20 years after Senate run, Yeakel still pushing for change

Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 in Philadelphia with fellow candidate Lynn Yeakel.
Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 in Philadelphia with fellow candidate Lynn Yeakel. (J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / Associated Press)
Posted: October 30, 2012

Twenty years after Lynn Yeakel challenged Arlen Specter for the U.S. Senate, the idea that 1992 was the "year of the woman" seems as quaint as it does sad.

If Yeakel had won, she would have been the first female senator from Pennsylvania. No woman has come close since. No woman has ever been the state's governor. Only one woman serves in the state's congressional delegation. No woman has ever been elected mayor in the commonwealth's largest city. And among the 50 state legislatures, Pennsylvania ranks 43d in the proportion of women, only 17 percent.

Nationally, the numbers are not much better. The female half of the nation is represented by only 17 percent of their gender in the U.S. Senate, 16.8 percent in the U.S. House, and 23.4 percent of governorships and other state executive offices.

Yet Yeakel remains optimistic.

She has her sights on achieving equality for women by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote. And one of her primary objectives is realizing the overdue promise of equal pay for equal work - a promise first made in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law.

"We will get to these goals. I'm absolutely convinced it's time," she said this month during an interview at Drexel University's College of Medicine, where she directs the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership.

Women remain a small minority in the executive ranks of most major U.S. institutions, law firms, hospitals, investment houses, banks, and Fortune 500 companies. And although half of the nation's mothers work full time and in 40 percent of American families they provide the major source of income, in nearly every profession women earn significantly less than men.

Just last week, the American Association of University Women released a report showing that straight out of college, women are paid 7 percent to 18 percent less than men for exactly the same jobs.

"Parents who are paying for their children's college tuition should be outraged that the return on their investment for their daughters is going to be less than the return on investment for their sons," Yeakel said.

In her effort to right this lopsided tanker, Yeakel, 71, founded Vision 2020. She enlisted former CoreStates chief executive Rosemarie Greco, now director of Exelon Corp., as cochair, and recruited hundreds of "ally" organizations across the country, including the American Bar Association and Rock the Vote.

"I feel that what we are doing is finishing the work of the suffragists, because our progress has been much much too slow."

Yeakel, the daughter of a Virginia congressman, was active in the Junior League on the Main Line in the 1970s when she founded Women's Way, to raise money for women's services that had been neglected or ignored by traditional philanthropists.

In 1992, she entered politics, riding the national wave of indignation over Specter's treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. After losing to Specter and two years later making an unsuccessful run in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania governor, she became regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In her last bid for public office, she ran for state Senate in 2000, losing by 800 votes. Two years later, she joined Drexel.

"Lynn clearly understands that the economy is critically dependent on women having access to funds and a voice in shared decisions," said Greco. "Nothing is going to change until we're really at the roundtable where decisions are made. It's irrational to think that corporations and other institutions are doing as well as they can when they only have half the population in leadership."

President Obama's signature on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 extended the statute of limitations for those who have been discriminated against to file lawsuits. Yet, despite scores of studies proving that women with equal qualifications, education, talent, productivity, and experience are consistently paid less than men, efforts to strengthen the law requiring equal pay for equal work have repeatedly failed.

"We need to recognize that far too many people, both men and women, believe unequal pay is a myth," Greco said.

The most recent bill was defeated in June by a strict party-line vote. Among the opponents were Maine's Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

"I support equal pay for equal work," Collins said in a statement. "I remain concerned that this particular legislation would unnecessarily expose the small business community to excessive litigation, and impose increased costs and restrictions on businesses . . ."

That argument strikes Roberta Liebenberg as ludicrous.

There would be no need for litigation if employers paid women fairly, said Liebenberg, an antitrust lawyer in Philadelphia and chair of the American Bar Association's Gender Equity Task Force. And furthermore, she said, even though increasing women's salaries will mean an increase in payroll costs, aside from being the right thing to do, it will also increase their buying power, which will hasten the economy's recovery.

"This is not a woman's issue, it's a family issue," said Liebenberg, a Vision 2020 board member. Progress depends on the public understanding the causes and impact of economic discrimination.

"I'm furious about it. I have been furious about it for many years. Women have been way too patient and nice. We need some righteous indignation."

During a panel discussion Yeakel moderated in September in New York City, high-ranking women engineers, investment bankers, attorneys, and accountants offered stark examples of how sexism persists. One described an executive retreat held in a men's lounge where there were no women's restrooms. Another told how a colleague complained he couldn't see why she insisted on attending the firm's executive golf outing, when the women "could have had a picnic in Central Park."

But the panelists also talked about male coworkers who championed their careers, mentored them, and advocated their promotions. Repeating the same lament that Yeakel has heard for more than 30 years, these leaders urged women to be bolder advocates for themselves, to have more confidence in themselves as leaders, to venture into the socially forbidden territory of talking about money, finding out how much colleagues earn, and daring to ask to be paid fairly.

"Those of us who have been around have heard this all before," Yeakel said. "It's frustrating."

Through Vision 2020, she said, she hopes to finally "move the needle." The effort is nonpartisan. But it has been organizing conferences and chapters on college campuses, disseminating educational materials, providing speakers and guidance for companies trying to address gender inequity.

She watched closely during the second presidential debate, when 24-year-old preschool teacher Katherine Fenton asked the candidates about pay equity.

Afterward Yeakel said she was heartened that Obama spoke about Ledbetter and drew the connection between women's health and a family's economic well-being.

But she wishes more had been said.

"Closing the pay gap is a piece of ensuring women's financial independence and economic equality," she said. "It impacts everything about a family life. If more women speak up, we will be able to change our society. And it will be a positive change because a lot of things need fixing."

Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com

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