As to be expected, President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address was followed by lots of media “spin” and discussions for days afterword in which various experts attempted to analyze the speech and what it means for the president and the nation. One of the responses I was surprised to hear was the idea that Obama didn’t bring up any “big ideas” in the speech. I beg to differ.
Obama spoke frankly about a number of economic issues facing workers within the USA that are often left unaddressed. He advocated for a raise in minimum wage and announced that he would use an executive order to increase the minimum wage for employees working under federal contracts to $10.10 an hour. He also highlighted businesses (both large and small) who pay their employees a wage above the minimum required by law and called on policy makers around the country to do more to move toward the creation of a living wage. No one working full time should live in poverty. Period.
Obama also called out workplace policies that he said belong in a “Mad Man episode,” referring to the fact that women make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make and the lack of workplace policies to support parents. While these ideas are not new, they rarely make the center stage of political discussion, despite the fact that they have an enormous impact on the lives of most Americans. What makes these ideas “big” is the President’s assertion that it is time for our nation to address them and change the way our workplaces function.
Despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1973, making it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, a wage gap has persisted in the United States, decreasing over the decades, but not closing. Most figures indicate that currently, women on average make 77 cents on the dollar of what men make. When economists attempt to consider all the factors that contribute to the gap, about 5% can be explained only by the gender of the individual. Further, many of the other factors that contribute to the gap (field of study, for example) are impacted gender stereotypes and discrimination. (See my earlier blog post "Stop Calling Women Stupid" ) Understanding and eradicating the gender wage gap is complex, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that it cannot be solved. But it is hard to find solutions if everyone keeps denying the problem. I am amazed how often students entering my courses have never even heard of the wage gap--which is why its inclusion in Obama's speech was so meaningful.
In addition to the wage gap, Obama made reference to workplace policies regarding pregnancy and childcare. Many experts agree that the US is far behind other countries in family friendly workplace policies. The Family Medical Leave Act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have a new child or a sick family member, but some small business are exempted from this law. This act exists in stark contrast to other countries which provide paid leave to both mothers and fathers and various protections against discrimination of pregnant women. According to Stephanie Cootz, a combination of social and political forces may be to blame for the slow progress made on this issue in the USA.
We will have to wait to see whether/how President Obama puts his statements into action. But in an era where most politicians have refused to even touch these issues it is refreshing to hear them addressed in the State of the Union. Because, as Obama said, the current condition of the policies is frankly, embarrassing. It is time for our nation to own up to these problems and work on real solutions. Let's leave the Mad Men policies to the TV writers and move into the 21st century.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.