September 22, 2019
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Why Maine is a leader in gender equity

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Elizabeth Robbins (center), of Bangor, holds up her sign during the Women's March on Maine outside the Burton M. Cross building at the Maine State House in Augusta in 2017.

We generally don’t put much stock in the plethora of online rankings that show up daily. But, one recent ranking caught our eye. Wallethub, a personal finance website that is also a repository of ratings, recently ranked the states in terms of women’s equality. Maine claimed the No. 1 spot.

Before delving into the rankings, Wallethub noted that there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of women’s equality in the United States. For example, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions, both in business and government. More important, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts. There are many reasons for the pay gap — many women take time off from work to have and raise children, women tend to cluster in lower-paying jobs — but the fact that it exists is concerning.

Also concerning is the fact that gender equality in the U.S. is getting worse, according to the World Economic Forum. The U.S. slipped to 51st out of 149 countries in the group’s 2018 report. The biggest drops were in the areas of health — the maternal mortality rate more than doubled between 1991 and 2014 — and political empowerment.

Maine, of course, hasn’t solved all these problems, but the state is doing many things right.

“It is apparent that the things we’ve been fighting for … are panning out,” Kathy Durgin-Leighton, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, told the Bangor Daily News. The group, which was founded 40 years ago, advocated for the first state workplace sexual harassment prevention law and the nation’s first law guaranteeing workplace leave for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, among many other policies that promote equality.

Last year, Maine voters elected the state’s first female governor, Democrat Janet Mills, who was a founding member of the Maine Women’s Lobby. More than half of her cabinet is made up of women.

Maine has long ranked in the top 10 for the percentage of women in the Legislature. Nearly 40 percent of the current Legislature is female, ranking the state 8th in the country. Only in Nevada do women account for more than half of state lawmakers. The national average is less than 30 percent, although nationally women account for more than half the population. In Maine, both the Democratic Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, and House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham are women.

With Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree, half of the state’s congressional delegation are women.

Electing more women isn’t about fulfilling quotas; research has shown that when more women hold elective office, more compromises are made and more laws passed.

In its most recent session, the Maine Legislature passed bills that will especially help women, and their families. A new law will require most Maine businesses to offer short-term paid leave to their employees, who can use the time to care for themselves or others. Three quarters of caregivers are women. A more comprehensive, longer-term leave bill, sponsored by Gideon, was put off until the next legislative session.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to use state funds to ensure abortion care is available to low-income women who participate in the MaineCare program. Federal law prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, but state funds can fill this gap.

Lawmakers expanded access to abortion by passing legislation to allow physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses to perform abortions.

Workplace protections for pregnant and new mothers were also expanded. A law was passed to restrict employers from asking about past compensation before a job offer, which includes the terms of compensation, has been made. The aim is to shrink the gap between female and male workers by ending the practice of basing an employee’s compensation on their past pay.

There is more work to be done. The top priorities for the Maine Women’s Lobby are securing long-term paid leave — which will enable women (and men) to take time off to care for a newborn, an adopted child or an ailing family member — and improving access to quality, affordable childcare.

As WalletHub makes clear, the U.S. remains far from achieving gender equity, but Maine provides a model for shrinking the gap.

 



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