Co-founder and Co-president, A Better balance
As co-founder and co-president of Ford grantee A Better Balance, Dina Bakst is leveraging the power of the law to ensure fairness in the workplace and advance the rights of workers across the economic spectrum.
What is the mission of A Better Balance?
A Better Balance is a national legal advocacy organization dedicated to fighting to advance justice for women, families, and all caregivers. We use the power of the law to ensure that workers can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security.
When we started this organization in 2005, we recognized—as women’s rights lawyers and as mothers—that the work-family conflict remains a key barrier to gender equality in America. The narrative at the time in the mainstream media was that women were opting out of the workforce. But we knew through our legal work that this was not the reality for most women and most low-wage caregivers in America. And we were driven to change that.
What inspired you to make it your life’s work to advance gender equality in the workplace?
When I became a mother, my perspective on women’s rights broadened. I really began to see how difficult it was, not just to be a woman in the workplace but also to be a mother in the workplace. I began speaking with workers in America who are literally one sick child away from losing their job, who are one complicated pregnancy away from homelessness. These are not just economic justice issues. These are maternal health issues, they’re reproductive health issues, and they are racial justice issues. And that’s what A Better Balance is fighting for every day.
Walk us through some of the ways A Better Balance has improved the lives of pregnant women in the workplace.
A Better Balance has been on the frontlines of the movement calling to update and strengthen our federal civil rights laws to ensure that pregnant workers in America have an explicit right to accommodations on the job. What seems like a modest adjustment—a stool, an extra bathroom break, a water bottle, or light duty—too often means that women are forced to make an impossible choice between following their doctor’s orders and maintaining a healthy pregnancy. The economic consequences are often profound, with women ending up on food stamps, homeless, or in a poverty hole that they cannot climb out of. We need to tackle the pregnancy penalty as a key first step to ensure that women can stay healthy and attached to the workforce and earn the income they deserve.
We are so proud that since 2012 we have had 27—soon to be 28—states pass explicit pregnancy accommodation laws. And now we have bipartisan support in the House of Representatives as well as the support of the US Chamber of Commerce for the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
And we are also extremely proud that millions of Walmart workers are now beneficiaries of truly remarkable national policy changes, such as providing critical pregnancy accommodation protections and an explicit guarantee that pregnant workers will no longer be penalized for medically necessary absences pursuant to the company’s brutal absence control or “point system.” Prior to the policy changes, which were huge victories for Walmart workers nationwide, A Better Balance spent countless hours challenging these policies with lawsuits and legal pressure starting in 2013.
What would you say was the greatest achievement for women in the last 50 years?
It’s hard to pick just one. Certainly the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 marked the beginning of a new era, ensuring that pregnant women could no longer be fired for being pregnant and requiring equal treatment in the workplace.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was an incredibly important step forward for women and families. It is not a perfect solution, but it was the nation’s first and only national law designed to help workers who need time off to care for themselves or welcome a new baby into the world or care for a family member. Even though the law is unpaid, it provided critical new protections and really helped change the narrative around who is a caregiver. If we’re serious about gender equality, we need to not just fight for women’s rights, we also need to make sure that men have an equal opportunity to provide care.
What are the most pressing issues you’re focused on today?
We’ve been at the forefront of the movements to pass paid sick and paid family and medical leave laws around the country. Today, we have 8 states with paid family and medical leave and 12 states and 22 localities with paid sick time laws. So we’re seeing real wins. Only seven percent of workers in this country in the lowest-wage jobs have access to paid family medical leave. And the economic consequences and health consequences are profound. At A Better Balance, we say you shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery to gain these basic protections. We are fighting to enact nationwide policy solutions. In addition to those labor standards, we need to root out discrimination against pregnant women and all caregivers so no worker has to make the impossible choice between their job and their health and their family.
What does equality look like to you?
When workers don’t have to choose between their jobs and their families, when women don’t have to shoulder the disproportionate burden of caregiving in America because men are sharing in it equally, when care work is valued, and when all workers can care for themselves and their loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security, that’s when there will be equality.