Protecting the rights of working women

Working women should know their legal rights, especially those key laws that were designed to protect them against sex discrimination. But most of them don't , says Sandra Porter, executive director of the National Commission on Working Women in Washington, D.C.

At a seminar in New York entitled ''The New American Woman,'' sponsored by Women in Communications Inc. and House Beautiful magazine, Mrs. Porter sketched those b laws as follows:

* The 1963 Equal Pay Act, which states that workers, both male and female, can expect to be paid equally for equal work.

* Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that, in employment and training, it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, or national origin.

* Title IX, part of 1972 amendments to the Higher Education Act, is a law that protects women from discrimination in educational institutions and covers employment, student services, enrollment, and participation in athletics.

* EEOC-Sexual Harassment Guidelines, issued in 1981, forbid unwanted verbal or physical abuse on the job and give responsibility to employers for assuring workers a harassment-free environment. Workers can file a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

* Executive Order 11246 mandates affirmative action by companies through program guidelines. It is designed to ensure hiring of minorities who have been discriminated against in the past.

* The Equal Credit Opportunity Act protects women against discrimination in consumer credit. It is the law that won women the right to get credit cards, bank loans, and mortgages in their own names. When the law is violated, women can file grievances through Consumer Credit Bureaus.

* The Vocational Education Amendments constitute a law that contains strong sex-equity protections and promotes the entry of women into vocational education schools.

Mrs. Porter points out that any woman employee who feels she has a legitimate grievance against an employer, should first seek redress through the personnel department of the company for which she works. If that procedure fails, she should seek information or help from the local equal-employment office, an agency of both city and state governments.

''Once women understand what the legal underpinnings of their work opportunities are,'' says Mrs. Porter, ''they can realize the importance of supporting the efforts of advocates who are fighting back the threats to these laws from the present administration. There is plenty of fight left in Washington, and across the country, but broad-based grass-roots support is critical to success in maintaining the gains made over the last 15 years.''

In 1981, Mrs. Porter points out, 52.3 percent of women were in the labor force. Of these, 80 percent are concentrated in clerical, service, sales, factory, and plant jobs. It is this group, particularly, that the National Commission on Working Women seeks to serve.

''Working women, however, share many commonalities, whether they are professional or nonprofessional,'' she points out. These include wage discrimination, the double burden of job and family, good-quality child care, access to education and training, and workplace harassment. Nonprofessional and pink- or blue-collar women, she says, suffer the added disadvantage of poor benefits and devaluing work.

For this reason, Mrs. Porter believes women's networks should also include women who work in supporting roles, that 80 percent category described above who are seeking to gain more status and self-esteem. ''Professional women should be sure they understand the perceived problems of all women employees in their companies,'' she says. ''They should be willing to listen, and to acknowledge their contribution. Learning, based on sharing, can flow between women who have jobs at all levels,'' she contends.

''Professional women can be of great service to women in support jobs by sharing skill-assessment tips and career-development ideas. They can steer them to those available resources that might help them advance. And they can give valuable encouragement simply by willingness to 'talk things over' with women co-workers.

''Professional women should be willing to mentor nonprofessional women workers - whether they are in secretarial positions, are cafeteria workers, or are part of the cleaning teams - and share a few strategies for learning and earning that provide more reward or better salaries. Women can't carry many of these protective laws around in their heads, but they can be reminded that they exist and encouraged to go to the right places for help.''

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