During a swing through Los Angeles on Sunday, California Sen. Kamala Harris touted a plan to force companies to close the wage gap between their male and female employees — or pay a daily penalty equal to 1% of their profits for every 1% of pay gap. She estimated that companies would owe about $180 billion in fines over a decade (which would pay for family leave programs) before new pay policies kicked in and reduced the penalties.
We’re not sure whether this particular proposal is the smartest way to close the frustratingly persistent gender pay gap. The reasons that women collectively earn less than men for the same work are myriad, and there are many proposals for how to solve the problem that deserve consideration. But it is refreshing to see a concrete, tough proposal to address a so-called “women’s issue” get more than passing attention in a presidential campaign. For too long, subjects like paid family leave, child care, sexual harassment, gender discrimination and equal pay have taken a back seat on the debate stage to other (also important) policy issues such as immigration, international trade and healthcare.
To be sure, Hillary Clinton was a supporter of equal pay for equal work and would have no doubt pushed for family leave and other policies that support working parents, and especially mothers, if she hadn’t run up against the nation’s highest glass ceiling. But those issues weren’t a huge part of the campaign discussion or debate. Perhaps that will now change. The cultural climate of 2016 was fundamentally different from that of 2019.
Three years ago the most significant women’s issue was the possibility that the nation might elect its first female president. In the three years since, a new era of activism has sparked the #MeToo movement and motivated women to engage politically. Perhaps it was inevitable that the 2020 Democratic primary race would include more than just a token woman or two among ranks. Of the 23 Democrats hoping to win the party nomination, six are women. And two of them are considered serious contenders: Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been a staunch and vocal champion of equal pay policies. Another candidate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), has made families and women the centerpiece of her campaign.
And the male Democratic candidates support equal pay and paid family leave as well. Of course they do. Not only because it’s the right position, but also because female voters — 59% of whom voted Democratic in the midterm elections — were pivotal in helping Democrats retake the House, and will be just as important to the party in the 2020 presidential race. Politically, Democratic candidates would be fools not to support issues that women care about. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in particular has given women’s rights an important place in his campaign platform. (He and all the other U.S. senators in the race are co-sponsors of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is stalled in the Senate after passing the House).
Abortion is certain to have a central role in the campaign, given the recent laws passed by conservative legislators in some states to restrict and even outlaw a woman’s ability to end a pregnancy. But national paid family leave, which all other developed countries provide, and the Equal Rights Amendment, which has roared back to life in recent years, also deserve a significant place. Even President Trump realizes the importance of paid family leave and has supported providing six weeks of it.