A new era for the ERA?

In a moment of reckoning for women’s equality, lawmakers and investors are teaming up to push for change in corporate boardrooms, executive suites, and across the country — and that’s generating renewed interest in an Equal Rights Amendment.

Propelled by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, women are flexing their power to confront everything from gender pay disparities and harassment to the lack of legal protections and corporate diversity.

“The #MeToo movement really has given the women’s movement a lot of strength, but we now need to harness it into positive change,” including finally passing the Equal Rights Amendment, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney said during an interview in her congressional office.

The New York Democrat is among several members of her party proposing ERA legislation in the House and Senate. Congress approved the amendment in 1972, which would add language to the Constitution guaranteeing equal rights regardless of a person’s sex. The ERA required approval from three-quarters of states and fell three shy when a 1982 deadline passed.

Maloney reintroduced a resolution in January that would propose the ERA. If the measure could find two-thirds support in the House and Senate — a very steep climb — it would relaunch the 38-state ratification process from scratch. It has 131 co-sponsors, among them one Republican, Rep. Tom Reed of New York.

Another resolution, from California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, would remove the ERA’s ratification deadline, setting the stage for the amendment’s implementation if one more state legislature approves it. Two states have ratified the ERA since 1982.

Many ERA supporters believe there’s precedent for Congress to extend the deadline for state ratification and for accepting approvals that came after the original deadline, according to the pro-ERA Alice Paul Institute. Some states have rescinded ratification, which this model would discount, leaving the process vulnerable to court challenges.

Democrats on April 30 held a hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment — the first in decades — featuring testimony from Maloney and Speier before a House Judiciary subcommittee. The panel’s highest-ranking Republican, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, said at the hearing that the ERA would threaten anti-abortion laws.

Maloney describes the ERA as an essential starting point for addressing inequalities women face, and disputes any connection to abortion rights. She views the ERA and other women’s equality issues as interwoven, and believes the constitutional amendment would aid other objectives.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel declined to comment on the prospects for an ERA or other gender equality initiatives, but in an email he referenced a letter expressing the organization’s support for the Equality Act, a bill that passed the House last week that would add civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Joining the fight

Key investors are warming to the task and have begun wading into issues such as workforce or anti-harassment practices. They are increasingly expecting corporate leaders to address social and environmental concerns, pointing to the risk of a scandal or mismanagement that could alienate customers, employees or potential hires.

The #MeToo movement and numerous revelations of sexual misconduct involving high-profile executives are underscoring for many investors the need for better corporate management of diversity, harassment and equity.

The largest asset managers are no longer satisfied with all-male boards. Along with Maloney’s bill and other congressional efforts, investors are pressing boards to report their diversity and to consider diverse candidates for director openings.

That’s one focus of Trustees United, a movement by women who oversee California pension funds to urge investors to pressure corporations. They warn that company value can plunge in response to a sexual misconduct scandal and that long-term value is lost when sexual misconduct or harassment affects corporate culture.

Trustees United began when board members of California pension funds attended a panel discussion where hotel workers shared “heart-wrenching stories” of sexual assault and harassment, said Sharon Hendricks, board vice chair of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS, and a community college professor in Los Angeles. The founding members were all women who serve or have served on boards of four California pension funds including two of the country’s largest funds, CalSTRS and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS. The number of signatories to Trustees United’s four principles has since swelled to 45.

“We all have stories of issues where we’re treated differently because we’re women or sexualized in some way,” Hendricks said. “So we started talking and we were counting the dollar signs between our four funds and we represent over $600 billion in assets. … We thought, there’s power in money.”

Labor unions are also responding to #MeToo with about a dozen shareholder proposals seeking information from companies on the risks they face related to sexual harassment and mandatory arbitration policies, Brandon Rees of the AFL-CIO said.

“We’re seeing a groundswell of activism from not only women but from men as well that view the current inequities as unsustainable,” said Natasha Lamb, the managing partner of sustainable and impact investing firm Arjuna Capital.

The pay gap

Lamb is calling on 11 companies to reveal the divide between median female employee pay and median male employee pay, data that reveals more about who occupies a company’s top ranks and higher-paid positions.

A 12th company targeted by Arjuna, Citigroup, said in January that while women are paid 99 percent of male counterparts globally, median pay to women is 71 percent of what men receive. The banking company listed goals to narrow the imbalance, including increasing representation of women in posts from assistant vice president to managing director to at least 40 percent by the end of 2021.

Median pay gap imbalances ripple through an organization, Lamb said. She said having more women in higher-paying top roles leads to more diversity, better business results and cultural change throughout a company.

“It’s not difficult for people to speak the same language when it comes to money,” Lamb said. “If there’s a business case for change, then why wouldn’t you move forward? There’s an equalizing factor there that cuts across political lines.”

Lifelong goal

While passing the ERA is about broad goals like the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and promoting better corporate treatment of female workers, it has personal meaning for Maloney, 73.

“If there is one thing I could do in my lifetime,” she said, “it would be to play a role in passing it.”

As she watched Senate hearings for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, a professor who said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, Maloney said she felt the amendment’s necessity underscored.

Kavanaugh was confirmed on a mostly party-line vote of Republican support and Democratic opposition that Maloney said was “greased.”

“It finally dawned on me,” she said. “We can’t stop him, but we can define the document that he is limited in interpreting. So passing that is what is so important because once women are in that document, they can’t screw us.”