Amy Alexander is a writer and communications strategist in suburban Washington, D.C.
Coinciding with International Women's Day, an activist coalition has called for a mass protest on Wednesday that is being called "A Day Without a Woman." It is organized by the Women's March, a group that took shape late last year following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and led massive protest marches across the globe following his inauguration.
Billed by the Women's March as "a one-day demonstration of economic solidarity," Wednesday's action calls for women in the United States and internationally, as well as allies – "anyone, anywhere" – to protest the Trump administration's unfolding agenda of budget cuts and policy actions that are expected to threaten the health, economic and social well-being of women, gays, children and "gender nonconforming people."
Unlike the post-inauguration marches that were led by the group on Jan. 21, Wednesday's protest action is a bit more abstract, albeit with a very concrete goal: To highlight the essential role of women in society, business, and throughout the fabric of cities and towns by having women stand down from buying anything or going to their jobs.
The centrepiece of the action – essentially boycotting one's job – is well-intentioned. But it also carries some very real practical risks for many women, in particular those who occupy low-wage, service-sector roles, or who cobble together wages from multiple part-time, contingent or entry-level positions. While I'm always down for a bold symbolic gesture that demonstrates support for vulnerable members of our society, I'm not alone in thinking that the premise of this protest might have been reconsidered.
Meghan Daum of The Los Angeles Times recently expressed concern about a big blind spot of the protest's organizers, in terms of their call for women to essentially boycott work: "Make no mistake, March 8 will mostly be a day without women who can afford to skip work, shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else, and shop at stores that are likely to open at 10 and close at 5," Daum wrote in a March 5 column.
While I can't be sure of the totality of Ms. Daum's experience in the work force, I am quite familiar with her concerns.
I've worked in a range of corporate, non-profit and public-sector roles since college, and can safely (if also sadly) report that the performance goalposts for black women, Latina women and other "non-traditional" employees in U.S. work forces are constantly moving. In other words, most of us are acutely aware that our job security is only as stable as the whims of the company owner or department leader (positions most often held by white males) on any given day.
Despite rising college graduation rates and incremental gains in income levels in recent decades, U.S. working women comprise a mere 38 per cent of all managerial positions across professional occupations, based on 2013 data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In addition, the top 30 occupations for U.S. women cover a range of essential but poorly paid jobs, according to 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics. These occupations include elementary school teachers, administrative assistants, customer-service representatives and retail sales. Further, although black and Latina women together make up nearly 18 million of the total number of America's 67 million working women, they are far more likely to be heads of households, yet also more likely to receive less pay than white women and white men.
These cold facts of continuing inequality are part of what is driving organizers of "A Day Without a Woman." I am aware of the irony in my concerns that the organizers nevertheless seemed to overlook how their "take a day off work" protest probably poses increased risk for certain working women. I am mindful, too, that the organizers at least added grace notes that demonstrate their awareness of the limited options of many of the women they are purporting to stand in solidarity with: Those who wish to protest but who cannot miss work are encouraged to wear the colour red.
Oh, and those who face risk of being docked or fired for missing work in a show of solidarity, but who nevertheless are determined to take the risk and miss work anyway, are encouraged to share with their employers a handy letter that outlines their reasons for missing work. It is written by organizers who are part of the Women's March. Users of it are encouraged to share with their bosses, presumably in the time leading up to today's "A Day Without a Woman." It reads, in part:
"I am extremely dedicated to my work at [INSERT NAME OF EMPLOYER]. I respect the value of work, and I respect [INSERT NAME OF EMPLOYER]'s values. At an increasingly insecure time for the rights of women and other minority groups, it is important to me that I also stand for the value of equality. I hope you will support me in my decision."
So, I am not a cynic, and I genuinely appreciate the spirit and commitment of the Women's March. But I will be prepared to also send good vibes, and possibly a small monetary donation, to women who get tossed out of work by bosses who might "appreciate" her "stand," but who place greater value on her day labour. This is in no way a favourable recommendation for such employers, just an acknowledgement of the unfair advantage they hold over large swaths of working women, and the urgent need for more strategic, and culturally competent, approaches to creating better opportunities and conditions for the women who work for them.