Imagine you are a 26-year-old American woman who has just had her first child. You work as a receptionist, and make just enough to get by. You took a couple of weeks off to give birth — you can’t have a baby in an office. But for that time you gave up your entire salary.
Legally, you’re now entitled to 10 more weeks off work, the critical first months of a child’s life. However, your employer doesn’t have to pay anything at all for those weeks, and bills — including rent and student debt — won’t disappear. Giving up your entire income is just not an option.
This situation is typical: the vast majority (86%) of Americans have access to a grand total of zero days’ paid leave to look after a new baby.
“This will sound ridiculous to people in Europe, but we only typically get six weeks of parental leave, and it’s not job-guaranteed and it’s not paid,” Emily Murase, the Director of San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women (DOSW), told Apolitical.
“The US doesn’t put gender at the top of its agenda”
Murase’s city is now taking matters into its own hands; San Francisco has passed new provisions that are the most expansive in the entire country. In 2016, it gave new mothers and fathers, including single-sex, adoptive and foster parents, the right to six weeks of fully paid leave for a new baby. The law covers everyone working in firms with 20 employees or more.
And this groundbreaking parental leave law is just one of a number of gender equality initiatives the city and its women’s department, the only one of its kind in the US, are pioneering. “We are really focused on women and gender equity in the workplace, and we have a whole range of family-friendly policies,” Murase said.
“The US doesn’t put gender at the top of its agenda. Unlike other countries that have very well developed policy infrastructure for women, the US just doesn’t have that,” she added. DOSW was set up in 1975 after years of advocacy from local women, and through a voter initiative, it has since been written into the San Francisco charter, meaning it can only be removed by a popular vote.
So how good is it to be a working woman in San Francisco, and how much difference has Murase’s unique department made?
The difference San Francisco’s fully paid parental leave law makes is already clear. Across the rest of California, companies are required to pay just 55% of the salaries of workers who ask to spend time with a new baby. Meanwhile, in 2017 — the first year of San Francisco’s law when only companies with 50 or more employees were forced to comply — there was already a 6% increase among women taking leave (compared to a negligible increase statewide) and a 28% increase among men (compared to 3-9% statewide).
The disproportionate increase in men taking time off has advantages for women, too. If only women take time off, they often fall behind in the workplace, perpetuating the pay gap and damaging their workplace opportunities. Countries like Sweden and Norway have long recognised this: for years, they have offered special “daddy leaves”; fully paid leave that fathers can use or lose and can’t transfer to their female partners.
Another striking new policy for mothers is the lactation bill. Women with break time and private spaces are more than two times as likely to be breastfeeding exclusively at six months — something recommended by the American Academy of Paediatricians — but less than half have the workplace support they need.
As of early 2018, employers in San Francisco must give their workers lactation breaks and a location to lactate, and must have clear policies explaining how employees can make requests for these. All new buildings in the city over 15,000 square feet are also now required to put in private lactation rooms.
And, employees in the city now have the legal right to ask for flexible work arrangements or for a more predictable work schedule — without fear of retaliation. The idea is to make balancing the demands of work and family easier; it has been based on similar rights in the UK, Australia, and Germany.
Murase and her team are also worried about the gender pay gap. In the latest figures from 2014, compared to white men, white women in the city earned 77 cents to the dollar. “But, there is very clearly a difference across ethnicity,” Murase pointed out. Latina women only earn 50 cents to the white male dollar, Asian women 42 cents, and African American women just 39 cents.
“There is very clearly a difference across ethnicity”
In response, DOSW has recently begun a series of salary negotiation workshops for women, “because that’s the single most effective intervention that will accelerate closing the gender pay gap,” Murase said. While the scheme is still at an early stage, similar training has already proven successful in Boston, where the city has taught thousands of women how to demand more money at work.
Another flagship intervention the city is trialling on equal pay is a ban on employers asking women their previous salaries, effective from July 2018. When women regularly make less than men, basing new salaries on previous earnings just perpetuates the cycle of inequality.
So does San Francisco work for working women?
According to several indicators, San Francisco is, however, fast becoming one of the best places to be a working woman.
The Social Science Research Council measures the wellbeing of Americans using its American Human Development Index. It looks at the components experts say are critical to a good life, including health, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. According to data from that index, San Francisco is the second best US city for women, ranking only after Washington, DC.
And, according to the Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index — the only global, gender-specific index that compares cities’ ability to attract and foster women-owned firms — San Francisco is the second best city in the entire world for female entrepreneurs.
“We like to say we’re small but mighty”
San Francisco’s one-of-a-kind women’s department has been at the forefront of many of the initiatives that have brought the city this far. It is a small team — currently just seven full-time employees — but it has spearheaded remarkable change and has the drive to push even further.
“We like to say we’re small but mighty,” Murase said.
(Picture credit: Pexels)