Project Design Manager Lizan Gilbert explains the processes and uses of the tunnel boring machine.
Project Design Manager Lizan Gilbert works in the male-dominated tunneling industry and has brought change for the women in her field through organizing and leadership. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It’s 2019, and we have multiple women vying for the highest office in the land. In 2018, a record number of women ran for office in Texas, and San Antonio now has a majority-female City Council. To many, this is a sign of long overdue progress, but the stark reality is that representation for women – not just in politics, but in the policies that govern how we live and work – still lags. 

Federal and state workplace policies, in Texas and elsewhere, disproportionately hurt women by making it harder to take time off or work flexibly, and for failing to protect those who do so. Instead of expecting working families – and especially working women – to raise young children while maintaining rigid work schedules with little flexibility and few protections, it’s time to modernize our workplace policies.

The Fair Labors Standards Act – the cornerstone of many of today’s workplace policies – was enacted during the New Deal era and was premised on outdated notions like the idea of a single breadwinner (typically the man) and a stay-at-home caregiver (typically the woman). Those days are gone. Today, women’s workforce participation rates continue to climb steadily, and both men and women are expected to participate equally in childrearing responsibilities. So why do our laws still reflect the old dynamic? It’s time for a new approach.

Nationally, women today are much more likely than men to work in service occupations, like food service, retail and hospitality jobs. These are often poorly paid positions, with median annual earnings for women of less than $25,000 per year. In recent years, women’s earnings in Texas have lagged behind the national average, and low-income women suffer disproportionately, with limited access to childcare services and less access to even basic flexibility in the workplace. In Texas, where 51 percent of children under age six are in low-income households, doing right by these women means pursuing a clear policy agenda that addresses their needs.

For one, Congress must pass the FAMILY Act and its companion bill H.R. 1185, which were reintroduced this year and would provide paid leave for family and medical reasons and establish a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave. This is an issue of economic justice. It is critical for new parents to have the flexibility to take time off work to provide critically needed care without fear of reprisal or retribution from employers. Sen. John Cornyn and all of Texas’ House delegation – including Reps. Chip Roy, Joaquin Castro, Lloyd Doggett and Henry Cuellar, all representing parts of San Antonio – are up for reelection next year, and Texas voters will be watching to see whether or not they put the needs of working families and mothers first. 

Another step we must take is to fix our workplaces. A recent study by The Collaborative, a nonpartisan research institute, shows that one-third of women who scaled back to part-time work cited their jobs’ long, inflexible hours as the reason. Women, who are still subject to gendered expectations when it comes to childcare responsibilities, are especially vulnerable to dropping out from the full-time workforce. What’s needed here is a new paradigm for how we think about work and home life.

Flexible workplaces are that new paradigm. Technological advances, coupled with the demand for work-life balance from a rising millennial workforce, will continue to force employers to integrate flexibility in the workplace. What exactly does this flexibility look like? It means workplaces that are sensitive to the demands of parenthood; offer flexible schedules and options for working remotely; and a move toward results-based approaches that place a premium on results and productivity, not whether or not employees are at their desks or workstations.

As a mother of young children, I can attest that workplace flexibility is a particularly salient issue for parents. More than 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 are working or looking for work, including 64 percent of those who have children under the age of six. The old “male breadwinner” conception that informed the Fair Labor Standards Act and so much that came after it is obsolete, as women now make up a significant and growing portion of and workforce. Now, as we come to grips with this new reality, we must decide how we will accommodate the needs of women in charting a smarter approach to the workforce.

This isn’t a back-burner issue; we need change now. Modernizing our workplace policies at the federal level is essential because we cannot continue to offer women the same outdated policies that have perpetuated gender inequality for generations. Instead, Texas’ lawmakers must pass reforms to our existing labor laws that will address the challenges women in our state face on a daily basis, including affordable childcare, paid sick leave, and flexible workplaces. Working women know what it means to struggle, and we won’t stop fighting until we modernize our workplaces.

Coda Rayo-Garza

Coda Rayo-Garza leads gender equity and racial justice work for the YWCA. She is a Truman National Security Partner.