Rekha Besu: U.S. Lags Far Behind In Gender Equity

By Rekha Basu (Opinion)
Des Moines Register.

On her first day back at work after having a baby, Angela Ames, a loss mitigation specialist at Nationwide Insurance in Des Moines, tried repeatedly to find a clean, private place to pump her breast milk. As anyone who has done that knows, it can’t easily wait, but she said no appropriate room was available.

In pain from the pressure, Ames approached her department head, who handed her a pen and paper and dictated a resignation letter for her to sign. So contends an appeal in a suit in which the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, supported by the Iowa ACLU and 11 other organizations, has filed a friend of the court brief. It claims Ames’ superior told her, “I think it would be best for you to go home and be with your babies.”

Thinking she was being ordered to quit, Ames did as told, the suit alleged. But the U.S. District Court dismissed the case, not persuaded the boss’s comments implied that. And last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. It is now being asked to rehear the case.

Ames’ suit alleges the same department head called her during her maternity leave to say the company had miscalculated her leave, and she’d have to return weeks earlier or face problems.

Also on her first day back, Ames’ immediate supervisor allegedly told her she had two weeks to complete what didn’t get done during her eight-week leave or face discipline. And the appeal says the company requires nursing mothers to wait three days after returning to work before using the lactation room, something the company denies.

Nationwide said in a written statement that lactation rooms were occupied, and alternative options were provided but were declined. It also said, without specifying, that many comments attributed to Nationwide personnel were inaccurate or taken out of context.

It’s shocking to think that in a nation where so much lip service is paid to encouraging childbirths by discouraging abortions and birth control, businesses could haggle over simple accommodations for working mothers. We are long past the time when mothers routinely stayed home with kids and fathers worked, if not because of changes in family structures and lessening of sex roles, then because of economic necessities.

“The picture that emerges is of a workplace that is at best inhospitable and at worst overtly hostile to pregnant women and new mothers” says the brief, alleging a violation of Title VII, the Civil Rights Act provision that prohibits sex-based employment discrimination.

Whatever the court decides, the United States lags behind many countries in legally protecting the rights and well being of working women and mothers.
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It’s one of only four countries that doesn’t require employers to provide maternity leaves. In Bulgaria, mothers get 56 paid weeks off. Norway offers paid paternity leave.

Working women in New Zealand are the most likely to be treated equally at work, based on their labor-force participation, comparative wages, proportion in senior jobs and child-care costs compared to wages. Iceland has almost closed the gender gap in economic opportunity and participation, political empowerment and other areas, according to the 2013 World Economic Forum report.

The United States ranks 23rd out of 136, lagging behind Scandinavian countries, Philippines, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Nicaragua and South Africa.

We rank 60 of 136 in the political empowerment of women and 67 in wage equality for similar jobs. Maybe that has to do with being the only G20 country not to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

If more women held high positions in government and business, maybe more attention would be paid to ending gender disparities.

But only 18 percent of our Congress members are female, compared to 52 percent in Nordic countries’ Parliaments. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and many more countries beat us in electing female heads of state.

Only 10 percent of U.S. companies’ boards are women, according to the WEF. By contrast, in Norway the boards of all publicly held companies are required to be 40 percent male and female, respectively.

Empowering women is said to be key to a nation’s economic well being. We’ve done well in closing the gender gap in education and health, though America has 21 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to Canada’s 12. But when our businesses lobby hard against regulations, and political candidates run from affirmative action and mandates, we leave too much to fate.

Whatever the merits of the Nationwide case, it’s ironic and distressing that a country with our riches and legacy of inspiring people around the world to seek gender equality should be on par with only Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua, New Guinea in not requiring maternity leave. Laws need to change before attitudes will.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.

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