NEWS: Group is pushing to make workplaces more women-friendly

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By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  A new advocacy agency says it has a solution for a looming shortage of workers: make the workplace more woman-friendly to recruit and retain female employees.

South Carolina is expected to face a shortage of more than 26,000 workers per year over the next decade, according to a University of South Carolina Moore School of Business study released in April. It says the shortage is a result of the rapid growth of the advanced manufacturing sector and the state’s historic low unemployment rate, now at 3.9 percent.

But there’s a number of obstacles that keep the state’s existing female population from taking open jobs. The Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN)  is tackling two hurdles in the General Assembly now by working on a bill to make contraceptives more accessible as well as a legislative proposal that would reasonable accommodations to help pregnant employees stay on the job.

Both bills have passed the House and, when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, the Senate will take them up.

WREN is approaching its first anniversary. The organization’s board chair is women’s-rights champion Jennet Robinson Alterman of Charleston, former head of the city’s Center for Women.

“WREN is the right organization at the right time with the right people with the right kind of support,” Alterman said in a recent conversation with Statehouse Report. She added that it took years to design the new family-focused, nonpartisan nonprofit.

Last month, South Carolina was ranked near the bottom for women’s equality in a WalletHub report. The state is 47th in the nation — mostly due to its lack of access to health care and few women political representatives.

“South Carolina has almost the furthest to go toward reaching basic equality,” WREN CEO Ann Warner said. “That’s a bad thing for women. It’s also a bad thing for the overall prosperity of our state because women are often the ones who are taking care of families and increasingly the ones working … Their families suffer and the well-being of our state suffers.”

WREN commissioned the USC study to take to businesses and policy leaders to help its advocacy efforts for making the workplace more inviting for women workers.

A multi-billion potential

While the pay gap between what men and women in South Carolina declined in recent years, women still make 27 percent lower wages than their male counterparts, according to the Moore School report. A full-time female employee earns about $16,000 less per year, even when the study controlled for race, occupation and age.

The study also found women are more likely to be out of the labor force than men. The study fingered that likelihood as one of the reasons women may also be paid less over time.

Warner

Warner said there are multiple factors that hold women back, but most of them are related to balancing work and home life.

“Most women in our state have both breadwinning as well as caretaking responsibilities,” Warner said. She added than 70 percent of low-wage workers are female.

“With those jobs, very often, there’s not access to health insurance or paid sick leave so you have to make very difficult choices,” she said. “Those are huge burdens. That’s not only about keeping a job but also about economic mobility … You, frankly, have a hard time making ends meet.”

If more women were able and encouraged to work more, their presence would increase the state’s workforce from 48.3 percent to 54 percent by 2025, and would generate $5.2 billion in statewide economic activity, according to the study. The study also said more women in the workforce would decrease the gender pay gap from 27 percent to 19 percent.

“Inequality between women and men in our state certainly holds women back, but also men back and the strength of our economy as a whole,” Warner said.

WREN is now taking the study’s results to the private and public sector. On the policy side, the nonprofit says legislation can help make the workplace friendlier and more inviting for women — helping to retain them as they plan for whatever happens in their home life.

The legislation

Two items of legislation have received WREN’s support this legislative session: The South Carolina Pregnancy Accommodations Act and a bill that would allow women to access 12-months worth of contraceptives through their employer’s insurance.

According to WREN, two-thirds of pregnant women in South Carolina were employed last year. The nonprofit has thrown its support toward a statewide bill that would mandate employers to offer reasonable and often free accommodations for pregnant employees.

Alterman

“Some have said, ‘Oh that’s just common sense, you don’t need to legislate that,’” Alterman said. But in talking to her own obstetrician, she discovered the doctor had to write numerous notes to employers to make accommodations for her pregnant patients. “Just make reasonable accommodations. Too much of the time, a lot of pregnant employees end up leaving because they can’t do their job.”

Reasonable accommodations would include providing a stool for sitting, allowing an extra bathroom break, letting employees have water bottle and providing a space for a lactating mother to express breast milk in private. The bill is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Another WREN-backed bill would allow a woman to obtain a 12-month supply of contraceptives, which would aid with family planning and also benefit women in the workforce, Alterman said.

When the bill passed the House, it made headlines because some said it would put undue expenses on insurance companies and the state. Advocates counter that it is an investment that will pay off by preventing unintended pregnancies. The bill is now in the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

WREN is gearing up for more work in the public and private sector, reaching out to businesses and providing more opportunities to learn about women in the workforce in the coming months.

“I’m really proud of the fact that WREN has strong relationships with legislators and citizens, in general, who consider themselves Republican, Democrat and Independent,” Warner said.  “What we’re talking about is equal opportunity and that’s something that most people can get behind and support. She added South Carolina could not alleviate poverty, advance economic opportunity or enhance education if it “has not truly equipped women to lead.”

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One Comment

  1. Lindsay – good article! You may want to start with successful woman-owned and woman dominated business like High-Purity Standards, Inc. in North Charleston — 40+ chemists manufacturing certified reference standards that are shipped all over the world — CEO is Connie Hayes.

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