Women's Work

A Labor Department bureau struggles for relevance and survival.

From her spacious corner office overlooking the Capitol dome, Director Shinae Chun presides over the only federal agency dedicated to promoting the interests of working women. The Labor Department Women's Bureau hosts online mentoring programs, financial management seminars and teleconferences on flexible work schedules.

Unfortunately, few of the 59 million working women in this country know about any of those initiatives. The bureau's teleconferences, held about once a month, typically get about 70 callers. One of the bureau's most popular programs, a financial management course called Wi$e Up, garners only 1,000 participants a year. A Nexis search reveals that the Women's Bureau has been mentioned in few major publications over the past several years.

That's a far cry from the 1940s, when bureau staffers frequently wrote for The New York Times Magazine, Glamour and other popular women's magazines, and the bureau was the go-to resource on working women's issues.

Chun knows she has an outreach problem. During a recent interview, when a reporter asked about the number of teleconference participants, a member of her press team suggested e-mailing women's magazines to alert them to the next event; apparently, the bureau had not yet done so. "I will work on that," Chun said.

She might not want to wait too much longer. The Women's Bureau was created in 1920 to "formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women." At the time, women had just received the right to vote, most mothers stayed at home and working women were, for the most part, poor and underpaid. Today, women make up almost half the workforce and have entered professional fields in large numbers. That has some wondering, should the Women's Bureau still exist?

Gender Gap

"It's sexist," says Warren Farrell, former member of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women's board of directors and author of Why Men Earn More (Amacom, 2005). The mere existence of the Women's Bureau implies that women need some kind of special help, he says. "When you protect something, it usually means . . . you think of it as inferior to you in terms of capabilities."

The bureau was founded on the belief that women did need special help. In the 1920s, most working women held low-paying jobs, such as in the garment industry and factories, says Kathleen Laughlin, author of a history of the Women's Bureau, Women's Work and Public Policy: A History of the Women's Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, 1945-1970 (Northeastern University Press, 2000), and associate professor at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis. There were no federal labor standards until the late 1930s, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation. "Now, when you say 'working women,' it no longer refers to a specific group," Laughlin says, because there are so many professional women who do not face the same kinds of vulnerabilities as their predecessors. That makes the bureau's mission harder to define.

Women's groups are quick to point out that there is still plenty of inequality. According to the bureau's 2005 data, women earn 81 percent of what men earn on average. The most popular occupation for women, with 2.6 million workers, is administrative assistant, typically a low-paid job. Women hold only 14.7 percent of seats on Fortune 500 boards of directors, according to Catalyst, a national research firm. And women are less likely than men to have adequate retirement funds, according to the Labor Department.

Whether or not those statistics are problematic depends on your perspective. "We're talking about [pay inequality] as if it's a bad thing," says Carrie Lukas, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Independent Women's Forum in Washington. But women earn less and hold different jobs, "because women are often looking for more flexible schedules and jobs that let us devote more time to our families," she says. Men, on the other hand, prioritize money, which means they choose jobs that allow them to earn more-but that doesn't mean they're better off, Lukas says. "Women have better lives in many ways. They can do things outside of work."

Olga Vives, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, on the other hand, attributes pay inequality to persistent discrimination against women. "By any standard, women are not equal-economically, politically or socially," she says.

The reasons for the pay gap are so complex that even an exhaustive study by the Government Accountability Office could not come up with a definitive explanation. The report (GAO-04-35) points out that the wage difference reported by the Labor Department does not account for work experience, education or choice of profession. The report found that women tend to work less than men do (often because of family obligations), which explains part of the wage difference. The researchers attribute the rest to either discrimination or "other factors"; in other words, they didn't know. Other researchers have suggested that much of the wage difference, especially in professional jobs, can be attributed to the fact that women don't negotiate their salaries as aggressively as men do.

While the debate about unequal pay continues, "poor women are overlooked," says Joan Kuriansky, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women in Washington. While women in professional fields made significant progress during the last century, poor women fell further behind, she says. According to Legal Momentum, a nonprofit in New York dedicated to women's rights, a woman is 45 percent more likely to be poor than a man, and the number of poor women is growing.

And working women across all incomes struggle to balance work and family, especially single mothers, of whom there are more than ever. In 2005, there were 10.4 million single mothers in the United States compared with half that number in 1970, according to the Census Bureau. "The raison d'être for the Women's Bureau is the notion of the breadwinning mother. . . . It is the reason that the Department of Labor really considers maternity and paternity leave, child care and the workday," says Eileen Boris, professor of women's studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Without the bureau, those policy issues would be easily lost, she says.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of Mommy Wars (Random House, 2006), adds: "Seventy percent of moms with kids under the age of 18 have to work, so the fact that the government doesn't do anything to provide child care or encourage child care is crazy. It leaves women out there totally on their own. . . . it's the kind of role government should play."

In other words, many believe there is plenty more work for the bureau to do. "To suggest that the Women's Bureau has accomplished its mission is plainly wrong on its face," says Cynthia Harrison, associate professor at The George Washington University who specializes in women and public policy.

On Probation

The Bush administration partially agrees with that assessment. At ExpectMore.gov, the Web site run by the Office of Management and Budget that displays the administration's ratings of federal agencies and programs, the Women's Bureau has a "results not demonstrated" rating, equivalent to a C-minus grade. The program is on probation while it tries to better define and execute its goals. The administration says the bureau fulfills an existing need, but only barely, and it duplicates the efforts of other federal agencies, such as the Small Business Administration's Office of Women's Business Ownership and the Treasury Department's Financial Literacy and Education Commission.

"They should be quite worried," says Mark Abramson, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, of the bureau's OMB rating. "If agencies want to stay alive, they should demonstrate results." Otherwise, their budgets could be reduced, leading to a "downward spiral," he says, because they can no longer fulfill their missions as well.

Indeed, that downward spiral already might have started. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao has consistently proposed less funding for the Women's Bureau, which already is one of the smallest government agencies. For fiscal 2007, she recommended a decrease to $9.3 million from $9.7 million. It exceeded $10 million before she arrived. Labor also is running two outsourcing projects that could privatize several jobs in the 60-person bureau. According to a Hill staffer familiar with the matter, the targeted positions include social science advisers, a policy position that includes analyzing data and interpreting laws and policies related to the bureau's mission.

Historically, when an agency outgrows its original purpose, one of two things happens. Either agency supporters scramble to reinvigorate and update its mission, thereby proving the need for continued funding, or the agency dies a slow death, losing funding and supporters until it drops away altogether.

Dwight Ink is all too familiar with that latter fate. In 1981, when he was head of the Community Services Administration, an independent agency established by President Kennedy to respond to the needs of the disadvantaged, Congress decided to stop funding the agency. While he wished he had more time to help his employees in their job searches, Ink agreed the agency should be disbanded. "The longer it struggled to survive, the less strength it had," says Ink, now semi-retired at age 84 after serving in policy positions for seven presidents.

But as those who have attempted it have learned, agencies aren't killed easily. They often have loyal supporters who will protest any attempts at defunding. This is true of the Women's Bureau. In August, more than 200 women's organizations, including the National Organization for Women and the American Medical Women's Association, wrote to Secretary Chao, urging her to devote more resources to the Women's Bureau. In September, 100 lawmakers, including Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., now House Speaker, and led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., wrote to the Labor Department protesting its outsourcing plans.

Protest calls shut down the phone lines when Bob Stone, energizer-in-chief under the Clinton administration's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, tried to close the Railroad Retirement Board, which administers pensions for former railroad employees. "The friends and supporters [of agencies] always seem to have a bigger stake in an agency's survival than the man in the street who doesn't know anything about it but would benefit by getting rid of it," Stone says.

To survive, an agency teetering on extinction needs to create an identity "that matches the changed environment," and to figure out what it is "uniquely qualified to provide" by talking to relevant groups and potentially partnering with them, says Robert Durant, professor of public administration and policy at American University in Washington. Saving the Women's Bureau, he adds, "would take a presidential administration that wanted to take that on."

Searching for Relevance

From her perch at the Labor Department, Chun sounds like a woman committed to the fight against gender discrimination. "Women still have a long way to go," she says. As long as the bureau keeps up with contemporary challenges to working women, it will always be relevant, she says. That's why she decided to focus on financial management, confidence and negotiation skills, and information technology training, which she believes are the chief difficulties that working women face today.

"I look at women as not having self-confidence," says Chun. It remains a pervasive problem that keeps them from

succeeding in the workplace even though young women might be more confident than older generations, she says. She recalls a federal employee she met in Ohio who had been stuck at a GS-11 level for

12 years because she was afraid to ask her boss for a promotion. At a program run by the bureau, she learned how to make the request, and got the promotion.

Chun relies on such stories to show that the bureau has an impact despite the low participation numbers. Although the bureau's Web site gets thousands of hits, the number of women actively participating in its programs is much lower. Working Women in Transition, an online mentoring program, had 231 participants in 2005 and 777 in 2006, and Wi$e Up, a financial management course aimed at Gen-Xers, had 722 participants in 2005 and 1,037 in 2006.

Karen Nussbaum, director of the bureau during the first half of the Clinton administration, said those numbers are extremely low. Under her leadership, the bureau reached 300,000 participants in an extensive survey to determine working women's concerns and routinely gathered hundreds of women at community meetings. "There was a genuine connection between women in the country and [they knew] that the government cared about them," she says.

Some of Chun's efforts to update the bureau's activities have made it vulnerable to criticism from both the right and left. Lukas of the Independent Women's Forum says the government shouldn't be in the business of providing financial management lessons. "There are plenty of financial services companies that try to reach out to women. . . . I don't see that as the proper role of government," she says.

As for teaching soft skills, such as confidence building, books ranging from Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (Princeton University Press, 2003) to Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel (Warner Business Books, 2004) teach women many of the lessons that the bureau is trying to impart, albeit to a wider audience.

At the same time, Kuriansky of Wider Opportunities for Women says the focus on financial management "presumes you have money to manage. The reality is, for many, many women, you do not have enough income to make ends meet." The focus of the bureau, she says, should be on helping women earn sufficient incomes to provide for themselves and their families. Under Nussbaum, the bureau focused on job rights, including benefits such as leave and equal pay. "That clearly is not the mission of this Women's Bureau," Nussbaum says. The information she posted on the Women's Bureau Web site about those topics has since been removed. (Chun says publications are removed when they become outdated.)

Nussbaum, now executive director of the AFL-CIO's community affiliate Working America, also worked closely with women's and labor organizations to reach more women. While Chun's bureau reaches out to women's business groups, universities and community organizations, it is largely at odds with women's and labor organizations, which have criticized its priorities. Chun also has shifted away from policy issues.

In the past, the bureau has been a strong advocate for policy changes that would help the working poor such as fair labor standards and a higher minimum wage; Chun says the bureau will stay out of the minimum wage debate. "Our job is to highlight best practices, so that other employers learn from what's been done. . . . We're taking no particular position," she says.

Chun says the bureau simply is giving its customers what they have asked for in focus groups and that it addresses the concerns of all working women, including low-income women. She says most Wi$e Up participants are low-income and the Working Women in Transition program, hosted by the University of Kentucky in Lexington, teams with community groups to target Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients in Arkansas, incarcerated women in Vermont and former substance abusers in Kentucky.

Chun, who grew up in South Korea, where at family dinners she received vegetable soup while her brothers received the more precious beef, advises women to be optimistic about their job options. There's always going to be discrimination, she says. She recommends focusing on opportunities, instead.

And sometimes, nice girls do get the corner office. Just ask Chun.


Women's earnings as a percentage of men's by age.
Total (Age 26 and over) 81.0%
16 to 19 92.1%
20 to 24 94.0%
25 to 34 89.1%
35 to 44 75.6%
45 to 54 75.4%
55 to 64 74.7%
65 and older 76.4%
Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec