On May 31, the Chicago-based nonprofit Women Employed (WE) will celebrate 45 years of speaking up, speaking out, and making change at its signature fundraising event, The Working Lunch. Speaking up, speaking out, and making change is more than the theme of this anniversary luncheon — it’s also a description of WE’s steadfast advocacy for the advancement of working women over the past four and a half decades.
45 years of speaking up: WE supporters in 1973 (seen above) and in 2018 (below).
In 1973, discrimination against women in the workplace was the norm. Office secretaries had few rights, women were barred from many professions and routinely denied opportunities for promotion, and sexual harassment was par for the course — it’s safe to say working conditions for women weren’t ideal. In response, a small group of working women in downtown Chicago decided to form an organization to improve workplaces. None of those founders could have envisioned the changes that would eventually be ushered in by the organization they built.
Early on, WE demanded respect, fair salaries, and opportunities for advancement for women who were grappling with disrespect and discrimination in offices throughout the Chicago Loop. Major improvements in workplace gender equity soon followed: in the 1970s, WE helped draft the federal rules that officially defined sexual harassment as illegal sex discrimination, launched major campaigns to promote fair employment practices in industries like banking and insurance, and frequently took the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to task by challenging its weak enforcement of equal opportunity laws. By the end of the 1980s, WE had helped secure a landmark $14 million settlement for female and minority employees who had faced discrimination in Chicago and shepherded in numerous other victories for women in the workplace. But millions of women across America were still stuck in low-paid jobs with no benefits and little opportunity for advancement.
Since then, WE has been a leader in developing programs to help more women access the education and training they need to advance to better jobs. Women Employed is a recognized leader on post-secondary educational access, success for disadvantaged individuals, and effective workforce development strategies. WE’s efforts have improved financial aid for low-income Illinoisans, funding it more fully, defending it from cuts, and making it more responsive to the needs of low-wage women. In 2017, WE won a $30 million dollar increase in state need-based financial aid during tight financial times and has been a key contributor to programmatic reform, making community colleges more efficient and effective for adults. WE has played a critical role in the City Colleges of Chicago’s expansion of bridge programs — programs targeted toward adults who have low skills and need to quickly move into occupational training at the post-secondary level. In addition, WE developed Career Foundations, a revolutionary curriculum that helps adult students map out a career path and make the successful transition to college. As a result, thousands of low-skilled Chicagoans can access education and training opportunities through community-based organizations and the City Colleges of Chicago, to increase their skills and marketability in the workforce.
At the same time, WE has spurred lawmakers to pass legislation to make more jobs — at all levels — into good jobs that allow women to support themselves and their families. WE worked with a national coalition to secure the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 — a groundbreaking law that, for the first time, guaranteed millions of people the right to take job-protected leave for their or a family member’s illness, or to care for a new baby. WE’s expert testimony before U.S. House and Senate committees also helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which strengthened federal penalties for discrimination. More recently, WE has led passage of the Illinois Equal Pay Act and the Illinois Pregnancy Fairness Act, as well as a law guaranteeing paid sick time for hundreds of thousands of workers in Chicagoland, and a Student Loan Bill of Rights that protects student borrowers in Illinois from predatory lender practices.
Women Employed has been extremely successful, but the organization know there’s still work to be done so that all women can achieve their aspirations, gain economic security, and support themselves and their families. Eighty percent of minimum wage workers are adults, and 59 percent are women. The unpredictable scheduling of work hours for those employed in hospitality and retail jobs leaves millions of workers struggling to make ends meet, not to mention schedule child care or attend school. America is the only developed country in the world without paid family leave. And in the past few months, reports of sexual harassment have rocked every industry — from film to farming. In the face of these continuing barriers to true equity, WE plans to double down on its advocacy on behalf of working women and their families.
At The Working Lunch, more than 1,000 supporters, community and business leaders, advocates, and public officials will gather in downtown Chicago in support of WE’s mission. In the room will be some of the key leaders of today’s women’s movement — Ai-Jen Poo, who recently joined Meryl Streep on the red carpet to say #TimesUp and is the cofounder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Mónica Ramírez, co-founder and president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, whose open letter to Time magazine about farmworker women sparked the creation of the Times Up Fund; and Andrea Pino, co-founder of the national survivor advocacy organization End Rape on Campus, whose work and personal journey is prominently featured in the Emmy-nominated film “The Hunting Ground.”
The three will be joined by veteran journalist Laura Washington on the stage at The Working Lunch, for what promises to be a timely and electrifying conversation about speaking up, speaking out, and making change. As Women Employed prepares to celebrate a milestone anniversary at this event, it’s clear the organization is also well-placed to leverage its 45 years of history to further its vision of economic equity for all women.