The Important Role of Our AG in Fighting for Equal Rights for Women

The Important Role of Our AG in Fighting for Equal Rights for Women

Our nation’s vision of equal opportunities for all is a core part of my life’s work. To translate that vision into reality, our country needs dedicated leadership committed to equality for all Americans. For me, a role model for such leadership is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose work as a lawyer and as a Supreme Court Justice make her a leader in the battle against discrimination and for equality. Working with her when she wrote the opinion requiring the Virginia Military Institute to admit women remains a highlight of my life.

As Colorado’s next Attorney General, I will prioritize the battle for women’s rights and equality for all through the following measures:

  • The Colorado Attorney General’s office will work hard to ensure that women are treated equally in the workplace,
  • The AG’s office will be a leader in supporting women in the workplace.
  • The AG’s office will work with the legal and business community to drive best practices around diversity and inclusion.

To work with me on this core goal, I will create a new executive leadership position on Community Engagement, Workplace Culture, and Diversity: the AG Office Leader on Culture. This position, which will report directly to me, will oversee efforts to ensure diversity and inclusiveness in the office and lead our community in driving behavior toward best practices by using the power of the AG’s office to convene leaders in our legal and business communities. In short, the Attorney General’s office will not only effectively enforce the laws protecting women in the workplace; it will also lead by example and through the use of its moral authority. While the measures discussed in this post focus on the imperative of protecting women in the workplace, many of them also will address diversity and inclusiveness concerns related to race and ethnicity as well. A subsequent post will focus more directly on these issues.

Fighting for Equal Treatment in the Workplace

Lilly Ledbetter, who was a manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, discovered years into her job that she was paid considerably less than men in the same position. She brought a lawsuit to challenge this discrimination. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against her claim, saying that she failed to bring the action—which she had no way to know about—until after the 180-day filing requirement. In a passionate dissent, Justice Ginsburg sharply criticized the majority’s ruling and urged Congress to fix the problem.

The Lilly Ledbetter story underscores the continuing challenge of equality for women. When women enter a profession historically dominated by men, equal treatment doesn’t immediately follow. Here’s how Ginsburg later described Lilly Ledbetter’s situation: “It’s the story of almost every working woman of her generation, which is close to mine. She is in a job that has been done by men until she comes along. She gets the job, and she’s encountering all kinds of flak. But she doesn’t want to rock the boat.”

Although Lilly Ledbetter’s case didn’t end well for her, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent was heard by Congress and President Obama. The first law President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Unfortunately, even the guarantee of equal pay for women cannot be realized unless—like in Ledbetter’s case—women have access to the necessary data regarding salaries in their workplaces.

Equal pay for equal work is still not yet the norm in our country. According to one recent study, for example, the median annual pay for women working full-time year-round is $40,742, compared to $51,212 for men working full-time year-round. As Justice Ginsburg explained in her dissent in the Ledbetter case, if women cannot learn that their male colleagues with similar experience are getting paid more for the same work, they cannot claim their right to equal pay. Fortunately, in 2008, Colorado became the fourth state in the country (it’s now one of 13 states) to enact a law protecting workers who share pay information from discrimination and retaliation. But many employers and employees still don’t know about these protections. As Attorney General, I will vigorously enforce this law and the rights of workers to learn about potential pay disparities.

Gender Equity and Inclusiveness in the Legal Profession

When I interviewed Justice Ginsburg at the University of Colorado Law School, I asked her about the number of women on the Supreme Court. In answering my question, she remarked that the right number of women on the Supreme Court is nine. For a long time, she explained, all nine seats were occupied by men, so why not have nine female Justices? Thanks to President Obama, there are now three women on the Supreme Court. But there still is a ways to go before we achieve RBG’s vision for the Court.

When I graduated law school in 1994, there were an equal number of women in my class as men. My assumption was that, with the benefit of equal numbers of men and women graduating law school, we would soon overcome the historically underrepresented role of women in leadership positions, including on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, 23 years later, women are still significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of nearly every sector of the legal profession: law firm partnerships, general counsel, judgeships, law school deans, etc.

During my time at the University of Colorado Law School, I prioritized diversity and inclusion, working with leaders in our community on a number of initiatives. I partnered with, for example, the Colorado Women’s Bar Association on programs that supported women in the profession and my efforts to support and mentor our Latino students earned recognition from the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association. As Attorney General, I will follow in the tradition of past Democratic Attorneys General, JD MacFarlane and Ken Salazar, by making diversity and inclusion a hallmark of my tenure.

The Attorney General’s office should and can be a proactive leader in supporting women in the workplace. Moreover, our Attorney General should be a leader in our community, encouraging law firms, in-house law departments, and companies to drive toward best practices. My newly created executive-level appointee, the AG’s Office Leader on Culture, will work with me to serve as a leader on community engagement, workplace culture, and diversity.

The AG’s Office Leader on Culture

The AG’s Office Leader on Culture will spearhead a range of activities in the office and in the community to promote diversity and inclusion:

  • First, the AG’s Office Leader on Culture will conduct bias training, identify situations where individuals are not able to participate effectively, and host bias workshops to encourage equal and fair treatment. For any workplace and particularly the AG’s office, it is important to support everyone and enable them to contribute effectively and to advance without barriers (including implicit biases).
  • Second, we need to create flexible and alternative structures that allow individuals to work effectively while taking care of children or elderly parents. At the University of Colorado Law School, I allowed for flexibility in the workplace so that professionals could thrive at home and at work; I will do the same at the AG’s office, working with the AG’s Office Leader on Culture to ensure that we have appropriate policies for all professionals to perform their work effectively.
  • During my time as Dean, I appreciated the need to mentor all of our faculty, staff, and students because I recognized that many individuals do not get the coaching, mentorship, sponsorship, and access to information they need when they are not a part of traditional networks. To ensure that the Attorney General’s office evaluates and supports individuals based on talent, the AG’s Office Leader on Culture will create and implement coaching, mentorship, and leadership development programs and ensure that they are afforded to everyone in the office.
  • Finally, I will work with the AG’s Office Leader on Culture to make clear that sexual and gender harassment will not be tolerated. Whether the harassment is a “come on” or a “put down,” it is unacceptable. Such insults have the effect of undermining women. If allowed to fester, gender-based comments can lead to lower productivity, higher job stress, lower psychological well-being, and increased turnover. To eradicate sexual and gender harassment, we will regularly survey and interview individuals working at the Attorney General’s office to assess their experiences and root out mistreatment of women.

Fighting for Equality Is a Team Effort

As Colorado’s next Attorney General, I will work with our community to make Colorado a model of fighting for diversity and inclusion. This means that we must address pay inequities and work to provide women with equal opportunities to advance and succeed. For the Attorney General’s office, and the legal and business communities, a more respectful and inclusive work environment is long overdue and will lead to a more productive and effective workplace. But it will not happen without dedicated leadership and a vigilant focus on achieving this important goal.

Under my leadership and the AG’s Office Leader on Culture, the Attorney General’s Office will not only enforce the laws requiring equal treatment of women in the workplace, we will lead the community by example. Moreover, the Attorney General has tremendous power to convene and to lead through the moral authority of the office. This means that successful programs developed at the Attorney General’s office—or elsewhere in our State—need to be celebrated and disseminated to other workplaces. As our next Attorney General, I will engage with employers across our state to develop and spread best practices in the treatment of employees and I will champion diversity and inclusion efforts.

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