On March 21, 2018, Representative Tana Senn of Washington’s 41st legislative district watched Governor Jay Inslee sign the Equal Pay Opportunity Act into law, finalizing Washington state’s first update to the Equal Pay Act since 1943. The new law bans pay secrecy policies and retaliation against workers who discuss their pay or ask for equal wages. The Mercer Island legislator and Temple De Hirsch Sinai member set her sights on advancing gender parity in the workplace in 2015, but she saw her bill die three times before it passed this session after Democrats gained the Senate majority. Senn hopes to send the message that Washington means business when it comes to gender equity, and she isn’t stopping there.
I brought my daughter and four of her friends to watch [the bill signing]. When I saw my staff, fellow legislators, and advocates, we all jumped up and down; we couldn’t believe the day was finally here. My cheeks hurt from smiling.
Other states have passed legislation to prevent pay secrecy; that’s been the big wave of policy, and we were behind in that regard. Now we’ve not only caught up as far as pay secrecy but have leapfrogged by adding the additional component that ensures equal career-
advancement opportunities regardless of gender. If women don’t advance to upper management, equal pay doesn’t matter.
There are pros and cons of Seattle being a tech sector. There are so many more men in the field and so few women in high-paying positions. The economy suffers when women don’t have flexible income. Women make 80 percent of the purchasing decisions. It can lead to additional poverty and state impacts, like childcare subsidies and food stamps.
It impacts women at all stages of their lives. Women in retirement and senior women are 80 percent more likely to live in poverty than single men.
We want to send a message that Washington state is open for business to women. It’s already hard to attract women with a “bro culture” reputation, but we were even further behind with the pay gap.
During negotiations, it was critical to provide all women, at all levels of the job market, access to equal-pay protections. That involves preventing retaliation against asking for more money and providing administrative remedies and resources for those who might not have access to a personal attorney.
Most people don’t pay much attention to everyday legislation. Women’s groups and labor unions have to pick up the ball with programming for women to educate [the public] that this happened and send a message to local business that we mean business.
My mom always told me a story about how she got her Rolex watch. Her company had a contest, and whoever sold the most safari trips would win a sapphire-diamond Rolex. She worked her tush off and won, and her boss said, “You don’t need that sapphire-diamond Rolex, we’ll give you a base model.” She said she didn’t know what to do but that if she’d been of my generation, she wouldn’t have been OK with it. That story has stuck with me throughout my life.
I have a thing for fairness. Maybe it’s because I was a second child, but fairness is a huge component for me. I want to make sure everyone is on a level playing field. In this realm, I’d love to continue to work on getting more venture capital to women and getting more women on boards.
I spoke to the Mercer Island High School Students during their walkout — they are so inspiring. I emphasized that they have power, and I pointed out that for them, gay marriage isn’t something they even think about, it just is. Climate change isn’t debatable; it’s science. Things like equal pay and gun-violence prevention are no brainers. For most youth, those are nonstarters; that’s why their voices are so important.
I feel like my sanity has been maintained because I’m actively able to make change. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have this role.
For What it's Worth
In Washington state, a woman working full time makes 79 cents to the dollar that her male counterpart earns. And the numbers get grimmer for minority women:
Asian women earn 74 cents
Black women earn 61 cents
Latinas earn 46 cents