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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 30, 2002

Group pushes city to fight discrimination Group pushes city to fight discrimination (January 30, 2002)

Goal is to ratify United Nations protection for women

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

Women's rights activists are pressuring Palo Alto city leaders to adopt a resolution to fight against gender discrimination.

Palo Altans Roberta Riedel and Helen Young were among a group of panelists who met at the YWCA in Palo Alto last Wednesday to discuss why they believe Palo Alto should sign a treaty first introduced at a 1979 United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In the past 22 years, 168 nations have ratified the treaty, agreeing to enforce polices that ensure women and girls receive equal access to economic development, education, safety and health care. The U.S. is the only industrialized country yet to ratify. So in recent years, 19 states and various cities have taken matters into their own hands, voting to endorse CEDAW or adopt its provisions within their jurisdiction.

"If the country's not going to do it, we've got to do it," said panelist Sheila De Lany. A longtime activist on the Santa Cruz County Women's Commission, De Lany is pushing to pass the resolution in that city as well.

Panelists said passing CEDAW in Palo Alto would be more than a symbolic gesture, it would help bring attention to a problem that affects many women in Silicon Valley.

For example, Young said, even though women are well-represented on the Palo Alto City Council, opportunity in the workforce has not been equal. "We always hear that at the top of the corporate world, women are not there," she said.

In addition, the very structure of work in the valley, which generally requires employees to put in long hours, makes it difficult for women to raise children and also have satisfying careers.

San Francisco was the first U.S. city to adopt CEDAW in 1998. Panelist Ann Lehman, a policy analyst for the Commission on the Status of Women, was active in getting the resolution passed.

"As much as San Francisco is a progressive city, we have a long way to go before women are treated gender equitably," she said.

Beyond passing the resolution, San Francisco also funded a task force to identify areas where gender discrimination impacted access to city jobs and services. For instance, the task force looked at the city's juvenile justice system and found that although young male and female delinquents had access to similar services, those provided did not meet the needs of young women. Unlike their male counterparts, nearly all of the incarcerated young women had suffered from physical, sexual or emotional abuse and needed counseling addressing that problem specifically.

What's the point of adopting a treaty like this when the U.S. already has existing equal protection laws? Supporters say under the current system, the onus is on the individual to prove, through the court system, she has been a victim of discrimination. CEDAW calls for a more proactive approach, asking governments themselves to identify and change practices that limit women's rights and freedoms.

Despite the conventional wisdom that gender discrimination in the U.S. is on the decline, a recently-released report gave evidence to the contrary: The Department of Labor found that during the economic boom years of 1995 to 2000 the earnings gap between men and women actually widened.

Activists may have trouble convincing Palo Alto's City Council that adopting the treaty should be a priority. Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg was among an audience of roughly 40 women and two men who attended the panel discussion.

After the discussion, Kleinberg said she wasn't sure it would be useful to pass CEDAW in Palo Alto unless it had "teeth," meaning there would be financial backing. On the other hand, she didn't feel there was enough public support for using city dollars for this purpose.

"The city is extraordinarily wary of new initiatives that would divert staff time . . . if it's not a top priority for the community," she said. "There's tremendous pressures on us to focus our resources and tremendous criticism when we don't."

She admitted passing an unfunded resolution might offer a first step in terms of educating the public about the problem of gender discrimination, but made no promises she would take the lead. Kleinberg said her first priority would be to find out what had happened to another anti-discrimination ordinance that has been held up for some time in the city attorney's office.

In the meantime, Kleinberg encouraged activists to spend their time building support within the community by educating the public and gathering data to help convince residents and city officials that gender discrimination is a serious enough problem to merit city action.

E-mail Jennifer Berry at [email protected]


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