Today marks the 50th anniversary of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation into law on July 2, 1964, for the first time in the nation’s history, federal law prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
Title VII has opened up a world of opportunity for women in the workplace. In 1964, women made up only 35 percent of the workforce. Pregnant workers were often kicked out of the workplace the moment they started showing. Women were limited to certain occupations based solely on the fact that they were women. Today, women make up half of the workforce and 40 percent are sole or primary breadwinners for their families.
Despite tremendous progress, there is still a long way to go. For many women, particularly women working in low-wage jobs and women of color, discrimination remains an all too real reality in the workplace. Pregnant workers who have a medical need for temporary modifications in job policies or duties in order to continue working safely through their pregnancies are often denied these accommodations and forced out of their jobs instead, even when employers are already providing accommodations to workers who need them because of disabilities or injuries. Women working in the same job as men are still paid less based on the false assumption that women do not “need” fair wages, because they do not have breadwinning responsibilities.
And women remain concentrated in low-wage jobs, while being underrepresented in higher-wage jobs that are primarily held by men. For example, women are still only 2.6 percent of workers in the construction industry. Women who do work in construction are often met with sexual harassment and hostility, and stereotyped assumptions about their capabilities to do the job. Unequal access to jobs primarily held by men negatively affects women’s income, as traditionally male fields pay higher wages and have a lower wage gap than those dominated by women.
Women across the workforce still experience harassment. Twenty-five percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment at work. In 2013, over 30,000 charges of harassment were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state and local Fair Employment Practice Agencies, 82 percent of which were brought by women. And those are just the cases we know about. Sixty percent of workers who experienced harassment said they never reported it.
Yet last year, a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court decision weakened worker protections from harassment. And forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts and limits on workers’ ability to band together have made it increasingly difficult for women to gain redress through the courts.
Achieving the promise of Title VII requires strengthening our nondiscrimination laws and stepping up enforcement of existing laws. For example, the Paycheck Fairness Act would help ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would make it unmistakably clear that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to workers who have a medical need for them arising out of pregnancy. The Fair Employment Protection Act would restore strong protections from harassment in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act [PDF] would ensure that women can come together to enforce their rights to a workplace free from discrimination, and the Arbitration Fairness Act would safeguard their ability to do so in court. The anniversary of Title VII is a moment not just for looking backward, but for redoubling our commitment to the principles it enshrines, through enactment of these protections.