Women's Equality Day; Is your voice being heard?

Last Wednesday was National Women's Equality Day. This year (2015) marked the 95th anniversary of the day that (white) women were granted the right to vote. It was a huge victory towards gender equality, but ultimately not the panacea that it was hoped to be.

When women gained the right to vote there was the hope that by giving them a political voice it would spell an end to social and economic inequality, something that clearly still resonates today. While the amount women earn to men is frequently argued upon: $.60, .77, .83 or .91 to the dollar, what is not argued upon is that women make less than men in almost every profession. In almost 100 years since gaining the vote we are still struggling to catch up.

We know this as fact, so what we need to look at is why? Why after nearly a century of political freedom to affect policy are we still struggling to balance the scales? The answer, as in all things that are political, is complex and interconnected, but ultimately falls under the broader umbrella of gender stereotypes.

The first and foremost issue, as I see it, is that we lack the representation we need in government agencies. Sure, we may have women in the legislature, but there are relatively few younger women. How can we expect to pass legislation benefitting families and caregivers that are situated in our current economic and social reality if we are still being guided by the previous generation of families? The key is that we need younger people of both genders, but most specifically women to have a voice at the decision making table. Our generation's reality when it comes to children, elder care, and basic life balance is markedly different from even 10 years ago.

We need to buck the idea that women belong in the home when their children are young, that women have "seasons of life" or that family politics automatically equates to "women's politics." Family politics affects families. Men have health care crises, become caregivers for aging or ill family members, and experience need for end-of-life care too. Women are not the only ones affected. We need to put the idea to bed that the term "family" somehow fails to include men. These issues affect everyone, across the board. Families are in a much more precarious position these days and we all need to sit up and take notice.

Over the last three decades family income volatility has increased substantially. The economic vulnerability of families has intensified so that people born in the 1940s and 50s have a substantially different understanding of how raising children and caring for elders fits into the larger socioeconomic scheme than families of the 60s and 70s. The women born to these decades are proportionately higher in the legislative branches than women born in the late 70s and on. Because of this, the people who are currently at the decision making levels are the least likely to truly understand the challenges facing younger families today.

There is virtually no way around it: the economic reality for families from only 10 years ago is vastly different than the realities facing us today. Parents of younger children are from the new generation of families that are bringing children into the world at later and later ages. Say a woman has a child at 35 ,whose own mother was most likely already childbearing at a later age than the previous generation. Imagine her mother birthed her at 25. That would mean that at the age of the first grandchild, the grandmother would be 60 years of age. Assuming there are more children in the family the grandmother could be 65 or 70 by the time the last grandchild is born. If the family is truly blessed, that last grandchild would be 20-30 before they have to face the possibility of elder care stress. What is more likely however, is that the child may still be in high school; a bit harder, but still manageable.

Now, imagine that this trend continues. The same scenario for the next generation would be a 35 year old woman birthing a first child today that, in turn, doesn't have their own first child until 40. (The average maternal age in the US is currently 26, but the maternal rates for 35 years and older has been increasing steadily since 1970. It is now over double what it used to be for 40-44 years of age and NINE TIMES what it was for 35-39.) That would mean that our generation would be looking at becoming grandparents for the first time at 75 years old.

The average age of care recipients in the US is 75 years of age. That means that just as new families are getting started, either during the intensive newborn years, or shortly there after, they are going to be looking at not only having to juggle children and income production, but elder care, children and income production.

There is absolutely no way our current system is going to be able to sustain an entire population of people with three competing responsibilities. That is not to mention that grandparents, in the past, have typically provided much needed support, advice and help during the transition to family life and the loss of that support is an added stress on new parents. There also is the loss of the grandparent relationship when the grandparent's generation is too far removed, which can have an overall affect on the next generation as well.

Obviously these are generalizations. There are going to continue to be people have children at younger ages, people whose relationships with their parents are too strained to gain benefit, or whose parents live long, and vibrantly healthy lives and can engage actively well into their 90s. But, when the statistics suggest that more and more women are delaying childbirth, to the point that some businesses are offering egg freezing and fertility counseling as part of their benefits packages, we are looking at an unprecedented and alarming social crisis.

Luckily, the last few years have had the solution on the docket. It hasn't passed yet, but there is some exciting legislation that is working its way slowly through the system which could provide a desperately needed safety net for all families regardless of where they are in their life cycle.

Here in Colorado we had a bill that was just recently voted down on the floor of the Colorado House of Representatives. The FAMLI Act: HB 15-1258 was a bill that would have provided Family Medical Leave Insurance for all Coloradans. It was a bill sponsored by Representatives Faith Winter and Joseph Salazar and Senator Jessie Ulibarri. The FAMLI (Family and Medical Leave Insurance) is designed to be a compliment to the existing Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The current bill allows employees who meet a certain set of criteria to take up to 12 weeks UNPAID leave in order to care for a loved one, spouse, relative or self in the event of an injury or illness. The FAMLI act was designed to provide an insurance system that would allow those 12 weeks to be partially paid with at least 66% and up to 95% based on the employees income level.

While this bill is not going to make it to the vote for the 2015 November elections, there is still time to convince or government representatives that this bill needs to be considered for the next year's voting season. In fact, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of its sponsors, Faith Winter, and a team at 9to5 Colorado in order to look at what still needs to be done to get this bill passed. It was a pretty amazing meeting, and I walked away with quite a few ideas for future posts surrounding the legislative process and the state of work/family balance in America.

Meeting with Faith Winter at 9to5 headquarters
The fact is, the FAMLI act just makes sense. It is a needed safety net; helpful for workers and employers now, but positively crucial later. Unless a substantial shift occurs in American culture in the next few years, there is going to be a significant age gap between generations. This gap is going to demand that businesses begin to acknowledge the importance of care giving, but it would be so much better to adapt the policy when we want to so that we have time to get it right, rather than after the crisis hits and we have no choice.

The only way that is going to happen is if more voices start calling out for more family friendly/ caregiving friendly policies. These voices are only going to be motivated by two things: necessity or representation. We need to get more voices in the decision making process who understand the unique socioeconomic forces that are putting pressure on families today. It started in the early 21st century, but intensified after the real estate market crash. Families are in trouble, the middle class is shrinking and the future looks bleak unless we act now.

What can I do?

First and foremost, tell your politicians you don't want hear about Family Values, but instead on how they plan on putting forth a plan focused on Valuing Families. Let them know that other than just hearing about social/moral politics like abortion or same-sex marriage, we want to hear about real solutions to help businesses and families thrive.

Write, call or otherwise contact your representatives!!! I cannot stress this enough. This is crucial. The more voices, and the more diverse the voices they hear (demographically, geographically, and across the age, gender, race and religious lines) the more they realize that an idea is popular. Diversity is democracy! They are not going to risk failing re-election by voting on something they aren't certain on. Your voice is important. Exercise your right and let them know that families have value.

Let people know about legislation like the FAMLI act. Let them know about its benefits.

Tell your story. If you have experienced hardship caring for an aging parent, a terminally or chronically ill family member or are parenting a high-need or special needs child and are struggling with work and caregiving, tell your story. Make sure your experience is acknowledged.

Run for office. If you have a compelling story, are young, or see a deep need for family policy, run. We need more voices who understand the realities as they are now, not as they were 10-20 years ago.

My Mom always told me that the squeaky wheel is the one that gets the grease, so get out there and squeak! Make sure you are loud and make sure you are persistent, because if we don't do this now, it is possible a whole lot of individuals will be suffering as a result of scarce and improper care.
9to5 Winning Justice for Working Women (and working families)