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Building on a Century of Progress

Women workers sitting on a steel beam in 1920
Women workers circa 1920, the year the Women's Bureau was founded.

What do an English text book, a name badge and desk plate and a baby pacifier have in common? These were four of the items the Women’s Bureau presented to President Bill Clinton in a sealed time capsule for the agency’s 75th anniversary in 1995. These items, along with a movie script, a computer disk, sewing supplies, an EEG printout and more, represented the trades of 22 working women. While much has changed since then, there are striking similarities in the workplace challenges described in 1995 and those voiced by women in 2021 – challenges exacerbated over the last year by the devastation of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, the capsule broke before our centennial anniversary last year – in some ways an apt metaphor of the challenges working women have long endured.

For more than a century, the Women’s Bureau has supported women workers on their professional journeys, advocating for workplace and policy change that address gender-based employment inequities out of the realm of the purely personal and embeds them firmly in public discussion of policy solutions. We have been and continue to be diligent reporters, prescient visionaries and ardent advocates, documenting the experiences of women on the job, anticipating future trends and drawing new roadmaps to cultivate better workplaces.

COVID-19 has amplified the importance of the Women’s Bureau’s mission. It has brought the essential nature of the paid and unpaid work that women do into stark relief – from the frontlines of public health, education, caregiving and food service, to our own homes. It has revealed the glaring disconnect between the fundamental necessity of certain work and the correspondingly low wages and benefits for those who perform the work, predominantly women of color. 

The global pandemic has made more urgent our call for paid leave, accessible and affordable child care, equal pay and health insurance. It has elaborated what we have always known: that women’s work is valuable work, and that workplace flexibility and family-friendly practices enhance businesses operations and economic productivity. With the right work-family supports, combined with workplaces free from discrimination and harassment, and level playing fields where equal opportunity wins the day, women and families thrive, and industry prospers.

Over the years, the Women’s Bureau has articulated novel frameworks to improve the workplace for women. From its first decades, when the agency’s mission was shaped by the industrial revolution and two world wars, the Women’s Bureau continually adapted to the increasing volume and diversity of women workers.

In the 1960s, the final report of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, outlined a unified agenda to address the barriers faced by women in the workplace, including the need for paid leave, affordable child care and elimination of racism against black women.

In the 1970s, we published curricula to move women into the trades. By the 1980s we held the first conference on “contingent workers,” and established the work and family clearinghouse. In the 1990s our research report, “Unnecessary Losses” documented the need for the Family and Medical Leave Act and paid leave.

At the dawn of the 21st century, we pushed for equity in STEM jobs and the emerging tech sector and we called attention to the unique challenges of women with disabilities; immigrant and Native women; women veterans; military spouses; black, brown and Asian women; teen parents and older women workers.

As we look toward the next hundred years of service, we recognize that we have a unique opportunity to build on the work of our predecessors and create new and better solutions for working women. The pandemic eroded women’s employment gains in material ways, the extent and persistence of which is not yet fully understood. The American workplace is constantly changing, bringing new (and in some cases exacerbating all-too-familiar) challenges. The difficulties are real, but we have the tools and the blueprint to construct a more just and equitable workplace. We must meet this moment with a once in a generation opportunity to transform conditions for work and workers that build our economy. That means implementing policies that deliver the opportunity, flexibility and equity to level the playing field for the diverse community of America’s women workers.

Wendy Chun-Hoon is the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. Follow the Women’s Bureau on Twitter at @WB_DOL.

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