Meeting of July 1, 2015 - EEOC at 50: Progress and Continuing Challenges in Eradicating Employment Discrimination
Good morning and thank you for the invitation to participate in today's meeting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the important work of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission). I am Jocelyn Frye, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where I oversee policy development for our women's initiative. The Center is an independent, nonpartisan policy institute that is dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action.
The EEOC has played a pivotal, integral role in the progress of women, people of color, people with disabilities, older workers, and many others, standing squarely on the front lines of the battle against discrimination in employment since its inception. The Commission's history is vitally important, not only as a reminder of where we have come from, but also as an inspiration for the work that lies ahead as we continue striving to make our nation's promise of equality a reality for all. I would like to focus my remarks today on the Commission's critical work advancing women's equality and combating sex discrimination in employment.
Fifty years ago, the landscape for women's employment was almost unrecognizable by contemporary standards. When Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 broke new ground by including language prohibiting sex discrimination in employment,1 the provision was considered highly controversial. Some dismissed a prohibition against sex discrimination as without merit; others saw it as a critical step forward to expand job opportunities for women.2 When the EEOC finally opened its doors in 1965, it faced a world where sex discrimination was pervasive and many workplaces still harbored narrow views about what women could and could not do. Indeed, job advertisements separated by race and gender were common, frequently designating certain jobs for white men, white women, black men, black women, or other specific groups of people.3 Even when that formal practice was struck down as illegal,4 the mindset that relegated women to certain types of jobs, typically for lower wages and limited mobility, remained firmly entrenched.
The day-to-day impact of this type of restrictive work environment meant that many women had to overcome stubbornly held attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes about the types of jobs they could hold, the quality of the work they performed, their skills and abilities, and their overall commitment to hard work. White women and women of color faced similar yet distinct challenges, stemming not only from longstanding attitudes about women, but also from a pernicious legacy of legalized race discrimination that subjected women of color to a double dose of race and gender bias.
With this backdrop, the Commission became instrumental in paving the way for women to gain a toehold in the labor marketplace - work that has continued into the present day. For example:
All these advances have been critical to expanding job opportunities for women and men alike by ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to participate fully in the workplace. The Commission's work has been pivotal to this progress in changing attitudes and challenging discrimination, helping to shape how the protections afforded by Title VII can and should work in practice on the job.
Despite the very real progress that has been made over the last fifty years, there is still work to do. Women now represent nearly half of the American workforce and, among families with children, two-thirds of mothers are either primary, sole, or co-breadwinners.10 Women are central to the economic security and stability of working families yet they face barriers that often result in lower wages, less flexibility, and fewer advancement opportunities.
Moreover, a brief sampling of the Commission's own charge data makes clear that women continue to raise concerns about discriminatory barriers impeding their ability to find a job, keep a job, and advance up the career ladder:
In response, the Commission has taken important steps forward, including an emphasis on pursuing systemic discrimination cases and issuing a Strategic Enforcement Plan that lays out action steps to combat discriminatory practices and prioritize its work in the coming years.
As the Commission looks ahead to the next fifty years, it is essential to have a forward-looking agenda deeply rooted in our American values of equality, fairness, and opportunity that can respond to the current challenges impacting women's progress and new issues on the horizon. The Commission is well-positioned to lead decisively by continuing to pursue its ongoing work to ensure vigorous enforcement of the law and by identifying bold new strategies to root out discriminatory practices, make workplaces stronger, and expand women's opportunities. Three priorities are particularly critical and uniquely suited to the Commission's mission: tackling the rising tide of inequality to remove economic, employment, and societal barriers undermining workers' stability and success; creating workplaces that are fair, open, and free of discrimination; and fostering an economy that makes full use of all of our nation's talent.
There are several strategies the Commission can pursue to advance these priorities:
1) Continued action to ensure equal pay and close the wage gap. For many women, economic inequality and insecurity are most tangibly reflected in the persistent wage gap that disproportionately relegates women and people of color to the lower rungs of the income ladder. While there are multiple factors that contribute to the wage gap and require a range of different solutions, there are actions the EEOC can take to close the gap:
2) Tackling workplace barriers facing pregnant women, mothers, and women with caregiving responsibilities. Research suggests that mothers often experience the sharpest pay gaps, in part because they tend to spend more time out of the workforce to provide care to their families.20 Indeed, women often are expected to take on caregiving responsibilities for their families and, as a result, may face stereotypes or be denied job opportunities.
3) Renewed attention to the glass ceiling and sticky floor phenomena to ensure women have meaningful advancement opportunities and greater economic mobility. Too many women are stuck either in jobs that pay low wages and offer little upward mobility, or mid-level jobs that never seem to lead to the top jobs. The Commission should explore ways to focus new attention on expanding available career ladders for women. This could include convening experts and employers to identify best practices, working with other agencies to share information about different trends and other investigatory efforts, and examining employer recruitment practices to assess differences in how positions are filled or whether certain candidates are steered into certain types of jobs. In particular, the Commission could partner with the Department of Labor to evaluate the results of corporate management reviews (often referred to as glass ceiling reviews) conducted by DOL over the past two decades to identify lessons learned, best practices, and potential new enforcement strategies that could be used to improve advancement opportunities for women.
4) Exploring unique challenges facing women of color and finding ways to expand their job opportunities. With the growing diversity of the workforce, it is essential to ensure that all workers have their best chance to succeed. EEOC data have shown higher rates of discrimination charges filed by women of color in different categories of cases (such as pregnancy discrimination, for example22) yet that data is often not analyzed for such disparities on a regular basis. The Commission could make an important contribution by undertaking a comprehensive review of its data to determine the different types of discrimination charges disproportionately filed by women of color, by industry and occupation where relevant, to gain a better understanding of the work experiences of women of color. Such information could be critical to help target enforcement or education efforts where they are needed the most. It also could provide insight into how best to engage women of color, particularly those from immigrant communities, to ensure they are aware of their rights and know how the law is supposed to work.
5) Strengthening enforcement and investigatory tools to uncover and combat discriminatory practices. It is essential that the Commission continue to play a leadership role in ensuring vigorous enforcement of the law. This work should include:
Further, the Commission could bolster its enforcement efforts through increased collaboration with other agencies. For example:
6) Exploring ways to support workers with non-traditional work arrangements or work settings. The workforce is changing rapidly. Many workers no longer expect to work in one job for 20-30 years; rather they may have multiple jobs, work from home or on a contract basis, or take on work more sporadically. In such an environment, traditional workplace legal protections may not extend to these types of workers. The Commission could play an important role in helping to educate workers about what protections they should expect, what questions to ask before accepting any new job opportunity, and what recourse if any would be available should problems arise.
7) Collaborating with business on voluntary efforts. Creating stronger workplaces is not simply a responsibility for government; the business community also has an important role to play in making our workplaces better for employees and employers alike. The Commission could work with key business groups to conduct trainings for managers on best practices and celebrate business leaders with a demonstrated commitment to adopting strong workplace policies that provide equal opportunities for all workers. The Commission also could bring together business leaders involved with different voluntary initiatives at the state and local level to learn about what is and is not working and discuss strategies for incentivizing more participation. The Commission also could collaborate with business on case studies to learn more about how specific policies work in practice, such as the impact of pay disclosure policies on the workplace.
8) Ongoing research and analysis to identify emerging trends and impacts. The Commission collects an enormous amount of data that can provide insights into the challenges confronting workers. It is essential for the Commission to scrutinize its data regularly to determine whether there are particular trends that call for quick action or require a targeted response.
Since its earliest days, the EEOC has been on the front lines of the fight for workplace equality. When employees have faced sex discrimination on the job, the Commission has been the destination for help in challenging discriminatory practices and vindicating workers' rights. This agency has been entrusted with an enormous responsibility - to uphold the principles of equality and fairness enshrined in the Civil Rights Act and ensure that the law's promise is made real in concrete practices on the ground. This mission remains as vital today as it was in 1965 and is central to continuing our nation's progress over the next fifty years and beyond. Thank you for the opportunity to join in today's discussion. I look forward to the next chapter of the conversation.
2 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC History: 35th Anniversary 1965-2000, "Shaping Employment Discrimination Law," available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/1965-71/shaping.html (last accessed June 2015); Robert C. Bird, "More Than a Congressional Joke: A Fresh Look at the Legislative History of Sex Discrimination of the 1964 Civil Rights Act," Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. (3) (1997): 137-161.
6 General Electric v. Gilbert, 429 US 125 (1976) where the Supreme Court disagrees with the EEOC's position and Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, 42 USC §2000e, et. seq. overturning Gilbert and reinstating the EEOC's interpretation.
8 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Enforcement Guidance: Unlawful Disparate Treatment of Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities, (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2007), available at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/caregiving.html.
9 Macy v. Holder, EEOC DOC 0120120821, EEOC (April 20, 2012) and EEOC v. RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes Inc., E.D. Mich. Civ. No. 2:14-cv-13710-SFC-DRG filed Sept. 25, 2014, available at http://www.eeoc.gov/decisions/0120120821%20Macy%20v%20DOJ%20ATF.txt.
10 Sarah Jane Glynn, "Breadwinning Mothers, Then and Now," (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2014), available at https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Glynn-Breadwinners-report-FINAL.pdf.
11 National Women's Law Center, "Fair Pay for Women Requires a Fair Minimum Wage," (Washington: National Women's Law Center, 2015), available at http://www.nwlc.org/resource/fair-pay-women-requires-fair-minimum-wage.
12 National Equal Pay Task Force, "Fifty Years After the Equal Pay Act, Assessing the Past, Taking Stock of the Future," (The White House, 2013), available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/equalpay/equal_pay_task_force_progress_report_june_2013_new.pdf.
13 Judith Warner, "Fact Sheet: The Women's Leadership Gap," (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2014), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/.
15 National Partnership for Women and Families, "The Pregnancy Discrimination Act Where We Stand 30 Years Later," (2008), available at http://go.nationalpartnership.org/site/DocServer/Pregnancy_Discrimination_Act_-_Where_We_Stand_30_Years_L.pdf. In FY 2012, the EEOC changed how pregnancy discrimination charges were reported so it is difficult to compare the more recent FY 2012-2014 data with data generated for prior years.
16 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Charge Statistics FY 1997 through FY 2014; National Partnership for Women and Families, "Women at Work: Looking Behind the Numbers 40 Years After the Civil Rights Act of 1964," (2004), available at http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/workplace-fairness/women-at-work.pdf.
17 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Statutes by Issue FY 2010 - FY 2014, available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/statutes_by_issue.cfm.
19 Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project, "Paying an Unfair Price The Financial Penalty for LGBT Women in America," (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2015), available at http://www.lgbtmap.org/file/paying-an-unfair-price-lgbt-women.pdf.
20 Sarah Jane Glynn, "Explaining the Gender Wage Gap," (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2014) available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2014/05/19/90039/explaining-the-gender-wage-gap/.
21 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pregnancy Discrimination Charges FY 2010 - FY 2014, available at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/pregnancy_new.cfm.