DOWNEY: Gender Equality Vital, Now More than Ever

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In late January, our country witnessed an incredible movement and mobilization of citizens of every race, creed, gender, and background in the form of the Women’s March on Washington. Here at home in Monmouth County, we had nearly six thousand marchers in Asbury Park, who stood up for gender equality and spoke out with a unified voice that was impossible to ignore. When I addressed the crowd, I was completely inspired and awestruck.

In my own life, I am no stranger to gender discrimination and stereotyping.  As an attorney, people are sometimes shocked and surprised to see me, as a woman, walking into the courtroom with my clients. I’ve been confused for a court reporter more times than I can count. Part of the reason I decided to run for office in the first place was because I was sick and tired of gender discrimination in our state and in our country.

It is vital, now more than ever, that we translate our energy into action. For me, that means legislative action. To that end, I have focused on three measures that will empower women in the workplace, and move us closer to economic gender equality.

Women still earn 21 percent less than men in the workplace, and that wage gap is even more severe for women of color. Wage inequality often plagues women for the entirety of their careers, making it even harder for working women to provide for their families. That is why the New Jersey Legislature overwhelmingly passed a measure to close the gender wage gap and strengthen wage protections for women in the workplace.  Despite Governor Christie’s thoughtless veto of that bill, my District Mate Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling and I have called for an override vote, and will continue fighting until this bill has become law.

Once a woman is paid less than her male counterparts for equal work, that inequality can follow her around for the rest of her career. To break that cycle, I have introduced legislation to prevent employers from inquiring about worker’s wage and salary history. All employees should be paid based on their merits, not based on their salary history or their gender.

Finally, I was proud last month to testify on behalf of my new proposal to establish the Office for Women’s Advancement within the state Department of Labor. This office would have power and authority to conceptualize and carry out programs to facilitate full and equal participation of women in the workplace. Beyond just cultivating gender equality in the workplace, this is a common-sense measure that will empower and strengthen our state’s middle class.

As a mother of two young girls, I want them to grow up in a world where they have every opportunity to succeed, where they will never be held back because of their gender.  I know that our state and our communities will always press forward for equality at every level, for all people. Of this, I am more sure than ever.

Assemblywoman Joann Downey represents the 11th District in the New Jersey General Assembly. Op-Ed originally published in The Coaster.

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