National Partnership for Women & Families

Remarks for Debra Ness, National Partnership for Women and Families

Annual Luncheon
Washington, D.C. — June 27, 2006 —

Thank you, Maureen. Thank you for being here today, and for being such a powerful role model, both on-screen and off. And thanks to all of you for coming to the National
Partnership’s 35th birthday party!

35 YEARS OLD!

OLD?

I can assure you, we don't feel OLD!

We're proud of what we’ve done, but we know the best is yet to come.

For 35 years, we have made our mark as an organization that turns promise into progress—the promise of an America where all women and men are equal, where the playing field is level,
and where every person has opportunity, dignity, and respect.

Thirty-five years ago, classified ads were separated into “Jobs for Women”… and “Jobs for Men.”

Thirty-five years ago, women routinely lost their job for the “crime” of becoming pregnant.

Thirty-five years ago, Representatives Pat Schroeder and Ron Dellums were forced to share a single chair in meetings of the House Armed Services Committee, because the
Chairman of the committee said that a woman and an African-American each counted for only half a member of Congress.

Now, thirty-five years later, we haven’t reached the "promised land," but we’ve certainly turned America’s promise into real progress. We have truly changed the world for women and families.

And I thank all of you for making this work possible.

After 35 years, we have been able to pry open doors for women in the workplace, but there is still so much we need to do to make the workplace welcoming, and to sweep out old stereotypes.

One person who has been at the forefront of that fight for decades is today's first honoree, whose courageous work is depicted in the film, "North Country."

For ten years, miner Lois Jenson suffered from grave sexual harassment on the job including groping and physical intimidation. When she couldn't take it anymore, she sought representation for a sexual harassment claim against the powerful Eveleth Mine Company. It was the mid-1980s, and more than 50 attorneys turned her down.

But then she went to see Paul Sprenger.

Paul agreed to represent Lois and the other women workers, in what became our nation's first class action lawsuit on sexual harassment.

For 14 years, Paul kept at it, through setbacks, retrials, and every kind of legal wrangling. His firm devoted 25,000 hours to the case. And finally, in late 1998, after 14 years, he secured a groundbreaking legal victory.

I recently asked Paul whether the portrayal of the harassment that Lois and her colleagues experienced was exaggerated in the film. (Those of you who have seen the movie will understand why I was appalled to learn, that to the contrary they actually toned it down!)

In the movie, Paul's character is played by Woody Harrelson. Paul says he wishes it had been Harrison Ford. But, to us, it doesn’t matter! Paul Sprenger is as big a star as there is. Please join me in welcoming Paul Sprenger…

[PAUL SPRENGER SPEAKS]

Making it possible for women to play a full role in the workplace means more than just changing our laws. Our work on Family and Medical Leave was as much about fighting old stereotypes as it was about passing legislation.

To really change the workplace, we must also change our society and our culture, and to do that, we have to change people’s hearts and their mindsets, we have to transform our institutions, and we have to clear up persistent misconceptions.

One such misconception is fueled by the debate about the so-called “opt-out revolution”
 a media-created pop crisis in search of a kernel of truth.
 
As best we can trace, it started in 1998 when Brenda Barnes, the head of Pepsi’s North
America division, quit her job to spend more time with her kids. The media bandwagon took off at full speed, convinced that this represented some new trend of women leaving the workforce.

In fact, there is no such trend. The likelihood that a woman will leave her job and go back to the home is half today what it was in 1984.

For all but a tiny sliver of our society, the notion of an “opt-out revolution” is a fantasy, a fun-house mirror view of their daily struggles to be a good parent and do a good job at work. It is a distraction from the impossible choices women and men are forced to make every day because our society and our workplaces have failed so miserably to accommodate working families.

The vast majority of American women don’t have the luxury to “opt-out”. In most families, both parents work because they have to, and millions of them still have trouble making ends meet.

Let’s be clear—the people perpetrating the myth of the opt-out revolution are the same people who never wanted women to enter the workforce in the first place. They are the same people who oppose every family friendly policy that would make life better for women, men and kids.

No one ever said that balancing work and family would be easy, but we do say that families are the backbone of our society. And if we believe that, we need our government and employers to help Americans women and men meet the demands of both job and family.

Instead of “mommy wars” that pit women against each other, and instead of casting judgment on women’s choices, let’s remember how hard we fought to give women choices, and let’s work on improving the context in which those choices today are being made.

And, by the way, let me tell you the real story about what Brenda Barnes did when she “opted out” of Pepsi. Over the next six years, she not only spent time with her kids, but she served on seven corporate boards, was interim president of Starwood Hotels taught at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and chaired the board of her alma mater. Then she went on to become the Chief Operating Officer, and is now the CEO, of a little company based in Chicago, called Sara Lee.

It turns out that “opt-out” was nothing more than an “optical illusion”.

Our next honoree is a person of similar accomplishment, who has been a trail-blazer for women in the financial world. She didn’t set out to be a role model, but by excelling in areas that had once been off limits to women, her footsteps have marked the path of those who will come after her for generations.

As I said earlier, our job is to change perceptions, expectations, and attitudes about women in the workplace and the world. That is something that Madelyn Antoncic does every day. At the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, at Goldman Sachs, at Barclays Capital, and now as a Managing Director and the Chief Risk Officer of Lehman Brothers, Dr. Antoncic has proved that promoting women of intelligence, diligence, and vision, can be the very definition of a safe investment.

Just last week, Treasury and Risk Management Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in finance. Risk Magazine awarded her “Risk Manager of the Year,” and she has received the “2006 Distinguished Alumna” award from the New York University Stern School of Business.

Dr. Antoncic is a woman of extraordinary achievement. We are so pleased that she is with us today. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Dr. Madelyn Antoncic…

[MADELYN ANTONCIC SPEAKS]

For 35 years, the National Partnership for Women and Families has worked to bring change to Congress, the courts, and our culture.

The reason that we’ve remained vibrant and strong is that we’ve stayed true to our core beliefs while being always ready to evolve with the times. Our basic values fairness, equality, opportunity for all are still the lodestars which guide our way. But we know that the concerns we need to address have to change with a changing America.

We were pioneers in creating the Family & Medical Leave Act. Now we are fighting to make family leave, paid leave. In a recent study of 168 countries, there were only 4 that don’t provide any paid maternity leave: Swaziland, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and the United States of America.

We aim to change that. We’ve won paid family leave in California, we’re making headway in Massachusetts, and we won’t stop until one day every American male and female has paid family and medical leave.

We are fighting to give every worker a few paid sick days they can use to care for themselves or a family member. Today, almost half our workforce doesn’t have a single day of paid sick leave. And when it comes to low wage workers it's three quarters of the workforce. No wonder more children are being left home alone sick in Baltimore, MD, than in Ho Chi Minh City. We need Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act.

We are also working tirelessly, to make health care more affordable and accessible and to improve the quality of care women and families receive. Research shows that Americans today have only a 50/50 chance of getting the right health care pretty poor odds considering how much this nation spends on that care.

Poor quality accounts for 30 percent of our runaway health care costs. Two million Americans a year get a hospital-acquired infection and 90,000 die from it. Preventable hospital errors cause more deaths than breast cancer, AIDS and motor vehicle accidents combined. The National Partnership is leading efforts to make our health care system more accountable and to give the public the information it deserves to make good health care decisions. These struggles matter. Imagine just imagine what it would be like to never get a single paid sick day. Imagine having to choose between leaving a sick child home alone, or losing your job. Imagine if every time you walked into a doctor’s office, you played a game of Russian roulette with your health or the health of your child.

That is the reality of daily life for millions of women. And it is up to us to bring them the progress they deserve. With your continued support, we promise to deliver on that progress!

Those of you who know the National Partnership, know that we tend to take on battles that people say cannot be won. But time and again, we have proven that progress is possible—in no small part because of leaders like Senator Christopher Dodd. He believes the impossible can be done. He has the courage to stand for his convictions. And he has the wisdom to chart a successful course. No elected official has been a greater champion of women and families than today’s keynoter.

For some in this room it must be hard to remember what it took to pass the Family & Medical Leave Act. Chris Dodd waged an all- too lonely struggle as he forged the alliances to make this concept a reality. He faced not just opposition to the law, but opposition to the very idea that government has a responsibility to advance and protect working families.

Chris Dodd has been more than just our ready ally. He has been an inspiration, to all of us who work in the vineyards of making America more family-friendly. A father, a veteran of both the Peace Corps and the U.S. Army Reserve, an elected leader who has built a career of reaching across lines of party and dogma, Chris Dodd has demonstrated the possibilities of progress.

It is knowing that there are leaders like Senator Dodd that makes me so hopeful for the future, and makes me believe that our progress over the next 35 years promises to outshine everything we have accomplished so far.

We are so proud to have him as a friend and as today’s keynote honoree. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a very warm welcome for Senator Chris Dodd…

 

Contact

Cindy Romero (202) 986-2600 cromero@nationalpartnership.org

The National Partnership for Women & Families is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to promoting fairness in the workplace, access to quality health care and policies that help women and men meet the dual demands of work and family. More information is available at www.NationalPartnership.org.

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