Mothers in the Workplace: What One Student Learned about Equity at Work

A conversation with Althea Brennan, former New Visions: Law & Government student, about her internship experience at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
By Sabrina Evans
Q: Why were you drawn to the issue of gender inequality in the workplace?

A: I’m really interested in labor issues. It’s what I’m going to be studying in school next year, so I was looking at tying together pay inequality and the broader social bracket of women’s issues and labor. There’s just so much freedom here to think about whatever it is that interests you, which you don’t get in school. When I was given that freedom is when I decided to go bigger picture.

 

How did you decide to focus specifically on the topic of paid family leave?

I was interested in New York’s paid family leave law, because New York has a very progressive law that just went into effect. What I found in researching paid family leave and its effects led me to zoom out on the issue as a whole. Paid family leave is important, but it’s not the silver bullet to solving gender inequality in the workforce and the wage gap.

It’s something we should have because it makes life easier for families, and it also really helps women and families adjust to having a child in the house. When you look at the issue of gender inequality in the workforce and the wage gap, it’s not just that men and women get paid differently, it’s these small things that are chipped away at by a lack of paid family leave, but it doesn’t even begin to address the issue of gender equality in the workplace.

Paid family leave is important, but it’s not the silver bullet to solving gender inequality in the workforce and the wage gap.

 

Which policymakers did you talk to in the Albany area and how did you choose them?

I talked to Quinn Hubbell, director of paid family leave in New York through the Workers Compensation Board, because I was interested in the technical side of it and she’s in charge. That’s when I decided I wanted to go more big-picture because there’s not a lot of data yet. There hasn’t even been a full fiscal year since paid family leave has been in effect. But, also, the things she was talking about — advocacy and spreading awareness to communities — it was so clear that it had to be coupled with other things.

I also talked to Secretary of Labor Roberta Reardon, which was really interesting. She really spoke to the big picture and these larger issues we’re trying to solve, and how you can couple eight or 25 different things together to create a solution that works for many workers in New York State. There was this big study, the New York Pay Equity Study, which was put out by Kathy Hochul, who is the lieutenant governor, and Secretary of Labor Roberta Reardon. They put together all these panels, talked to women, and wrote policy proposals for how to close the gender wage gap in New York. A lot of the plans they came up with were more tailored towards figuring out ways to implement policy that makes a difference in the workplace, and not just at the government level. The idea of using alternative approaches really interested me.

 

How did your time at the Institute change the way you thought about government and policy research?

I came to it through my research: there are alternative ways to solve these problems. When you’re learning about government in school, they don’t really teach you all the different ways things get influenced by government and how important linkage institutions are. Through the New Visions: Law & Government program, we talked a lot about ways that the media, advocacy groups, and lobbying can influence policy, and policy can influence government. I was interested in the ways that, even though we do have this democratic trifecta in New York State and we can pass all this legislation, policymakers were using alternative solutions to address these problems. One piece of legislation will not solve the whole problem, so I’m more interested in ways that you can use alternative solutions to solve issues, which I think working here really helped me think more about.

 

How has your research and experience with the Institute influenced your future plans?

I’m so glad that places like this exist. Even just reading pieces by other think tanks was so helpful. But it made me realize I don’t think I want to go into government, as in being a government employee; I’m much more interested in going into advocacy and lobbying for groups that work to pass legislation but also find alternative solutions. There is creative thinking that can be done within the public policy field but also in creating these alternative solutions. Someone has to write the proposal and launch a campaign for allowing people in businesses to take their children to work, for example. That’s not a government policy, so to speak; it might be something that the National Organization of Women comes up with and advocates for.

I realized I wanted to take a more well-rounded approach to looking at these issues.

This experience pushed me to realize that you can influence government and policy from a place that’s not government, like some sort of advocacy firm or lobbying agency. In school, they don’t tell you that there are these jobs. I plan on majoring in industrial and labor relations at Cornell. I realized I wanted to take a more well-rounded approach to looking at these issues.

 

What were some moments or opportunities during your internship with the Institute that jump out to you as being especially memorable?

I was able to attend the Women in Government event earlier this spring, which was awesome. Having the opportunity to meet Secretary Reardon, getting to go into her office and talk to her, was really cool. I’m in high school, so you don’t usually get to do those kinds of things. I was really lucky. I was able to sit in on a lot of the panels we hosted here, and just getting to listen to the discussions that happen — they’re so in-depth — which is something you don’t always get in just talking to your peers.

I’ve written research papers before but nothing like this. The whole process really prepared me for my classes next year.

There’s also just such intellectual thought that goes on here. It was very useful to have access to the researchers. Jim Malatras and Heather Trela really helped give my research direction. I felt a little out of my league, because I’ve written research papers before but nothing like this. The whole process really prepared me for my classes next year.

 

 

The full research paper, “The Politics and Policy of Mothers in the Workplace: Paid Family Leave Programs and Their Effectiveness in Changing Workplace Culture,” by Althea Brennan can be found here.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sabrina Evans is special assistant for administration at the Rockefeller Institute of Government

 

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