Make It Work founders Tracy and Vivien with actress Adrienne C. Moore during a shoot for #HowWeDoIt, a short film highlighting the economic struggles facing families.
Courtesy of People’s Television

Meet the women who want to help families ‘make it work’

March is Women’s History Month, and American women have come a long way since the early days of fighting for the right to vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, including in education, technology, equal pay, and campus sexual assault, and beyond. All month long, msnbc.com is highlighting female leaders who are fighting for the women’s rights issues of 2015. 

Vivien Labaton and Tracy Sturdivant are the founders of Make It Work, a national campaign dedicated to fighting for the economic issues that affect women and families – equal pay, childcare, paid family leave and more. At a time when women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, and the U.S. is still one of the few developed nations that does not have a law in place guaranteeing paid family leave, Make It Work’s efforts are more relevant than ever. Tracy and Vivien answered some of our questions about Make It Work and their fight for pay equity.

Tell us about Make It Work. What are your objectives and how are you fighting for them?

Vivien Labaton: Make It Work is a national campaign working to advance economic security for women, men and families across the country. We are a community of women and men who share the belief that hardworking Americans shouldn’t have to choose between being there for family and earning a living, and that people who work hard deserve to make more than a decent living—they deserve a decent life.

We are here to make it easier for families to “make it work,” something we know is increasingly difficult. Specifically, we advocate for policies like affordable childcare, paid family leave, paid sick days and equal pay for equal work. Even though these are challenges that people struggle with on their own—how to afford childcare, make ends meet, juggle work and family–in truth these are universal challenges, and we need shared solutions.

We are pushing to make sure that these issues are front and center in the 2016 presidential election. We’re also trying to make sure that conversations about these issues are happening outside of the sphere of politics. Because so many people are very tuned into pop culture – music, TV, movies, etc. – we will be communicating with people where they are and leveraging those mediums to share stories about the economic struggles many families face today.

Tracy Sturdivant: Through the campaign we will also be asking every member of Congress what their stance is on the policies that help families.

What led you to start Make It Work?

Tracy: There is a conversation about income inequality that has emerged and recently that conversation has reached a fever pitch. We’ve seen that everywhere from Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay (and the conversations sparked by her subsequent comments); and we see that with women taking note of Sheryl Sandberg and “leaning in” at work.

But even within those conversations we are seeing a need to look at so-called “women’s issues” like equal pay, through a lens that is more intentional about overlapping concerns around race and class. So even as we see people like Sandberg lifting up white-collar women, it’s important to also shine a light on the millions of women working minimum wage jobs. Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and there are socioeconomic disparities that affect women who don’t yet have the opportunity to lean in. We also don’t always see the voices and experiences of women of color in these conversations, and there are of course racial disparities that also impact the wage gap.

One reason we started Make It Work is because we want to bridge those narratives and show the collective experiences between women of different classes and races, and build a diverse community of women, men and families who are willing to fight for more sustainable workplace policies for all of us.

Vivien: Every election year, candidates court the women’s vote, and yet policies that materially improve the lives of women and families rarely follow. We wanted to build a campaign that would put candidates on notice that any candidate that wants the woman’s vote has to champion policies that actually support women and families.

Critics often argue that the wage gap is caused by women’s own choices – their choices to choose more flexible work to be with their families, or their choices to seek part-time work instead of full-time work. How do you respond to that?

Vivien: The wage gap is caused by a constellation of factors, and often these so-called “choices” are not choices at all.

Consider this: In many states in the U.S., the cost of childcare is more than rent or in-state college tuition. Many women reduce their hours or take time off after having children because for many of them, their jobs don’t compensate them enough to cover the exorbitant cost of childcare or don’t allow flexibility in the hours they can work.

There’s also a “motherhood penalty” that seems to stem from the perception that working moms are less dedicated, less competent and less efficient employees. Mothers are being paid 7% to 14% less than women without children for equivalent work.

Tracy: I think we should challenge those arguments because they often don’t apply to the majority of women, particularly when you bring race and class into the conversation.

It’s important to remember that a lot of part-time work is not a voluntary choice. Many part-time workers would prefer to work full time to earn more for their families, and to secure regular hours, health insurance and job security.

In two-thirds of American households women are the primary or co-breadwinner. They are also the primary caretakers of both children and aging parents. When women are stuck in involuntary part-time work, they often have to make the choice between going to work and taking care of family members in need.

This is not just an individual problem or a “woman problem,” but a problem that affects entire communities.

Last year, Congress attempted to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, and it was blocked by Senate Republicans. What do you think is next for the Paycheck Fairness Act, and how will Make It Work be involved?

Vivien: The Paycheck Fairness Act is likely to be re-introduced again in the next month or two, and we are supportive of those efforts. We’ll raise the visibility of the bill with our constituents, but we think that passing the PFA is just the first step and much more needs to be done. As more women are breadwinners, pay disparities affect not just women, but their entire families. Overall, both men and women would benefit from increased wage transparency, and we are crafting a policy platform that lays out those kinds of solutions.

Beyond the Paycheck Fairness Act, what else do you think needs to be done to achieve true equality for women at work?

Vivien: The bottom line is that women won’t have true equality at work until there are sensible workplace policies that support both women and men to participate in the workplace and be there for family. What does that look like? Making affordable childcare available to all families, and having access to paid sick days, as well as paid family leave for men and women.

Tracy: We need a suite of polices that make sense for women coming from different places. A lot of conversations about women at work are driven by outdated stereotypes about how women are supposed to show up in the world. For example, as a culture we are exposed to stereotypical narratives about the female corporate CEO that has to lean in until she falls over, or the mom who is so stretched at home that she neglects her work duties.

To achieve true equality for women, we need to encourage a culture that values us all, and stop making assumptions about women on the job.

Pay equity, paid leave, childcare – these issues are often considered “women’s issues” and thus get less attention than other policy issues. How do these issues affect/benefit men?

Vivien: We think these issues are just as important to men as they are to women. We see men increasingly facing penalties at work for asking to take leave to care for a child or sick loved one.

We know parental leave is important for all parents, not just for women, and the lack of affordable, quality childcare is also a huge strain on both men and women. It’s the 21st century—gender roles have changed, as have our workplaces. Talking about these issues as “women’s issues” reflects an outdated image of how these issues play out in our daily lives.

What’s your hope for the next generation of women?

Tracy: My hope is that the next generation doesn’t have to limit their dreams of who they want to be in the world because we don’t have systems in place that allow them to be their best selves. Whether that’s being valued in the workplace or valued at home, women are the backbones of families and we need supports in place that allow us to show up in the workplace and pursue success and happiness. My hope is that the next generation won’t have to make some of the difficult choices between showing up for work and showing up for a loved one in need, that some of us have had to make. It’s our job to show the next generation that we value women.

Vivien: As the mother of a young son and a daughter, my hopes are really for the next generation of women and men. I don’t want my children’s success to be dictated by their gender. I don’t want either of my kids to feel pressured by limiting gender norms about work or caregiving. I want my daughter to be able to pursue her professional ambitions unencumbered by outdated expectations, and I want my son to be supported to be an engaged parent and caregiver—in part because I want him to be able to help take care of me when I get old. Honestly, I just want them both to be able to pursue their dreams and have the ability to support families of their own one day if that’s what they choose to do. One of the best ways to ensure that is to keep working to advance common sense policies that have the potential to transform economic realities for families.

Read the rest of the profiles in our Women’s History Month series here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pay Equity and Women's History Month

Meet the women who want to help families 'make it work'