Vivien Labaton has been fighting for women’s rights for years. Her latest endeavor, Make It Work, tackles a bipartisan issue that impacts women and families across the nation- the antiquated nature of the workplace. Labaton and Make It Work aim to improve the lives of Americans by pursuing policies such as a livable wage, equal pay and paid family leave — all while developing a network of new women leaders representing the diversity and various challenges women face in the modern economy.
As both parties try to court young voters, Make It Work’s polling shows that 96% of voters under age 30 agree that government has a responsibility to treat working people fairly. Additionally, by more than a 7-to-1 margin, voters believe standards are needed in the workplace that allow employees to take time off for family needs, and they believe the government has a responsibility to ensure that happens.
With Labaton leading the way, Make It Work is sure to make a powerful ally for women and family voters in the upcoming elections — an impact that can change the future of our country for decades to come.
What is Make It Work? What do you hope to achieve through it?
Make It Work is a national, three-year campaign to put forward a vision of what we need our lives to look like around work and family in the 21st century. It’s 2014 and most women are working outside the home, making up almost half of our workforce. At the same time, more men are doing their part at home—making dinner, doing dishes, looking after the kids. Gone are the days of men bringing home the bacon while women fry it up in the pan—the world has changed, and our rules need to sprint to catch up. In today’s economy, both men and women work at home and outside it.
We need common sense standards that allow American families to make it work. We need livable wages, equal pay for equal work, and paid time off to be with family when we or our loved ones are sick. You shouldn’t have to count on getting lucky with an understanding boss or accommodating co-workers when there’s a family emergency. People who work hard deserve to make more than a decent living—we deserve a decent life.
We are out to change workplace policies and practices that hold women and families back by speaking out—at the polls and on the job. The main goal of our campaign is to sound a steady drumbeat on these issues over the next three years so that economic security for working women and men is a priority for policymakers and candidates, especially those who hope to win the coveted women’s vote. By leveraging storytelling, social media, and social action, we want to make this an issue that no candidate can avoid—it should be a question in debates and at town halls, and should really be a defining issue for candidates – where do they fall on workplace policies that affect how women and men are able to make it work? Every candidate should have an answer, and it will affect how people vote.
What about the current state of women’s rights compelled you to start this campaign?
This campaign is needed now more than ever. Too many families are working harder than ever and are barely getting by. There has been a lot of discussion and focus on women lately, but we need more people speaking up and pushing for actual change that will materially improve the lives of women and their families. That is where this campaign fits in.
Despite significant gains, women are still consistently underrepresented in positions of power; they are only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 18.5% of Congress. At the same time, they are overrepresented in positions of vulnerability; they make up two thirds of minimum wage workers. More and more women are breadwinners, but women are still not paid equally relative to their male counterparts, affecting the bottom line of their entire family.
Leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter have drawn huge attention to, and sparked a heated debate on, work/family issues. That conversation can be broadened to address the needs of a wide range of working women and men. There is also increased public awareness about how central women’s economic experiences are to the health of the economy and the nation. And economic issues more broadly are top of mind in the U.S. – for policymakers and the public – because so many working families are struggling.
Those factors combined with significant grassroots victories in the past couple of years like the passage of domestic worker labor protections in California, Hawaii, and New York, the passage of paid sick days laws in numerous cities across the country, and the passage of paid family leave in Rhode Island in addition to California and New Jersey, have really made the time ripe for changes in our workplace.
There is also a robust feminist conversation happening in America. As we approach the midterms and a major general election, with the women’s vote in high demand, we intend to drive an economic agenda that improves the lives of women and families.
How does society need to rethink the workplace?
We’re still dealing with a workplace that was created in a different era, and that’s got to change. Women are hardest hit, but if we’re honest—it’s really not working for anyone.
Sometimes it seems like we treat family obligations like an extracurricular activity—something to be squeezed in on the side, before or after work, along with exercise and anything else you want to get done in your off-hours. And yet if you ask most people what’s most important to them in the their lives, they’ll say family. We need to bring our practices into alignment with our priorities.
Basic protections like paid parental leave and paid sick leave are essential. No worker should be penalized for having to take care of a sick child or family member, or frankly for taking care of himself or herself if he or she is sick. More flexibility in terms of hours and telecommuting would also go far to improve families’ lives, as would more predictability in scheduling for hourly workers. Having policies in place that allow families to earn a living and still care for their families is vital to our economy. It’s about creating policies that reflect our values. A lot of people talk about family values, but we need policies and practices that actually value family.
Does the current state of the women’s movement reflect the real challenges women are facing today?
We could have a whole other conversation about what constitutes the women’s movement today and how to define it, but that’s for another day! The short answer to your question is: mostly. I am so thrilled that things like #YesAllWomen and #SurvivorPrivilege have blown up the way they have. It shows that these are not just individual challenges that some women face but truly systemic problems that deserve a collective solution. What I want to see change within the women’s movement is to put just as much focus on women’s economic security. We all know this by now, but the fact that women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns is outrageous. And more outrageous still is that African American women make 64 cents on the dollar and Hispanic women 54.
So I think there are two pieces of the feminist conversation that need to grow. The first is the economic security piece. The second, and something that is really important to Make It Work, is to develop a pipeline of women leaders who represent the diversity of American women and whose experiences reflect the range of challenges women face in today’s economy. We want to lift up the voices and stories of women of all races, jobs, and socio-economic backgrounds and think that’s really important for advancing the conversation and finding solutions that work for everyone.
How do men fit into your vision?
Men are a pivotal part of this campaign. We’re looking to advance norms and policies that work for both women and men. Improved workplace policies will be just as beneficial for men achieving their goals of work and family as they will for women. Data shows that as more men take on caregiving roles, they are starting to experience the same professional penalties that women have long experienced. This is about families, and adjusting our policies and practices to reflect the world we live in today—one in which women are primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of all households and men are active, working parents. It’s in all of our best interest to have our workplace meet the needs of working families today, and men are a key part of the collective solution.
What changes do you hope to see for your children’s future?
I want my kids to be able to pursue their dreams and ambitions and not have their gender be a predictor of the opportunities afforded them, their economic security, or how they are treated. I don’t want them to be encumbered by outdated gender roles as they figure out who they are and what path they want to chart for themselves.
I started my career working for Gloria Steinem. At the time, I was struck how, on the one hand, so much had changed since she was my age, and at the same time, that a lot of the issues she had been working on for decades were still with us. I hope that by the time my son and daughter are my age that’s no longer the case.
What does feminism mean to you?
The shortest, most straightforward answer is that feminism is about social, political, and economic equality of women and men. But that, of course, requires looking at the many factors that keep that from being a reality for all women—factors like race, class, and sexual orientation. To me, feminism is a worldview—it’s really about unlocking each of our potential and liberating us from prescribed roles so that we can lead whole, full lives and be who we were meant to be. Feminism helps me to see the interconnectedness of people and experiences, and also to see how issues of power and inequality can play out in the most subtle and quotidian ways in our daily lives.
What women inspire you?
Where to start? There are way too many to name here. Of course there are tons of women in the public sphere that awe me with their smarts and talent and get-things-done-ness—from artist Kara Walker to Senator Mazie Hirono, who is such a champion for women and families. From writer/actor Mindy Kaling to Beyonce (who needs no descriptor!). On a daily basis, though, it’s my friends who inspire me—by somehow finding time to be great friends while also managing stressful economic situations or demanding jobs, being parents and partners, and just being smart, engaged people in the world. They have a lot on their plates and it’s amazing and inspiring (and daunting) to see my friends handle the challenges thrown at them on a daily basis. I try to learn from them.
I also have to give a shout out to my dad here. He raised me as a single parent and was probably the first person to show me, through his own behavior and his expectations of me, that men could be just as nurturing as women, and women could be just as driven and work-focused as men. Not by talking about it explicitly, but simply through how he lived his life and raised us, he provided me with an alternative model of what family and work life could look like for me.
What books or media have had an impact on your life?
I have a thee year old and a one year old, so unfortunately I don’t get to read many books or see many movies these days! One of the best books I’ve read in a long time is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s a beautifully written book about the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North and the West over the course of almost a century. It followed the experiences of several people as they rebuilt their lives in new cities to improve their economic prospects and build a better future for their families.
What’s your favorite thing about yourself?
I’m a very curious person, and that quality has led me to continually ask questions (probably to the annoyance of many of my friends and colleagues!), seek out people who are different from me, explore new places, and understand the world from new perspectives and vantage points. It is a quality that allows me to continually learn and grow, and appreciate how interesting the world around me is.
I’m also good at building strong, enduring relationships, which is what ultimately, I think, carries you through life. Having people in your life with whom you can share your greatest joys and successes, as well as your lowest lows—those are the relationships that, at the end of the day, are the most fulfilling and sustaining.