Changemakers: Working with facts to make change for women and girls through the legislative Office on the Economic Status of Women
Its name is long, lacking a catchy acronym. It has one staff member and operates largely behind the scenes. Many Minnesotans have probably never heard of it. Yet the legislative Office on the Economic Status of Women (OESW) has played an important role in shaping public policy for decades.
The nonpartisan office was created by the Legislature in 1976 – “the height of the second wave of feminism,” says director Barbara Battiste – to study issues related to women’s economic security, and advise lawmakers.
Two major achievements to which the OESW contributed: pay equity (equal pay for work of comparable value) for state employees, enacted in 1982, and local government employee pay equity, in 1984.
The office, says Battiste, “has always been understood to be an informal liaison between the Legislature and the community on women’s economic issues.” Toward that end, for the third consecutive year, the OESW hosted listening sessions this fall throughout the state about economic issues – informal gatherings where participants explored what’s working, and what isn’t, for women in their area.
The office generally doesn’t draft or promote specific legislation, but “will certainly chime in on what’s in women’s best interests” economically, Battiste says. “I’ll provide facts and let them hopefully speak for themselves.”
There was no director – and thus no functioning office – for three years before Battiste came aboard in January 2014 and began re-growing the office’s profile. Her background may surprise you: an undergraduate degree in geology, and years of work in the environmental field.
“It’s sort of so typical for women,” Battiste says of her path. Her career chugged along until she had children – “the big life-changer for women.” After 15 years out of the paid workforce, she says, “I really reinvented myself.”
While raising kids, Battiste volunteered at WomenVenture, a nonprofit that supports women-owned businesses – meeting many other older women who’d become unemployed or underemployed after having kids. “These were highly intelligent women,” she says, “but they needed to update their skills, and get past age discrimination.”
At 62, Battiste went back for a Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. “In my thesis, I railed against the bias that older women are not capable of significant, challenging, well-paid work,” she says.
Battiste subsequently consulted for WomenVenture, the Minnesota Women’s Consortium, and the Pay Equity Coalition. “Then this [OESW] job opened up, and suddenly at age 102, I had my dream job,” she says, smiling.
Asked why the OESW is still needed after 40 years, Battiste points out that the gender pay gap still exists – and is especially pronounced for women of color. In many ways, she says, the workplace remains stuck in a 1950s model, when one partner stayed home.
Battiste also cites spousal maintenance (alimony) as an issue in danger of being overlooked. “It’s almost as if everyone just wants it to go away,” she says, “but the fact is, women’s family caregiving responsibilities when they are married usually means they earn less money than men, and results in women economically suffering disproportionately after divorce. I worry that [spousal maintenance] is something that may be totally lost.”
Legislators may or may not share her worry. But regardless, thanks to Battiste and the OESW, they’ll have the facts.
To find out more about the work of the Office on the Economic Status of Women, go to www.oesw.leg.mn.
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One big issue affecting women’s economic security is access to affordable childcare. A legislative task force will report to the Legislature by January 15. Learn more: www.lcc.leg.mn/tfcc/
The 2017 legislative session begins January 3. Contact your legislators on the issues that matter to you and other women. Find out who represents you: www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/districtfinder