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Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center: 5 Things We Need To Do To Close The Gender Wage Gap

Secrecy around pay helps hide gender and racial wage gaps. Sixty one percent of private sector employees report that discussing their wages is either prohibited or discouraged by employers. Equal pay laws must be strengthened to uncover pay discrimination and hold employers responsible, protect employees who discuss their pay with each other from retaliation, prohibit employers from relying on salary history in setting pay, and require employers to provide job seekers information about salary ranges.

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Fatima Goss Graves.

Fatima Goss Graves, who has served in numerous roles at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) for more than a decade, has spent her career fighting to advance opportunities for women and girls. She has a distinguished track record working across a broad set of issues central to women’s lives, including income security, health and reproductive rights, education access and workplace fairness.

Goss Graves is a co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. Prior to becoming President and CEO of NWLC, Goss Graves served as the Center’s Senior Vice President for Program, where she led the organization’s broad program agenda to advance progress and eliminate barriers to employment, education, health and reproductive rights and lift women and families out of poverty.

Prior to that, as NWLC’s Vice President for Education and Employment, she led the Center’s anti-discrimination initiatives, including work to promote equal pay, combat harassment and sexual assault at work and at school, and advance equal access to education programs, with a particular focus on outcomes for women and girls of color.

Goss Graves has authored many articles, including A Victory for Women’s Health Advocates, National Law Journal (2016) and We Must Deal with K-12 Sexual Assault, National Law Journal (2015), and reports, including Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity (2014), Reality Check: Seventeen Million Reasons Low-Wage Workers Need Strong Protections from Harassment (2014), and 50 Years and Counting: The Unfinished Business of Achieving Fair Pay (2013).

Goss Graves received her B.A. from UCLA and her J.D. from Yale Law School. She began her career as a litigator at the law firm of Mayer Brown LLP after clerking for the Honorable Diane P. Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

She currently serves as an advisor on the American Law Institute Project on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct on Campus and was on the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace and a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow.

She is widely recognized for her effectiveness in the complex public policy arena at both the state and federal levels, regularly testifies before Congress and federal agencies, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and other public education forums. Goss Graves appears often in print and on air as an expert on issues core to women’s lives, including in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, AP, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I am the first lawyer in my family, but the backstory to my career is quite straightforward for someone who knew very little about jobs like mine. From the earliest age, I understood the power of the law and the power of people to effect change. I learned it through the stories of my family — my father and his siblings were the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to desegregate the local public schools in Knoxville, Tennessee. Despite their fears of retaliation, my grandparents responded to the call from the NAACP to change things for their own family and for Black people in Knoxville. Long before I ever read a case, I understood that the law could empower and liberate communities. I also understood that it’s up to each of us to deliver the change we want to see in the world. Today, as we continue to grapple with a pandemic, a recession, a racial justice reckoning, and growing threats to our democracy, my grandparents’ determination to never stop fighting for justice motivates and guides me and the work at NWLC.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2020, women still earn about 81 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?

The gender wage gap — which is significantly larger for many women of color — persists across virtually every occupation, in part due to outdated stereotypes that still shape workplace decision making, like the notion that families do not rely on women’s income or that women do not need higher pay, which contradicts the reality for most women and families. Racial and gender stereotypes influence hiring, pay setting, promotion decisions, women’s compensation, and career options, all of which affect women’s wages.

Women’s overrepresentation in low wage jobs and underrepresentation in high wage jobs also fuel the wage gap. Black women, Latinas, and Native American women, who often are the family breadwinners, routinely are overrepresented in the lowest-paying jobs — and this leaves them struggling to support themselves and their families on poverty-level wages.

Common pay-setting practices that employers use — like relying on an applicant’s salary history to set pay or refusing to provide pay transparency to applicants or employees — perpetuate the wage gap.

Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?

The National Women’s Law Center has been advocating to shrink the gender wage gap for decades — and the goal remains a top priority. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed both the undervaluing of women’s work and the devastating impact of job losses on women — especially Black women and Latinas — which will further widen gender and racial wage gaps if equal pay measures fail to materialize. The convergence of the pandemic with a crumbling economy and a racial justice reckoning has created increased momentum to tighten the wage gap. In January, Congress reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act that prohibits employers from relying on salary history to set pay when hiring — and we are pressing legislators to swiftly pass this critical piece of legislation.

The Center recently released a State Playbook for Gender Justice resource that provides data, policy briefs, and strategies for legislators and advocates in the states to center the needs of women as they rebuild from the pandemic and economic crisis. The Playbook highlights how to initiate and secure support for strong equal pay laws. My colleagues are frequently behind-the-scenes drafting equal pay bills and holding strategy sessions with state legislators. So far, 14 states have passed salary history bills that explicitly prohibit employers from asking job applicants about prior wages. This is an important start, but there’s more work ahead.

Our economic analysis provides a compelling and urgent case for closing the wage gap. Our analysis demonstrates how the economic impact of the pandemic disproportionately hurts women of color — whether they are working on the front lines of the pandemic, undertaking the lion’s share of unpaid caregiving, losing jobs at the highest rates, or getting pushed out of the labor force altogether. The significant earnings that are lost to gender and racial wage gaps — more than $1 million for a Latina over her lifetime — leave women with less savings to weather any crisis and undermine their ability to establish economic stability in the future. Women who have lost their jobs or been forced to quit in order to care for children will likely be forced to accept a lower paying job when they try to re-enter the workforce because they lack the savings to hold out for a higher paying one.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.

#1: Raise the minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for over a decade, with even lower minimum wages for tipped workers, youth, and workers with disabilities. In most states, the minimum wage leaves a full-time worker with two children near or below the poverty level. Gradually raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour and ensuring one fair wage will lift pay for nearly 32 million people by 2025. Almost six in ten workers who will get a raise are women — and nearly one in four is a Latina or Black woman, helping to close the wage gap.

#2: Provide paid family and medical leave and sick leave.

Women accounted for almost 80% of U.S. adults who stopped working or looking for work in January, according to our analysis. More than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since last February — largely due to the lack of both sufficient child care and paid leave. The United States is the only wealthy industrialized country without a national paid family and medical leave, or a paid sick leave, program. It’s shocking that 79% of workers lack access to paid family and medical leave through their employer. Even before the pandemic, women were cutting their hours or leaving the workforce to manage caregiving responsibilities, which undercut their wages and advancement. Providing a national paid leave program is essential to prevent workers from having to choose between their paychecks and caring for themselves or a loved one during this emergency pandemic and permanently.

#3: Increase families’ access to affordable, high-quality child care and early education.

Even prior to the current crisis, many families struggled to find and afford child care. The average annual cost for one child ranges from $3,800 to $21,000. The pandemic has proven the necessity of child care for women’s ability to get and keep a job, but decades of underinvestment have created a precarious system that is now on the verge of collapse. Since the start of the pandemic, one in six child care workers has lost their job. Child care is a fundamental cornerstone of our economic recovery, and a federal investment of at least $50 billion will be required to stabilize it.

#4: Strengthen equal pay laws.

Secrecy around pay helps hide gender and racial wage gaps. Sixty one percent of private sector employees report that discussing their wages is either prohibited or discouraged by employers. Equal pay laws must be strengthened to uncover pay discrimination and hold employers responsible, protect employees who discuss their pay with each other from retaliation, prohibit employers from relying on salary history in setting pay, and require employers to provide job seekers information about salary ranges.

#5: Protect pregnant workers: Pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Seventy-one percent of mothers are in the labor force — so it’s shocking that in 2021, women are still forced to choose between a paycheck and a healthy pregnancy. Over one in five pregnant workers — disproportionately Black women and Latinas — are employed in low-wage jobs, where they are likely to stand or walk continuously during work and may need an accommodation during pregnancy to work safely. But, too often, they are denied accommodations that would allow them to keep working — like sitting on a stool, carrying a water bottle, or taking additional breaks. Instead, they are pushed onto unpaid leave or forced out of the workforce when they can least afford it. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees who need them and clarify ambiguities in the law that have left many pregnant workers unprotected for too long.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The only recognizable feature of hope is action.” — Grace Paley

Put another way, hope is an act. It is a choice. And every day, especially in this work, I decide — we decide — that we can build a future that is better than the one we have today. As the country confronts a pandemic, and Black and brown women disproportionately face crushing job losses, it’s time to boldly reimagine a new future. It’s possible to secure wages that allow women and their families to thrive. It’s possible to invest in a care infrastructure that allows families in this country to work and care. In my lifetime and possibly sooner than not, I believe we will see more women represented at the highest levels of government — including the presidency — and a politics that is more inclusive, more effective, and more democratic. I am hopeful about what is possible for us in this country because of the work we do every day that puts us on that path.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center: 5 Things We Need To Do To Close The Gender… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.