From Lilly Ledbetter to Broadband Access: Reframing Women’s Equity

by Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D.
originally published at Politic365

Last month, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act celebrated its third anniversary as the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama.  The Act was initiated by Lilly Ledbetter who realized that she was unfairly compensated for doing the same work of her male counterparts.  Expanding the statute of limitations on fair pay lawsuits for women, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act marked a significant step in addressing ongoing wage disparities that exist between men and women.  According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, women made 77.4% of what men make in 2010, with women’s average earnings amounting to $36,931 compared to men’s average earnings of $47,715. In the same study, African American women made an average of $32,290. The unfortunate reality is that more is at stake for women when they earn less, particularly their ability to care for their children, parents, and possibly dislocated spouses.  Further, the lack of access to learning opportunities and career management tools make it harder for women to advance in our new economy, making advances in pay futile if women are unable to secure competitive jobs.

Pay issues are but one of several inequities that exist between men and women.  Recent research suggests that women, on average spend more on health care services.  An article in Modern Physician found that in 2004 women spent $6,000 per capita on health care services, while men only spent $4,540. According to the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, “the number of working-age women who spent 10 percent or more of their income on premiums and out-of-pocket costs rose from 25 percent in 2005 to 33 percent in 2010.” Due in part to the crippling recession and rising health care costs, approximately 27 million women of working age also did not have health insurance as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.  For African American women who are more susceptible to chronic diseases that include heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, the lack of access to health care can be fatal, and it’s unfortunate that unfair pay exacerbates these trends.

Child care costs can also be a substantial burden to women that earn less, and impact their ability to effectively maintain employment.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, the average percentage of monthly income spent on child care expenditures for a female, single parent ranges from 11.7 percent to 12.6 percent.  In compensating for these significant costs, women are sometimes forced to put off long term educational goals due to child care issues or delay starting a family.  Missing work for even legitimate child care reasons can often prompt a pink slip for women, especially women of color without a backup plan.  In most cases, equitable pay makes it possible for women to engage more fully in the workforce, advance their skills, and alleviate the immediate and often urgent concerns of their households.

Further, women require the tools to be competitive and nimble in the nation’s emerging information economy.  More job prospects have migrated to the web, altering search strategies.  Access to preventative and diagnostic health care applications are increasingly present on the web.  Many times information that supports learning opportunities is available exclusively on the Internet.  Networks among women who have experienced the joys and challenges of caring for children and elderly parents are populating the web in record numbers. While many women struggle to make ends meet, the virtual world offers opportunities and access that can quite frankly advance their careers, and simplify their lives.

In a time where broadband Internet is rapidly changing how we live, learn and earn, the need to ensure that more women have adequately adopted broadband is immediate.  The good news is that women in general and more so women of color are increasing their use.  Recent research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 69 percent of African American women regularly go online to access health, education, and employment information, a promising trend of broadband use in the African American community.   And, more women are turning to mobile technology to assist in real time response and management of their work responsibilities and personal duties.  When income and educational attainment are added into the picture, the unfortunate reality is that low-income women often place broadband access as the lowest priority as they work to make sure their family’s basic needs are met.  Choosing food over a broadband connection is a pretty simple decision for low-income women.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 is addressing one of the most critical inequalities experienced by women today – the inability to make comparable and livable wages as their male counterparts.  However, higher wages for women are not just about principle.  Having the money to effectuate every aspect of one’s life from health care to child care to broadband access helps level the playing for women, and removes the undue stress and possibly death associated with our lifestyles.  Understanding the intersection of fair pay with other inequalities, and identifying the tools required to compete in the nation’s new economy will be essential to women’s future livelihood.

Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee is Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC.  More information on Dr. Turner-Lee and her work can be found at the Joint Center website.

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