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Gender Inequality, Work Hours, and the Future of Work

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Executive Summary

Gender differences in paid and unpaid time at work are an important aspect of gender inequality. Women tend to spend more time on unpaid household and family care work, and men spend more time in paid work. This unequal distribution of time creates barriers to women’s advancement at work and reduces women’s economic security.

Technological innovation through machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence is likely to automate many tasks and jobs, thus improving productivity, freeing time, and allowing fewer workers to do more. Technological innovation presents an opportunity to rethink the distribution of time spent on paid and unpaid work, tackle the inequality in the division of domestic and care work between women and men, and provide time for upskilling and lifelong learning needed to benefit from future opportunities.

This first section of this report presents analysis on why work hours matter to gender equality, and what role time-related policies may play in reducing gender inequality, and more generally, social and economic inequality. The findings show women’s growing contribution to paid work and highlight that, as women’s average hours at work have increased, men’s have not declined. Inequality in paid and unpaid time has remained particularly stark between mothers and fathers. The report then highlights the growing inequality between those who work a lot and those who work intermittently, part-time, or part-year. In addition, the analysis shows that this polarization in paid time at work is increasingly exacerbating racial inequalities.

The second section of the report focuses on changes in the quality of time at work and workforce policies around scheduling, location, and paid time off. The report notes how a growing lack of schedule control and the absence of paid leave rights reinforce economic and racial/ethnic inequalities and are particularly harmful to parents.  The report ends with recommendations to achieve a healthier and more equal distribution of hours worked.

Based on analysis of the U.S. Current Population Survey, the report presents trends in hours worked during the last forty years for workers ages 25 to 64, with the following findings:

Women’s Hours Rose During the Last 40 Years, While Men’s Declined Marginally

  • During the last 40 years, women’s average annual number of hours in paid work increased substantially, while average hours worked by men during the same period declined only marginally. In 2017, women’s average annual hours were slightly below 40 per week (1,863 hours per year), while men’s were above (2,110 hours per year).
  • The increase in annual hours was particularly strong for women who work full-time (at least 35 hours per week). On average, women full-time workers now work five more weeks per year than they did in 1977, and men one more week. As a sign of growing polarization of paid time at work, average weeks in paid work for women who work less than full-time did not increase in the last two decades, and decreased for men who work less than full-time.

Fathers Work More Hours than Other Men, Mothers Work Less Hours than Other Women

  • Since 1977, mothers increased the time spent in paid employment by more than 300 hours per year (an increase of 29 percent). Over the same period, the average annual hours of fathers fell by just 8 hours (or 1 percent).
  • Fathers work more hours on average than other men, and mothers work fewer paid hours than other women, in each major racial and ethnic group. White fathers spend the highest number of hours at work, and the gap in annual hours between White mothers and fathers is the largest among all groups at 21 percent.
  • Black mothers spend more time than other mothers in paid work, and have done so throughout the last four decades, and before. In 1977, Black women worked over 200 hours, around five weeks, more per year than White or Hispanic mothers. By 2017, Black mothers were still on average working over 104 hours more than Hispanic mothers, 89 hours more than White mothers, and 52 hours more than Asian mothers.
  • Forty years ago, married mothers’ average working time per year was approximately 20 percent lower than that of single mothers; by 2017, the difference was no more than 3 percent. The same convergence in hours has not happened among married and single fathers.
  • The impact of marriage on the work hours of mothers varies starkly by race and ethnicity. Among White and Asian women, average annual hours are lower for married than for single mothers; the reverse is true for Black mothers, and for Hispanic women there is no appreciable difference.

Women Outnumber Men among Part-Time Workers and are Almost as Likely as Men to Work Part-Time Involuntarily

  • The rate of part-time work varies over the life cycle, and is highest at the beginning and at the end of the working life for both women and men. Women part-time workers outnumber men at each stage of the life cycle, but the differences are particularly high during early- and mid-career.
  • Almost nine in 10 of those who work part-time because of child care and other family-related reasons are women. Part-time work is significantly more common in low-wage occupations, such as cashiers, customer service representatives, and nursing and personal care workers, where women are the majority of the workforce and it is less common to have stable hours.
  • Part-time work is often of lower quality than full-time work, with lower pay and few benefits. Providing part-time workers with lower benefits or pay than comparable full-time workers is illegal in most other high-income economies.
  • Women are close to half of all involuntary part-time workers. The share of Black and Hispanic women part-time workers (ages 25 years and older) who report that they worked part-time involuntarily (22 and 21 percent, respectively) is more than twice as high as for White women (10 percent), and nearly twice as high as it is for Asian women (12 percent).

Increasing Overwork Creates Barriers to Women’s Advancement at Work and Exacerbates Gender Inequality at Home

  • Nearly one in five women (18.2 percent) and nearly one in three men (31.8 percent) usually work more than 40 hours per week. For the majority of workers in this category, this means working more than 50 hours per week.
  • The practice of overwork in many professional and managerial positions reduces women’s access to the highest paid jobs because of the imbalance in family care responsibilities; likewise, overwork also makes it more difficult for men to contribute equally to care and domestic work.
  • Research shows that working long hour days or weeks on a regular basis has adverse health consequences, reduces productivity, increases workplace injuries, and leads to lower job satisfaction.
  • Unlike many other countries, where hours of work are more regulated as part of a concern with health and safety, the U.S Labor code offers few protections from overwork (with the potential exception for workers with disabilities under the ADA).

Work Schedules Have Become Less Regular Regardless of the Number of Hours Worked

  • During the last decade, the line between work and non-work time has become increasingly blurred for full-time and part-time workers in both lower and higher-paid occupations. A substantial number of women in low-wage jobs have little control over the timing of their work.
  • While some parents may proactively seek employment during non-standard hours as a means of organizing employment around child care needs, schedule fluctuations still have adverse impacts on parents and children.
  • A growing number of U.S. workers work remotely thanks to advances in communication technologies. While control over where and when they work is a highly sought-after benefit, it often comes at a price—either due to work overload or adverse career consequences for making use of flexible working options.
  • Business case studies—such as the Gap study, where workers were provided greater say over their schedules—show that using scheduling technology to allow workers a say leads to higher revenues and improved productivity.

The Lack of Legal Rights to Paid Time Off is Exacerbating Inequality and Reduces Women’s Labor Force Participation

  • The lack of paid parental leave is one factor accounting for women’s lower labor force participation rate in the United States compared with other high income countries. Job protected paid maternity leave improves women’s labor market participation, allows them to maintain and build their earnings, and improves maternal and infant health.
  • Access to paid time off and the length of paid time off is highly unequal. Low-wage workers are much less likely to have access to paid sick benefits, paid vacation and holidays, and paid family leave than higher earning workers. Hispanic workers are least likely to have access to paid sick time.

Policy Recommendations

Redistributing and reorganizing hours of work is one way of distributing productivity gains from automation equitably, smoothing the potential disruptive impact of technological displacement, and encouraging greater gender equality in paid and unpaid work.

Recommendations to improve equity in work hours include:

  • Guarantee paid family leave, paid sick days, and paid vacation. Investing in paid leave policies that address life cycle needs for time off (for parenthood, education, elder care and civic engagement) can potentially increase GDP by increasing labor force participation rates, particularly for women.
  • Improve access to quality part-time or reduced hours work. Legislation to provide workers who work less than 35 hours with the right to equal treatment in pay, promotions, and benefits, and to give employees options for reducing their hours without having to change employment or their career, can improve access to quality part-time work.
  • Increase worker control over the scheduling of their time at work. New scheduling technology makes it easier and less costly to prepare schedules and allocate shifts in occupations with extensive operating hours. Fair scheduling statutes passed in several jurisdictions offer examples of how to provide workers with more stability in the time they work.
  • Discourage extensive overwork and overtime. Providing workers with a right to refuse mandatory overtime, and providing mandatory rest times between shifts, will reduce scheduling conflict and improve health. Updating overtime earnings thresholds, and ensuring that a larger number of women and men are covered by overtime regulations, will reduce employer incentives to make long hours an expected component of employment.
  • Provide paid time for employees to upgrade their skills as technology changes. Technological innovation is affecting the delivery of learning and increasing the options for remote access to instruction. Yet, learning will continue to take time, time outside of paid work that women often do not have because of their care commitments. Paid time to upgrade skills and pursue lifelong learning can reduce inequality in access to new employment opportunities.
  • Encourage work sharing through the Unemployment Insurance system during times of economic transition and downturns and facilitate work sharing more broadly. During slack business or downturns, work sharing arrangements allow workers to receive unemployment benefits to compensate for loss of earnings if their hours are temporarily cut back. This allows employers to retain valued and skilled workers and provides greater economic security and workforce attachment to workers.
  • Promote a reduction in the standard working week. Even though it fails to be the reality for many workers, the 40-hour workweek nevertheless has become the benchmark against which working time is judged. The 40-hour threshold has not been improved since 1938 and the coming decades provide an opportunity to share time and rewards more equally by lowering the legal definition of full-time work.

Technological innovation in the coming decades will provide opportunities to promote a more equal distribution of work, leisure, and family and community time. Technology is already making it much easier for employers and employees to design win-win solutions on scheduling and the location of work. While the reduction of paid time at work alone is unlikely to eliminate gender inequality, it can support men in being good caregivers and make it easier for women to succeed at work. Without proactive policy interventions on time at work, however, gender inequalities at work and at home will likely persist—or worse, increase.

Read the full report.

This report was originally published at Institute For Women’s Policy Research on November 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ariane Hegewisch is Program Director of Employment and Earnings at IWPR and Scholar in Residence at American University; prior to that she spent two years at IWPR as a scholar-in-residence. She came to IWPR from the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings. She is responsible for IWPR’s research on workplace discrimination and is a specialist in comparative human resource management, with a focus on policies and legislative approaches to facilitate greater work life reconciliation and gender equality, in the US and internationally. Prior to coming to the USA she taught comparative European human resource management at Cranfield School of Management in the UK where she was a founding researcher of the Cranet Survey of International HRM, the largest independent survey of human resource management policies and practices, covering 25 countries worldwide. She started her career  in local economic development, developing strategies for greater gender equality in employment and training in  local government in the UK. She has published many papers and articles and co-edited several books, including ‘Women, work and inequality: The challenge of equal pay in a deregulated labour market”. She is German and has a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics and an MPhil in Development Studies from the IDS, Sussex.
About the Author: Valerie Lacarte, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She conducts empirical analysis for research projects related to the Future of Work, entrepreneurship, and the Student Parent Success Initiative.

Prior to joining IWPR, Valerie had more than seven years of experience doing research and project implementation for development organizations, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States. Valerie has worked and lived in several countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and is fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. She has also been an Adjunct Instructor at American University, George Mason University and University of Mary Washington where she taught Economic Theory, Business and Society, and Gender Economics.

Valerie has a PhD in Economics from American University. Her dissertation combined quantitative and qualitative data to analyze immigrant labor outcomes while considering the intersectionality of gender, race, ethnicity and culture.


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The Issue of Paid Family Leave Just Got Some New York Size Momentum

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GELClogoOn April 4, New York State passed what is being hailed as the most comprehensive and generous paid family leave law in the country.  The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act (A. 3870 / S. 3004) (“PFLIA”) will provide workers in New York State with up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year, to bond with a new child, or to care for a seriously ill family member.  For military families, the leave time can be used to address legal, financial and childcare issues.  Notably, unlike the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), coverage does not include taking care of an employee’s own medial condition.  That means, if unrelated to childbirth, employees would still need to seek time off under New York State’s Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program.

Beginning in 2018, all full and part-time employees who have been working at their jobs for at least six months will be eligible for eight weeks of paid leave up to one-half of their weekly wages, capped at 50% of the New York Statewide Average Weekly Wage (“SAWW”).  These payments will gradually phase in over four years until 2021 when workers will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave, for benefits up to two-thirds of their weekly salary, capped at a maximum of 67% of the SAWW.

The current SAWW is $1,266.44, through June 2016 (with predicted increases each year).  So, the benefit will be robust.  For instance, if an employee received family leave benefits today that would mean s/he could receive up to $633.22 per week; or $844.29 if the two-thirds rate was in effect.  As compared with maximum benefits workers in New York are eligible to receive under its Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program that’s a big improvement.  That program caps recipient benefits at a mere $170 per week.  Until now, TDI was the only financial recourse postpartum women in New York were eligible for – unless their employers wanted to be more generous (sometimes true for large corporations, rarely for smaller employers).  Although, beginning in 2018, women still would not be entitled to paid family leave in order to recover from their own childbirth recovery, they would be eligible to receive paid family leave to bond with their child at a vastly improved weekly wage replacement rate.

The PFLIA program is a fully employee-funded program, meaning, unlike several other states and localities, employers will not have to contribute to the cost.  Rather, employees will pay into a state sponsored insurance program and payments to workers will be paid out through this program.  These contributions will start at as little as 45 cents per week when the law goes into effect in 2018.  Thereafter, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services will analyze what amount of funding the program needs based on the cost per worker of providing paid leave.  While the total per employee contribution remains unknown, an important premise behind the legislation is that employee contributions should represent a very small deduction from each employee’s weekly paycheck.  It is estimated that by year four that deduction will be 88 cents per week.

Significantly, paid leave is protected leave.  All qualified employees who take paid family leave will be entitled to return to their jobs.  If employers violate the law, employees will be entitled to reinstatement and back pay.  Unfortunately, there is no private right of action to go into Court.  Claims will have to be administered through the New York Worker’s Compensation Board which handles violations of the TDI law.

Several other states are now looking to follow New York’s lead.  Ohio just introduced a 12-week paid leave bill the same week New York’s law was signed.  Connecticut has introduced a bill as well that would entitle employees to be compensated up to $1,000 a week.  The proposed bill would cover employers with as little as two employees.

In 20 states, legislation has either been introduced or is being actively pursued.  Each of these proposed bills and programs strikes a different balance.  Some states would provide fully employer-funded paid programs, while others base their programs on models similar to that used in New York, making their proposed paid family leave benefits solely through employee contributions, and some are a mix of both.  What is covered under each of these proposed laws varies too.  Some cover all employers, while others limit coverage to larger employers, although many require less than the FMLA does with 50 or more employees as a basis for coverage.

These laws undoubtedly will offer a new generation of workers the family-job balance that previous generations did not have.  Not only will employees be less likely to face devastating economic choices when they decide to have children or need to care for a loved one, but as studies show, when family leave is paid, women are far less likely to be forced out of or choose to opt out of the workforce when having children.  This in turn will decrease a persistent wage gap between men and women who have children.  In addition, further studies document that men are far more likely to take family leave when it is paid, thereby bringing men and women closer to wage parity and more likely to share domestic responsibilities at home.

Nonetheless, as evidenced by this patchwork of laws and proposed bills, paid family leave – some, all or none – creates inequality among American workers when states offer inconsistent opportunities for work-life balance.  Even worse, many states still have no paid family leave laws on their books, and do not seem close to passing such legislation in the near future.  This result strongly emphasizes the need for national legislation that would allow us to join the rest of the industrialized world.  But as a start, we New Yorkers’ are proud of where our efforts have led – to the strongest, broadest, most generous paid family leave law in the country!  This law will make all the difference to the estimated 6.9 million workers in this state.

For more information about what you can do to support and/or expand family leave laws in your state check out what your legislators are doing and join family leave campaigns.  Or, contact us at the Gender Equality Law Center.

Allegra L. Fishel is the founder and Executive Director of the Gender Equality Law Center (“GELC”), a 501(c)(3) legal and advocacy center.  GELC’s mission is to advance laws and policies that promote gender equality in all spheres of public and private life.

Lauren T. Betters is a 2015 law school graduate of Northeastern Law School and GELC’s first Law Fellow.


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Workplace Toxics Reveal the Beauty Industry’s Ugly Side

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Michelle ChenYou shouldn’t have to suffer to be beautiful. But many women suffer for the beauty of others, polishing nails and styling hair with a toxic pallette of chemicals.

Working long hours amid noxious fumes, salon workers, typically women of color, are in constant contact with chemicals linked to various illnesses and reproductive health problems.

While environmental justice campaigns have historically focused on localized pollution issues, the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance organizes around the intersection of workplace environmental health and racial and economic justice. According to the Alliance’s analysis, the hazards endemic to the nail salon industry are stratified by ethnicity and gender: roughly four in ten workers are Asian immigrants, many of them of childbearing age, poor, uninsured and with limited English-speaking ability. And they are assaulted daily by invisible threats:

On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm.

These toxic environments reflect the marginal nature of neighborhood beauty shops that operate with little oversight. The Alliance reports that workers are often crammed into “poorly ventilated, small workspaces,” lacking protective gear, sometimes using inaccurately labeled products, not knowing to protect themselves.

Environmental justice activists in Harlem, New York, are investigating the health implications of beauty products marketed to women of color with a “Beauty Map” project. The data visualization pinpoints where and how these ethnic beauty products are sold in the community. According to WE ACT’s research:

The presence of ethnic personal care products sold in pharmacies, discount chains, and corner stores in Northern Manhattan, revealed more than 600 non beauty related points of source in addition to the 348 beauty salons, supply stores, and hair braiding shops in the area….

Given the prevalence of ethnic personal care products sold in Northern Manhattan stores and use among residents, WE ACT is advocating for chemical policy that will better protect consumers against potentially harmful ingredients in personal products.

One particularly popular and controversial hair treatment is Brazilian Blowout, which produces formaldehyde gas linked to cancer and associated with respiratory ailments. Earlier this year, in a Nation Institute report, California-based stylist Jennifer Arce talked about becoming sick from Brazilian Blowout, recalling that among her coworkers, “We were all getting rashes, headaches, and bloody noses.” Pointing to a workplace culture of fear, she said, “I’m now hearing from hair stylists who have had their jobs threatened and are being bullied by co-workers and management if they complain about exposure to Brazilian Blowout.”

In New York City, the ACLU and labor activists have campaigned to protect, and raise public awareness about, low-income immigrant nail salon workers facing abuse from their employers and the workplace toxins.

Despite these hazards, women workers can find power at the interface between a poisonous industry and consumers who lust for beauty. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative has brought together salon workers, owners and public health advocates to provide health and safety training for salons and to push for tighter regulations on the industry.

The Collaborative, which includes Asian Health Services and other community organizations, has worked with San Francisco salons to raise workplace standards cooperatively. In collaboration with city and county environmental authorities, the Collaborative has partnered with Asian Law Caucus and Environment California to set up a recognition program for salons that keep their shops free of the “toxic trio” of nail polish chemicals (toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde). Additionally, the group is pushing to expand the bilingual services provided by safety regulators and the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

The Collaborative’s policy director Catherine Porter told In these Times that while stronger regulations are needed, a rewards system for salons that use less toxic products and greener practices could motivate local owners to promote healthier workplaces:

We see recognition programs as a way that nail salons can set themselves apart from their competition. Nail salons will say to themselves, “Oh, if I use safer products and safer practices, that’s actually something that I can market, and I can use that to attract more customers and a more loyal customer base.” Plus, we think that as more salons move in the direction of using less toxic products, that will in turn pressure nail product manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.

The state of California recently gave advocates a boost with a legal settlement that will stop deceptive labeling practices by the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout. The Collaborative and the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance has called for stronger federal labor protections and stricter labeling and reporting standards. The proposed federal Safe Cosmetics Act would not only ramp up federal oversight of personal care products but also move the industry toward phasing out the most dangerous chemicals.

But despite these community-driven efforts, the supply chain remains dominated by companies that profit by degrading environmental health, and by a consumer culture that endorses the trading of health for beauty. As workers absorb the poisonous cost of “perfection,” the ugly mirror image of the beauty business is slowly coming to light.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on June 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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Certificates can help boost pay. More if you’re a man, of course.

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Laura ClawsonFor some high school graduates looking to get some more education and increase their income, or for people with college degrees looking to retrain into a new field, a certificate can be a good alternative to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. But like just about everything else, certificates pay off less for women than for men:

Men who earn certificates earn 27 percent more than high school educated men. Women with a certificate, by comparison, only receive an average 16 percent increase in earnings over women with a high school diploma.

Some of that difference is because men are more likely to get certificates in higher-paying fields, such as construction, while women are more likely to get certificates in lower-paying fields, such as cosmetology. But that doesn’t explain the entire gap:

A male with a certificate in computer and information service can earn about $72,000 per year—more than 72 percent of his peers with an associate’s degree and more than 54 percent of male bachelor’s degree holders.

Notice we said “male.” Thanks to gender inequity, just as a man with a bachelor’s degree can out-earn a woman with a master’s degree, women don’t benefit from certificates as much as the guys do. A woman working in that same field only earns about $57,000.

That’s just one of the ways that the value of getting a certificate is variable: fewer than half of certificate-holders work in a field related to their training, and those working in other fields see just a 1 percent increase in median pay relative to high school graduates. But those who do work in the field they’ve trained in earn only slightly less than the median worker with an associate’s degree. Impact varies by race, as well, with Latinos getting the biggest earnings boost from a certificate over a high school diploma, while African Americans benefit the least from certificates. White certificate holders get much less of a boost than Latinos—but because white high school graduates earn more than Latinos, white certificate holders don’t need a big increase to keep out-earning Latinos.

The picture on certificates is mixed: Some certificates in some fields can mean real pay increases for some people. The picture on gender inequity remains clear: In any level of education, in just about any field, women are left behind.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on June 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.


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Working Women’s Bodies Besieged by Environmental Injustice

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Michelle ChenFrom birth control pills to equal pay, women are a favorite target in the country’s most heated political wars. But a much quieter struggle is being waged over women’s bodies in their neighborhoods and workplaces, where a minefield of pollutants threaten working mothers and their children.

According to new research from the the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, working pregnant women who are exposed on the job to toxins known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are more likely to have children with gastroschisis, a rare birth defect in which the intestines stick out from the baby’s body, generally requiring surgical repair.

The study, summarized by Environmental Health News, reveals a distinct link between women’s occupational exposure and the prevalence of the defect: “mothers who were exposed to PAHs had 1.5 times the risk of having a baby with gastroschisis compared to women who were not exposed to PAHs at work.”

While this is a rare defect, the troubling context of these findings is the prevalence of PAH pollution in women’s workplaces. The researchers noted, “assessing workplace exposure to PAHs is important because ‘more than 95 percent of employed women in the United States remain employed during pregnancy’ and ‘an increasing number of women are being exposed in their jobs to chemicals that can harm the fetus.’” The researchers especially noted exposures among women working as “cashiers in fast food restaurants.”

PAH’s are an ubiquitous byproduct of everyday combustible materials like oil and coal. Studies have linked the contamination they cause when burned and churned into the atmosphere with health problems that can shape a kid’s entire upbringing, ranging from developmental disabilities to childhood obesity.

A separate study on women in New York City linked prenatal PAH exposure to behavioral issues that could pose a lifelong burden. Researchers with the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found a connection between a pregnant woman’s exposure to PAH-laden air and the chances that her child will by age 6 or 7 show mental health symptoms such as anxiety or attention problems. These long-term behavioral patterns, the researchers wrote, “suggest an adverse impact of prenatal PAH exposure… that could impact cognitive development and ability to learn.”

The ramifications of toxic childhood environments are a global issue. A 2010 study on women in Krakow, Poland, revealed similar impacts of PAH exposure in the womb, with a significant effect on intelligence tests at age 5.

To environmental justice activists, the synergy between pollution and social hardship intersects with barriers surrounding urban communities. Environmental hazards compound the burdens that already shadow children growing up in disadvantaged communities: poverty, gaps in healthcare and education, racial segregation.

The recent Columbia study, which focused on New York City women of black and Dominican descent, noted that “Urban, minority populations in the U.S. often have disproportionate exposure to air pollution.” According to ABC News, the investigators also accounted for other issues associated with the stresses and hazards urban life–like exposure to secondhand smoke and the mother’s mental health (“demoralization” was one potential factor)–which can also shape children’s development.

Much of this environnmental research focuses on everyday exposures, not work-related pollution specifically. But in unhealthy workplaces, there’s a unique convergence of economic, gender and environmental injustice. The economic and ecological abuses looming over working-class women on the job each day may pose crippling costs for the whole family.

Urban environmental justice advocates recognize that workplace protections, especially for working moms and women of childbearing age, are critical for community health. Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of the Harlem-based environmental group WE ACT, says, “It’s a good thing to avoid creating a dynamic where a worker has to choose between their health and their livelihood. It’s like forcing someone to choose between either having a heart or having lungs.”

Dr. Shanna Swan, a professor of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says more research is needed on the intersection between workplace health and the everyday exposures that encircle expecting mothers in struggling communities:

This is an important and understudied area, especially since exposures are usually far higher in the occupational setting than those to which the general public is exposed, and because the period of fetal development is the most sensitive window; developmental damage during this time is irreversible. We have just begun to recognize that this may be a sensitive window, not only the developing fetus, but for the pregnant woman herself, since she is subject to the stress of pregnancy, workplace stress and likely the added stress of low socioeconomic status. All of these may contribute to adverse development for the fetus and challenges to the woman’s own health.

The right rallies to defend the sanctity of “the unborn” while vilifying women for trying to exercise reproductive choices in response to socioeconomic realities. This is the same kind of rhetoric that assaults environmental regulation, healthcare programs, and labor protections that alleviate gender inequity. So the ideology that claims to honor life actually militates against the right to a healthy childhood and safe community. Women’s bodies carry the burden of this hypocrisy, and the next generation will bear the fruits of the injustice.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on June 8, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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How Online Activists Ended Insurance Company Discrimination Against Women

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Last year, we ran a story about Peggy Robertson of Colorado. Robertsons’ health insurer, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, had required that she be sterilized to receive health insurance. Peggy later testified before a Senate HELP subcommittee on insurance company discrimination against women, and told her story to millions on ABC Nightly News and on YouTube.

The committee Chair, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, reacted strongly to Robertsons’ testimony, calling it a bone-chilling and morally repugnant story of insurance company abuse. Today, the New York Times caught up with Robertson and asked for her reaction to the health care bills’ passage into law:

In a telephone interview on Friday, Ms. Robertson said: Barbara Mikulski told me, she promised me, This will never happen again. She did it. Its wonderful.

But it wasnt just Sen. Mikulski. Activists first mobilized in September, after discovering that domestic violence could be legally deemed a pre-existing coverage in eight states and the District of Columbia.

Online activists reacted by flooding Congress with petitions and emails and it paid off. The original House and Senate bill included specific language banning this practice.

In the months that followed, tens of thousands of SEIU online activists rallied against insurance company discrimination, sending thousands of personal emails to Congress. And even more signed petitions to Congress asking that they include language in the final bill to ban practices like gender rating and classifying domestic violence as a pre-existing condition.

Thousands more publicized this issue across social networks, taking their ticket and stating “I am not a pre-existing condition” on Twitter and Facebook.

We also rigged our phone system to direct calls into male members of Congress to educate them on gender discrimination by insurers.

Supporters joined the “I am not a pre-existing condition” Facebook group and wore t-shirts to the gym and around their neighborhoods.

And finally, bloggers and partner organizations (esp. the National Women’s Law Center) wallpapered the web with original reporting, thoughtful analysis and calls to action on ending insurance company discrimination against women. Blogs like Feministing, RH Reality Check, and Feministe fiercely reported on these stories and directed their readers to actions.

Together, we made history. Because of your activism, in four years, United States law will ban insurers from discriminating against women with higher fees, denial of coverage, and failure to provide coverage of critical procedures and services, like maternity care and c-sections.

*This post originally appeared in SEIU Blog on March 30, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jessica Kutch is an online campaign manager for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where she directs the union’s new media campaign to win health insurance reform. She’s been organizing online since 2005, and has expertise in email advocacy, online advertising, social media and blogger relations.  Before joining SEIU, Jess managed online campaigns for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. She’s a graduate of Bennington College.


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