
Our vision also includes the supports that workers need to do the best job they can at work and at home, like high-quality affordable childcare, good opportunities for training, and strong community institutions like public schools.
5. Who is your number one feminist role model?
That’s a really tough question. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great role models and mentors throughout my career, giving me plenty of nominees to consider. If you’re going to pin me down, though, I’ll mention two whom I’ve been thinking about lately.
The first is the Rev. Willie Barrow, who was an inspiring champion of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. She was always so spirited and full of energy, and she taught everyone around her to look for connections, for ways to work together, no matter how much we sometimes seem divided.
The second is Gloria Steinem, who just celebrated her 81st birthday, and is still the best at capturing the feminist dimension in every debate, making us think more deeply about what the real work of the work of the feminist movement is as times and circumstances change.