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A Message from the Chair

Post from Chair Jenny R. Yang - March 19, 2015

Women's History Month: Fulfilling the Promise of Equal Opportunity for Women

Imagine if you had to worry about being fired from your job as soon as you got married, turned 32, had a child, or gained weight.  Imagine being told that if a male was working on your shift, he would always be in charge.  This discriminatory treatment was the reality for women flight attendants in the 1960's when Mary Pat Laffey courageously came forward to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to challenge sex discrimination in the seminal case of Laffey v. Northwest Airlines.

Nearly, fifty years ago, when the EEOC opened its doors, the Commission's very first decision held that a policy terminating female flight attendants once they married was sex discrimination.  Last fall, we co-hosted an event led by Commissioner Victoria Lipnic exploring the pivotal role of women flight attendants in the enforcement of Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination.  The event featured trailblazer, including Ms. Laffey and Mary Celeste (Lansdale) Brodigan, a flight attendant who successfully challenged an airline's policy of discharging female, but not male, employees upon marrying in Lansdale v. United Air Lines

This month, we celebrate Women's History Month by reflecting on the pioneering women who made history by confronting unlawful discrimination. 

In many ways, we have come a long way since these overtly discriminatory policies, but our work remains unfinished. While many facially discriminatory workplace policies are a thing of the past, too many women continue to face barriers to equal opportunity, including unequal pay, workplace harassment, pregnancy discrimination, gender stereotyping, and occupational segregation.

A recent joint study by professors at MIT, Harvard Business School and Wharton found that male entrepreneurs were far more likely than women to receive venture capital funding.  In this experiment, researchers showed participants identical start-up pitches, one set was narrated with a male voice and one set was narrated by a female voice.  Despite having the same content, 68% of the participants chose the presentation narrated by a man. In addition, researchers found that participants viewed men to be more "persuasive," "fact-based" and "logical," even though they presented the identical proposal.

This study highlights the challenge faced by many women in the workplace today --discrimination that may be less visible than it was in the 1960's, but which still creates real barriers to equal opportunity  The ongoing challenge of combating discrimination in all its forms is what makes the EEOC as vital in 2015 as it was in 1965.

At the EEOC, everyday, we are working toward the goal of equal employment opportunity for all.  For example, equal pay is an important priority for the Commission. We are ensuring that employees know their rights when it comes to pay discrimination. As part of the White House Equal Pay Task Force, we are coordinating with other federal agencies to tackle the persistent pay gap. Since the creation of the task force in 2010, the EEOC has obtained over $85 million in monetary relief for victims of sex-based wage discrimination through voluntary resolutions in our administrative enforcement process.  In addition, the EEOC has litigated and resolved cases on behalf of women in a wide variety of occupations, including; teachers, human resource officers, and restaurant workers who have challenged pay discrimination.   

Despite the very real progress that we have made, women are still overrepresented in low wage jobs, and the EEOC is working to open doors to women in higher paying fields traditionally occupied by men.  The agency has challenged discriminatory employment practices in fields like trucking, mining, construction, and warehouse work.  In one recent case, EEOC successfully resolved a suit alleging that female sheet metal workers had been assigned to menial tasks and others were fired based upon their gender.  In another EEOC case, the court ruled that one of the nation's largest trucking companies engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against female truck driver applicants by requiring that they be trained only by female trainers.

Women also continue to face persistent pregnancy discrimination.  Last year, EEOC issued a comprehensive update to the agency's pregnancy guidance.  We continue to engage in outreach and education through webinars and in-person trainings.  Last year alone, thousands of women filed charges alleging pregnancy discrimination with EEOC, and we obtained over $14 million in monetary relief through our conciliation process.  Through our litigation, EEOC has successfully challenged pregnancy discrimination in areas including hiring, promotions, assignments, the failure to accommodate pregnancy-related work restrictions and retaliation.

Combating harassment is also a high priority for the Commission. The first Commission meeting of this year focused on preventing and addressing workplace harassment. We heard testimony that one in four women face harassment in the workplace, and many are loath to report it.  Commissioner Victoria Lipnic and Commissioner Chai Feldblum are co-chairing an anti-harassment task force convening experts from the employer community, workers' advocates, academics, and others to identify effective strategies to prevent and remedy harassment in the workplace.

As Chair, I have also issued a call to action for employers to make best practices their practices and to prevent employment discrimination before it occurs.  As we commemorate Women's History Month, we are asking employers to examine their selection processes, review pay practices to ensure equal pay for equal work, take the necessary steps to prevent and address sexual harassment, ensure that pregnant workers are not singled out for unequal treatment, and open doors for women in nontraditional fields.

When employers make an organizational commitment to foster discrimination-free and inclusive workplaces, we can make great strides toward making discrimination a thing of the past. 

Let us honor the sacrifices of trailblazers like Mary Pat Laffey and Mary Celeste Brodigan by rededicating ourselves to combating sex discrimination.  Let us imagine a world where our daughters can dream big and have opportunities to advance in any field they choose.  At EEOC, we will work every day to make that dream a reality.

This post from Chair Jenny R. Yang is the third in a series of messages highlighting the EEOC's work.