It's not just the pay gap [Commentary]

Women are often the backbones of our families — deftly balancing the needs of the household with their personal goals and career ambitions. Over the past few decades that balance has become increasingly important. According to the Pew Research Center, last year 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 had mothers who were either the sole or primary source of income for their families.

This is a drastic shift that matches the growth of the female workforce. Women now make up nearly half or the labor force, jumping from just over one-third in 1970. Yet what hasn't changed, despite the number of full-time female workers, are the disparities in pay and societal perceptions that keep our women from making the glass ceiling a thing of the past.


Over the past month, I've had the opportunity to sit down with focus groups of women — in business, education, and the military — to discuss some of these disparities. What I learned goes beyond the long-standing and well publicized pay gap.

At a roundtable with 20 or so women in business, many of whom own their own firms, I was surprised to find how much of the discussion focused on access to capital and resources after their firms had gotten off the ground. One of the women in attendance shared a story about a conversation she once had with male peer. While discussing her business, he noted how wonderful it was to have something like this to do "on the side."


She immediately understood the meaning — that by nature of being female, her business was a hobby, and nothing more. It's an idea that we reinforce by offering women-owned businesses a number of resources to start with but few that allow them to move from small firms to the large employers we rely on to propel our economy. And it's something that needs to change.

When I met with women in education and STEM fields, perception of women's roles was a central theme yet again. There, an engineer noted how often she finds that she's the only woman in the room. And at a roundtable with women in the military, many noted that because of requirements that they serve in combat, few women have been able to reach senior leadership.

By continuing to support and spread the policies and perceptions that hold our nation's women back, we're limiting the growth of our economy, the strength that comes from diversity in our workforce, and the potential of many families to reach the middle class. We need to make changes — and we need to make sure American women succeed.

Recently, my colleagues in the House have put forward an economic agenda focused on supporting our nation's women. It includes policies that will improve work-life balance by ensuring paid sick leave and providing quality child care for working mothers, and policies that will help us close the pay gap once and for all. But after hearing the stories and suggestions of women at these roundtables, I know there's even more that we can do.

With that in mind, I'm hosting a Women's Economic Agenda Town Hall Forum on Tuesday at Morgan State University ( I hope to continue the discussions we started in those small groups and to work collaboratively to find new, creative solutions to some of the issues raised. Together, we can give our nation's women the resources to succeed — and make America much stronger in the process.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is a Democratic congressman from Baltimore. His email is Rep.Cummings@Mail.House.Gov.

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