The summer of 2013 will go down in the history books as the time where equality, on a federal level, was finally applied to same-sex couples. After a much anticipated decision with great social implications, the country finally witnessed national progress. Unfortunately, this spirit of equality did not extend to our own state government and the Women’s Equality Act, leaving us to question whether our own state government is willing to take an affirmative position on equality for women.
Given the availability of news resources in today’s information age, it is unlikely that there is a lawyer in this county that hasn’t heard that the Supreme Court of the United States struck down in late June a provision of a federal law (DOMA) that denied same-sex couples various benefits, including tax, health and pensions readily available to heterosexual couples.
Since the ruling there have been countless articles on the decision and the impact that it will have on same sex marriages and benefits, particularly in California, the most populous state. As such, I will not recap those opinions and summaries, but rather reference a prior article written by GRAWA’s past President, Kimberly Duguay outlining the legal issues and social implications, which is viewable at www.grawa.org.
GRAWA and the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (which filed amicus briefs in both cases) have supported marriage equality and are thrilled that the equal administration of justice can now be applied to relationships involving same-sex couples.
While pleased to see equality afforded to same-sex couples by the Supreme Court, it was just as disappointing to watch our own state government fail to pass the New York State Women’s Equality Act. As we live in a state where our two newest Court of Appeals judges are women and we finally have a woman recommended for the Western District Federal Court bench, there is no doubt that there are qualified female attorneys throughout the state rising to the top of their profession. The same can be said in almost every profession throughout the state.
Despite women excelling in their respective professions, they are not paid, hired or promoted at the same rate as their male counterparts. As Gov. Cuomo wrote in an op-ed article, women in New York state earn only 84 percent of what men earn and will earn $500,000 less over their respective lifetimes than their male counterparts. Additionally, women with children are less likely to be recommended for employment and promotions. The time has come for New York to finally rectify these inequalities through the Women’s Equality Act.
We live and work in a community where we find it hard to believe such statistics are accurate; that employers in Rochester are paying their female employees less than their male counterparts and are failing to hire and promote those with children. Yet, it is a fact of life for women throughout the state and even here in Rochester.
While Gov. Cuomo has referred to New York state as the “equality capital of the nation”, women in New York state should question the validity of Gov. Cuomo’s statement in light of the legislature’s failure to pass the Women’s Equality Act. It truly is time for New York state to move to the front of equality rights and demonstrate to the nation that inequality in the workforce will no longer be tolerated and have significant repercussions.
While these issues should be addressed on a state level, they must also be addressed on a local level. It must become socially unacceptable for an employer to pay any woman less than her male counterpart. Simply stated, an environment must be created so that there are repercussions significant enough to dissuade the perpetuation of this form of inequality.
The legal and legislative communities should not be the only ones monitoring and policing these inequalities. Rather, a societal shift in acceptability is needed, where our society no longer tolerates women with children not being promoted or hired and women earning 16 percent less than their male counterparts.
While the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York and GRAWA strongly support the Women’s Equality Act, the passing of the legislation is just the first step in employment equality. A societal shift needs to be made where continued discussions and legislation are needed to begin to address this inequality that has plagued women within the workforce in New York state
Melanie S. Wolk is special counsel with the law firm of Goldberg Segalla LLP, the 31st president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys and recently gave birth to her first child on June 18, Redmond Menter Wolk.