Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the agency that enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination—announced that charges of discrimination hit an unprecedented level in 2010. News coverage over the past few days has focused on who or what is to blame, and what this could mean for the future. But one thing is certain: We need to strengthen anti-discrimination laws and change employers' behaviors in this country— especially for the tens of millions of working women who are still struggling for equality on the job.
According to its report, the EEOC has received nearly 100,000 charges of job discrimination in the last year. Claims of discrimination based on sex and in the form of unfair pay account for nearly a third of these charges. In fact, sex discrimination charges alone have reached their highest mark ever. Since the recession began in 2007, charges of sex discrimination have increased by 17 percent, and pregnancy discrimination charges have risen 10 percent. For the first time, the most prevalent charges involved claims that employers unlawfully retaliated against workers who complained of discrimination, suggesting that an increasing number of employers are hostile to workers who seek to exercise their rights to equal opportunity.
As has been heavily reported, the economic downturn and skyrocketing unemployment are likely contributors to the surge. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for women has more than doubled over the past four years. Many employers have been forced to cut back on staff, and job seekers are facing stiff competition for few job opportunities. The EEOC statistics suggest that the economic downturn has opened the door wider for discrimination to creep into such personnel decisions.
And with an economic recession and high unemployment come loss of income and financial strain for working families. The consequences can be devastating—and prove the need for continued enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, a greater commitment from employers to follow them, and stronger protections for workers. With so many families struggling to make ends meet, and many more on the brink of poverty, unlawful job loss or barriers to employment and fair pay can push families over the edge.
There is still plenty of room to improve protections and safeguards for workers. Women today are paid a mere 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. Eliminating this pay gap alone could lift millions of women and families out of poverty. Legislative proposals like last year's Paycheck Fairness Act would help to close the gap and strengthen protections for women by making it harder for employers to hide pay discrimination and rewarding those with good pay practices. These steps can go a long way in building a fairer, more equal workplace.
Despite historic gains over the last 40 years, working women throughout the country are still losing their jobs or promotions because of their sex or their decision to have a child. The drastic increase in discrimination charges detailed by the EEOC proves that something isn't working. As evidenced in the landmark Dukes v. Wal-mart case pending before the Supreme Court, male-dominated corporate culture remains the norm for too many. In the Wal-mart case, 1.6 million women allege widespread discriminatory pay and promotion practices by the nation's largest employer. The Supreme Court will decide this year whether this lawsuit can proceed and these women can get their day in court.
The silver lining in the EEOC's announcement is that workers are recognizing their right to equal opportunity under the law and their right to work free from discrimination—and they are taking steps to report mistreatment. But the numbers still paint a clear picture of a national work environment where discrimination is simply too easy. The gender discrimination we have fought so hard to stop prevents too many women, and especially women of color, from realizing fair wages and equal pay and opportunity. We must continue to fight discrimination in all its forms, so that all workers are treated equally and hard-working families get the wages and opportunities they deserve.