Mary_Anderson,_head_of_Women's_Bureau_3b44911This year’s Labor Day parade in Danville, Illinois, is honoring women with the theme “Year of the Woman.”

“Women play an integral part in the labor force,” the parade coordinator, Connie Ostrander, told the Danville Commercial-News.

That has been true for much longer than a year, considering that about 60 percent of American women work, making up nearly half the U.S. workforce, according to Department of Labor statistics.

Women have long been significant in the U.S. labor force. The value of the Rosie the Riveters in World War II is well known. (See Janet Golden’s article on American labor heroines, “Rebellious Women,” posted today.) But the U.S. Labor Department recognized the importance of working women long before that when it established a Women’s Bureau “to craft and promote policies that would improve the welfare of working women,” wrote Jane Walstedt, who has worked for the bureau since 1974. The bureau is marking its 95th anniversary this summer.

Writing in a blog on the Department of Labor website, Walstedt described the bureau’s first director as someone who knew the challenges faced by working women firsthand: “The first director of the Women’s Bureau was Mary Anderson, a Swedish immigrant (as was my father) who arrived in the United States in 1889 at the age of 16. She spoke no English, but took her first job as a dishwasher in a Michigan lumberjack boarding house earning $1.50 per week. Eventually, she worked her way up as a skilled shoe maker and eventually became president of her union.”

When Anderson ran the bureau, women represented about 21 percent of the work force, according to the Labor Department. In 2012, women accounted for 48 percent of U.S. workers, and 57 percent of all women were working.

Over time, the workplace has become more accommodating for women. Not so long ago, many women had to present themselves as just slight variations on male co-workers, keeping health and family matters out of the office. That is changing, though, with companies like Netflix and Microsoft expanding their maternity leave benefits and many employers providing places for mothers to nurse their babies or pump breast milk. These changes help allow women to be women in the workplace and indicate that women are valued by employers.

This isn’t just benevolence on the part of employers. It makes economic sense. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde brought that message to the Group of 20 meeting in Ankara, Turkey, this weekend in her keynote address. “Women’s empowerment is not just a fundamentally moral cause, it is also an absolute economic no-brainer,” Lagarde said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “It holds the potential to boost growth, raise overall per capita income, tackle poverty, and reduce income inequality for people all over the world.”

She added: “We have estimates that, if the number of female workers were to increase to the same level as the number of men, GDP in the United States would expand by 5 percent, by 9 percent in Japan, and by 27 percent in India.

“These estimates, while of course tentative, are significant and large enough to be taken seriously. This applies particularly to countries where potential growth is declining as the population is aging.”
An important component of women’s empowerment in the workplace is pay equity. “Even with the same level of education, and in the same occupation, women earn just three-quarters of what men earn,” Lagarde said of women around the world. “This is by itself a great disincentive for being part of the workforce.”

In 2013, “women working full time in the United States typically were paid just 78 percent of what men were paid,” said a report released this year by the American Association of University Women.

“The gap has narrowed since the 1970s, due largely to women’s progress in education and workforce participation and to men’s wages rising at a slower rate,” said the report, titled “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap.” “But progress has stalled in recent years, and the pay gap does not appear likely to go away on its own.”

The AAUW report recommends that women arm themselves with education and negotiating skills to avoid being underpaid.

The gains women have made in the workplace have been hard won over the last 95 years. While great strides have been made, continued progress will require continued effort.

As the National Women’s Law Center says: “Every woman matters. Every dollar matters. The wage gap matters.”

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