Takeaways from the New England Women’s Policy Conference

Emily Stein, YW Boston Community Health Educator

In an echoing auditorium hosting over 400 notable individuals, attendees of the New England Women’s Policy conference were inspired to continue their efforts toward ensuring economic security for all women and their families.

Hosted by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy and the McCormack School of Policy and Global Studies of UMass Boston, the biennial conference was attended by academics and legislators, concerned citizens, nonprofit representatives and various legal and corporate consultants.  Overall, the diverse audience reflected the conference theme, that lasting and comprehensive change only occurs when all stakeholders are brought to the table. Embracing a regional approach to enacting change, attendees shared insights from passing specific legislation in their home states to learn from obstacles and capitalize on constituent support and needs. 

Dr. Mary Berry opened the conference with powerful anecdotes of fighting for women’s equality with Gloria Steinem, and an insistence that there is more work to be done.  This rhetoric was echoed by a surprise visit from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who received no less than three standing ovations.  Delivered only ten days after the sobering 2016 election results, Senator Warren’s speech was short yet inspirational, and reassured everyone in the room that conferences such as this one are vital for empowering women. She made the following five notable points in her speech:

  1. According to the US census, in 97% of all US job classifications, men are paid more than women. While Massachusetts established the first pay equity bill this past year in the 2016 legislative session, it is the only bill like it in the country to explicitly mandate equal pay for similar work. 
  2. It is critical to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. No one who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty.
  3. The Paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provisions apply to only 12% of US private sector workers, meaning that the vast majority of workers may not have medical or sick leave.
  4. We need flexible schedules that work for employees, and basic fairness in our systems.
  5. “We will be tested, do we truly believe in economic opportunity for all persons, dignity for all Americans? It is time to fight back!”

Following Senator Warren’s remarks, the conference divided into five tracks to dive deeper into critical themes in economic security. Ranging from workforce development to elder care, the tracks allowed attendees to focus on a more narrowed aspect of the broad theme.  Read on for takeaways from each track.

Health and Family Leave track

  • The US joins Suriname and Papua New Guinea as the only countries not to offer paid maternity leave.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act, established in 1993 under President Clinton, was the first federal mandate to offer 12 weeks of job protected leave for the birth of a child. However, FMLA extends only to people at organizations with 50 or more employees, does not extend to temporary workers, and does not apply to non-traditional family structures such as adoptive parents.
  • To date, only three states (CA, RI, NJ) have passed legislation which breaches the gap in coverage through Temporary Care Insurance. Businesses save in the long-term by avoiding costs of finding and training new candidates, and in states with TCI, employers notice a drop in absenteeism.
  • Massachusetts has made strides toward women’s economic empowerment with laws for paid sick leave, and the first ever Pay Equity Law, however has been unsuccessful at implementing paid family leave.

Pay Equity track

  • Massachusetts passed a comprehensive pay equity bill, while Connecticut passed a more limited bill that stipulates that employees can’t be fired for discussing their salaries. Vermont is still working on such legislation. 
  • Connecticut’s bill came from the governor’s office and didn’t gather a strong coalition; in fact, the bill barely passed due to interference from CT Business and Industry Council and no strong support from business.
  • States looked to other states previously successful to borrow strategies, such as how California successfully got Chambers of Commerce on board to pass pay equity.
  • It is clear that broad support built from multiple angles is necessary to get pay equity legislation passed, including as many representatives as possible to co-sponsor a bill. 

Workforce Development track

  • Workforce Investment Act has been replaced by Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA).
  • The WIOA is targeted at helping Americans with two years of college or less access middle-skill jobs.
  • However, the WIOA disproportionately helps traditionally male-dominated professions for complex reasons, including sexism (“women’s work” like childcare not covered; women disproportionately make up the largest percentage of middle skill workers that make under $35,000 a year).

While the conference highlighted the gaps in achieving economic justice, gathering with so many motivated individuals was a reminder that New England is a policy incubator, that has introduced legislation to improve economic empowerment for women and improved quality of life for all. The journey is not quite finished, and advocates for gender equity must continue to convene and support one another in upcoming battles to gain equality.