May 12, 2000


Commentary

Women Call For New Wage Policies

by Patricia Chang

In election years, California's public officials trust polls to tell them about the concerns of California residents. Even in this poll-heavy environment, the voices of women and girls go largely unheard. The low volume of women's voices does not reflect their lack of interest, but rather the societal habit of ignoring these voices, and the lack of resources to organize women around the public policies that shape their lives.

The Women's Foundation commissioned the largest study of women and girls' opinions in California to date, uncovering groundbreaking opinion information about the greatest concerns of adult women, and girls 10- to 17 years old. We worked with the Field Institute to conduct a representative telephone poll, with InSight Research to conduct focus groups, and with six sister organizations around the state to conduct individual interviews with women often left out of opinion research.

Among African American women, Korean women in Los Angeles, Southeast Asian women in the Central Valley, Native American women in Sacramento and Northern California, and Chinese immigrant women in San Francisco, pay and family economics were of dominant concern. Even teen women who had little knowledge of family income understood the scarcity faced by their parents and guardians. More than one-third of respondents said that they personally were unfairly paid. Many revealed the ways in which money limits their futures, and their sense of constant economic vulnerability. Many also expressed deep concerns about benefits and working conditions.

In these days of unprecedented economic booms, most working women cannot aspire to the millionaire-producing jobs touted as a Silicon Valley staple. Most working women, in fact, occupy dead end jobs in the tourism and service industries increasingly featured in the state's economic development plans.

There is strong evidence that, given the resources, women and girls will work to influence the institutions and policies that affect them. Women have been at the forefront of the state's liveliest public policy discussions throughout the last decade, from forcing garment manufacturers to take responsibility for sweatshop conditions, to the victorious implementation of living wage ordinances from Los Angeles to Oakland.

There's a great deal remaining that requires women's attention. New policies are pending in the legislature that would greatly increase the chances of a healthy life for these women and their families. Right now, legislators are considering forcing corporations that receive tax credits to publicly disclose the kinds of jobs they create, and their wage and benefit packages.

The state's Industrial Welfare Commission, like Congress, is debating an increase in the minimum wage —an increase whose size will depend on civic pressure. Public policy can be used to protect, rather than punish, women workers.

In twenty years of funding services for women, we have supported new forms of compassionate service delivery. But, as inequities between communities grow in our state, we have realized that services alone cannot fundamentally change the lives of women and girls —not while regressive public policies sweep entire communities of women and girls out of public sight and into private misery.

For this reason, the Women's Foundation has created the Initiatives Forum, a $5 million, 5-year, statewide policy action fund designed to support women's organizations fighting to improve wages and benefits in sectors of the economy that rely heavily on women's labor. We urge our sister institutions —progressive employers, labor union, public officials and private foundations— to expand the ways in which they listen to women and girls, and to invest in their leadership. Together, we can help to transform the current murmur of women's voice into a roar.

Patricia Chang is the President and CEO of the Women's Foundation. Can be contacted at 415-837-1113, 340 Pine St., Ste. 302, San Francisco, CA 94102.

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