By Rep. Chris Lee
This following op-ed appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday, May 17, 2011
There is nothing more difficult than writing about women's issues — as a man.
It is often hard to understand the perspective of the opposite sex and the unique challenges women face daily. Yet, we must not lose focus on the ongoing inequities between men and women in workplaces throughout Hawaii. Closing this gender gap is an obligation that will benefit us all.
We have already come far. There were just three women in the Hawaii Legislature when Congresswoman Patsy Mink passed Title IX in 1972. Today there are 26. Changes to our laws and priorities have helped more women attend college, and today more women graduate than men.
Yet, for all our progress, working women still face frustrating obstacles and impossible choices. In March, after months of searching, my friend Stacie finally found a good job. She is now pregnant, but scared she cannot afford enough time off and will be forced to choose between her family and her career. It would help if her husband could stay home with their child, but his job does not offer paid paternity leave.
For women like Stacie, making ends meet can be even more difficult because, on average, a woman in Hawaii still makes $9,934 less each year than a man. This inequity hurts women and hurts our families. It especially hurts single mothers, and two out of three cannot afford basic necessities like food, rent and health care.
Women still face an uphill battle to improve Hawaii's labor laws. Despite strong advocates, bills to address equal pay in the workplace and help women balance dueling career and family expectations routinely take a back seat to other issues.
It does not help that only a third of our legislators are women. The Women's Caucus of the Democratic Party recently pointed out that women hold only two of 10 leadership positions in the state House. While having more female legislators might help address these issues, in the last two elections fewer than a third of all candidates were women. Unfortunately, many women I know who considered running ultimately decided against it because of family and financial commitments.
Despite this, more women are involved in political advocacy today than men and out-vote men in every election. Women under age 35 are the most active, and 7 percent more show up to the polls each year than their male counterparts.
The challenge is helping people understand how we can address ongoing gender inequity. Stacie votes in every election, but has never heard a candidate make women's issues a priority. Especially now, it is hard to campaign for better family leave, better benefits and higher pay when many people — men and women — do not even have jobs.
Yet, the gender gap women still face is basic discrimination that we simply cannot ignore. Women deserve the opportunity to pursue a successful career and be paid equally for their work. Both women and men deserve adequate benefits and time off to care for their families, who will be healthier and stronger for it.
Someday I hope to be a father, and I want a better life for my future wife and family. If we make these issues priorities today, it can happen.
Stacie is not sure how she will make ends meet if she leaves her job to care for her new baby. However, the next election is just around the corner and she plans to vote for a candidate who will help end discrimination against women in the workplace and put families first. So, too, do I.