Conflict & Justice

The State of the Union's working women in 30 all-too-brief seconds


US President Barack Obama speaks at the Costco in Lanham, Maryland, on January 29, 2014 to highlight the importance of raising the federal minimum wage for all Americans. Obama vowed to reverse a tide of economic inequality threatening the American dream Tuesday, seeking to outflank Republicans and revive a second term blighted by self-inflicted wounds and partisan warfare. In his annual State of the Union address, Obama promised to wield his executive powers in a "year of action" to lift up workers, improve education and clean the environment if his foes in Congress balk at more sweeping action.



It was a sobering morning following Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, the whirlwind of television and Twitter play-by-plays, then the immediate Republican responses—sometimes in tones reminiscent of late-night infomercials for antidepressants.

While this year’s iteration of the annual tradition rightfully concentrated on economic opportunity, including cold, hard facts indicating the State of the Union is increasingly unequal, there was one issue within that framework that didn’t get nearly enough attention: gender-based pay inequality in the American workforce.

While there is such a thing as “quality over quantity,” the fact that perhaps the most popular statement of the night came from 30 seconds when Obama compared current policies to those you would see in a TV show set in the 1960s, it was not quite the kind of victory that would thrill women who had to wake up this morning and report to their unfairly paying jobs.

“Today women make up about half of our work force, but they still make about 77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” Obama said. “That is wrong, and in 2014 it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or a sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what? A father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let’s all come together—Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street—to give every woman the opportunity she deserves because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”

The remark took a total of one minute and 12 seconds to make, and was interrupted by 42 seconds of applause. So the one-hour-six-minute speech merely tickled the issue in 30 seconds. But although Obama was brief, he was also right.

According to the United States Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, women made an average of $691 per week to men’s average $854 per week in 2012—meaning women earn less than 81 percent of what men earn.

The same study found that six percent of working women were earning wages or salaries “at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage”—nearly double the percentage of working men earning the same amount.

Despite the fact that more women earn college degrees than men do, and tend to perform better while in school, women who work as chief executives, lawyers, physicians and surgeons, or marketing and sales managers still make significantly less than their male counterparts.

The percentage of women participating in the workforce continues to grow, which is certainly positive. But there is still one thing that is so culturally telling it should wake this country up to the very real ways in which we still perpetuate traditional gender roles.

The number one leading occupation for employed women in 2012 was exactly what it was in 1970: secretaries and administrative assistants.

Mad Men, anyone?