Change Maker: POWHERNY


New York women have not attained economic equality with men. Though strides have been made with New York State’s “Time To Care” campaign (advocating for paid family leave) and the Women’s Equality Agenda (strengthening workplace protections), much more needs to be done.

No one knows this better than Beverly Neufeld, Founder and President of POWHER NEW YORK, a non-profit linking people, organizations, and ideas to address a broad range of women’s economic issues.

We got a chance to speak with Beverly about the work she is doing to shake things up and to improve the lives of New York women.

How does New York compare to other states in terms of gender equality?

California is the leader with a history of pushing new laws and having some of the strongest protections for women, prohibiting employers from paying employees of the opposite sex less for equal work. In 2015, they further solidified these protections, offering clarification around what constitutes “equal work.”

Massachusetts is a close second with its passage in August 2016 of a suite of laws, including a measure preventing employers from asking for salary history. This is important for women’s pay equity, because many women start out in very low-paying jobs and find their wages follow them from job to job.

In New York, 9 out of 10 points in Governor Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Agenda passed, as did minimum wage increases for many employees. But we still have work to do. Advocates are pushing change, elected officials are introducing legislation, and institutions like the NYC’s Commission on Gender Equity is a step in the right direction. A NYS Commission on the Status of Women would really help propel this work forward.

In your estimation, is passage of pay equity measures enough to keep women on equal footing in the workplace?

No. It is not even close. People think that when pay equity measures pass, the job is done. But the reality is women remain vulnerable to unequal practices in the workplace, because of cultural forces, as well as discrimination. They are the ones who are usually primary caregivers to children and in cases when relatives or spouses become ill, the burden falls on women as well. Paid family leave, maternity leave, child care, coupled with more flexible work schedules are needed. Addressing women’s economic inequality means looking beyond simply pay.

Is there any credibility to critics who argue that each job has a unique set of qualifications and responsibilities so it is not feasible to think about salary equity from one worker to another?

It underscores the difficulty, especially with private employers who have no incentive to standardize job functions and who are able to rely on past salary history as a guide to setting salaries. The public sector has been the most responsive in terms of taking a hard look at what people are doing in their jobs, outlining responsibilities and paths for advancement and discerning whether pay disparities are warranted.

When we talk about the “pay gap” between men and women, what exactly do we mean by that?

The pay gap is the difference in men’s and women’s median earnings, usually reported as either the earnings ratio between men and women or as an actual pay gap. The American Association of University Women’s latest report calculates the national gap at 20%, but there are state by state differences, as well as differences by age, ethnicity, and disability status.

New York actually performs the best of the 50 states in terms of the pay gap. But since the calculation is based on median income, it masks how much women at the lower end of the wage range are faring. For African American women, the gap in NY is 66 cents, which is as bad as the national statistics, and the average Latina has to work 22 months – until November 1 – to earn as much as the average white male earns in 12 months!

Is the gender pay gap exclusively a women’s issue?

No. Most families depend on two paychecks to get by. When women earn less, it affects men and children as well. There is definitely a national will to change it. But it is complicated. There are nuances to the discussion that get lost in the debate. And as I mentioned previously, when it comes to women, it is about so much more than just pay.

If you could name a model city for gender equity, which would it be?

San Francisco. In 1998 the women of San Francisco got together and adopted local ordinances related to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Sadly, the U.S. was the only developed nation not to ratify CEDAW nationally. So it shows the importance of local movements in affecting positive change for women.

CEDAW’s implementation in San Francisco means that all decisions related to how that city runs are looked at through the lens of gender. This affects everything from street lighting (a safety issue for women) to license issuance (ensuring the process does not disadvantage those with childcare responsibilities).

Basically, a gender analysis methodology gets applied to City departments, budget cuts, appointed policy bodies, citywide initiatives, and, even the private sector. It is remarkable.

Of all the things that get overlooked when it comes to gender equity, which would you like to bring more attention to?

The devaluing of women’s work. It has a long history and is alive and well today. We pay childcare workers less than we do janitors. As a society, we claim that children are the future and that elders deserve dignity and respect in old age, but the way we treat the workers – mostly women – who take care of them does not reflect those values. They receive poverty wages, have no benefits, and fear for their families’ health and well-being, as they care for our loved ones. And with Baby Boomers aging and millennials starting families, the demand for caregivers is ballooning. We can help women move into better paying professions, but this work is important and should be respected. In our country that means higher wages.