After winning historic representation in the Colorado legislature in 2018, women legislators brought their lived experiences as workers, business owners, mothers, and caregivers to the state Capitol. Now, these lawmakers are sponsoring a collection of bills that address how gender inequities in the workforce impact women over the course of their careers. “Women being around the table changes the conversation,” says Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail). “If your elected body does not represent the same mix as the state, then you are not exactly hitting the mark of representational government.”

Female-sponsored legislation to drive equal pay for equal work, allow local governments to set minimum wages, create a family leave insurance program, and increase retirement savings have been brought up throughout the session, with a goal of leveling the playing field for working women and their families. While these bills affect all Coloradans, lawmakers say they would disproportionately impact how women earn, spend, and save in an evolving workforce.

On average, Colorado women earn 81.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man—a statistic that barely budged over the last decade. Over a 40-year career, that means Colorado women lose $405,440 to a lifetime gender pay gap, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The intersection of gender and race creates an even wider gap for women of color in Colorado, who face lifetime wage losses of $915,000 for black women, $1.09 million for Native women, and $1.14 million for Latina women. “Placing all of our focus on one identity, gender, can actually undermine the very real and very persistent ways in which both implicit and explicit racism and bias continue to permeate our society,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Denver) while discussing an Equal Pay Resolution on the Senate floor. 

While some pay inequities result from intentional discrimination, others are systemic. The inflexible 9-to-5 workday, for example, no longer represents today’s working families, or the evolving nature of work, according to the 2018 report by Bell Policy Center. In Colorado, about 64 percent of young children live in households where all available adults are in the workforce, and 28 percent live in households headed by a single parent, according to Kids Count Data Center. “When you look at it that way, a woman’s wages and access to benefits is more important than ever,” says Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center.

Here’s how this all adds up on a larger scale: If Colorado increased women’s full-time workforce participation, balanced unpaid work more equitably between genders, and readjusted the sectors where women predominantly work, the state could add $40 billion to its economy by 2025. And that impact could have a major benefit to all Coloradans.

“There is not a zero-sum game,” says Katica Roy, CEO of Denver-based Pipeline Equity, an organization that helps companies close pay gaps. “When you look at gender equity through the lens of economics, it is good for everyone.”

To understand how women’s leadership impacts legislation, we take a look at the various bills circulating through the legislature that are intended to help women (and men) rise in the workforce.  

Leveling the Playing Field

The path to parity is complicated, in part because of how many factors contribute to intersecting gender and race inequities. and because of how those inequities compound over the course of women’s lives. “The way forward is addressing as many of these complex and interconnected issues as possible,” says Louise Myrland, vice president of programs for the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.  

That’s the challenge female legislators are taking on this session, starting with a bill to help level the playing field for low-wage earners. Women face gender pay gaps across every age, income level, and industry. But there’s also a disproportionate number of women on the bottom rung of the career ladder. Although there are more men in the workforce, Colorado women account for nearly seven in 10 minimum-wage jobs—with women of color holding a disproportionate number of these positions, according to the NWLC. In Colorado, nearly 90 percent of mothers of color who are raising young children don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs, says Myrland.

Next week, the Senate Business, Labor, & Technology committee will vote on a bill sponsored by Sen. Jessie Danielson (D-Wheat Ridge) and Rep. Rochelle Galindo (D-Greeley) to allow local cities and counties to set their own minimum wages. Colorado’s current minimum wage is $11.10 per hour and will increase to $12 in 2020, but many metro areas have a higher cost of living. While some business organizations object to the bill, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has already announced a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 for city employees and contractors—proof that this issue may also gain support in other localities.

Increasing Economic Mobility

Women not only start lower down the ladder, they also face pay gaps that make it difficult to rise. Women earn more college degrees than men, but often need to invest in an extra degree to meet men’s salaries. A woman with a master’s degree, for example, earns roughly the same as a man with a bachelor’s degree. “There are different returns of investment that people make in their education and employment based on gender bias and racism,” says Myrland.

The Equal Pay for Equal Work bill, which passed the Senate last week and is now moving through the House, aims to narrow the gender pay gap for women and their families. Sponsored by Danielson, Janet Buckner (D-Aurora), Sen. Brittany Pettersen (D-Lakewood) and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez (D-Denver), the bill would increase wage transparency by requiring all workers to receive notifications of advancement opportunities in their organizations. The bill would also prohibit employers from asking about past wages so that pay inequities don’t carry into new jobs.

Additionally, the Equal Pay bill would enable people to seek remedies for gender discrimination through civil actions. Last year, the University of Denver settled a $2.7 million gender pay lawsuit with seven female law professors. One of the biggest issues was a lack of wage transparency that prevented faculty—and their peers—from knowing they were underpaid, says Catherine Smith, a DU law professor who was a plaintiff in the suit. “It’s important to understand that individual interactions do lead to disparities in pay, but it is also systemic,” she says. “That’s why transparency is so key.”

Creating Family-Friendly Workplaces

Gender inequity compounds as women have children, even when controlling for time away from the workforce. Studies show a common bias among employers who see fathers as more committed to work and mothers as more distracted. In one study, the resulting “mommy penalty” decreased women’s pay 4 percent for each child, while men with at least one child saw earnings rise more than 6 percent. A separate study from the Federal Reserve Bank dispels that gender bias, showing that working mothers are more productive than workers without children at almost every stage of life.

Working mothers also face long-term earnings penalties when they take unpaid leave from the workforce (even temporarily), losing not only earnings, but also Social Security benefits and retirement savings. As a result, one in four women return to work after just two weeks, which is too soon for babies to go into childcare or for new mothers to fully recuperate from childbirth.  

After weighing the exorbitant costs of childcare and lost wages, some women simply don’t go back to work. In Colorado, more women are exiting the workforce—a decline projected to continue into 2025. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that if women participated in the labor force at the same rate as in other developed countries that have paid leave policies, it could create more than $500 billion of additional economic activity per year. Family-leave policies also support those who need to take an extended reprieve from work due to health concerns or to care for aging adults—another role that women are more likely to take on.

To help ease these penalties, Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster), Sen. Angela Williams (D-Denver), and Rep. Monica Duran (D-Wheat Ridge) sponsored the Family Leave Insurance Program, which passed the Senate Finance committee on a 4–3 vote on April 9. The bill would create an insurance program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to an eligible person who takes time off from work to care for a new child, family member, or their own serious health condition. Employees and employers would share the costs of a premium based on a percentage of the employee’s yearly wages.

According to Winter, this bill is a result of having more women in the legislature to bring different life experiences to the forefront. “When you don’t have women at the table making decisions, you don’t think of what it’s like to be on bed rest, the way I had to be, or what it’s like when most women are the caregivers for the elderly,” she says. “You don’t see the impact and you don’t feel that struggle and stress.”

Closing the Retirement Gap

As women near retirement, the gender parity gap only expands. While young women typically earn 92 cents for every dollar their male counterparts are paid, the disparity widens to 77 cents for working women age 65 or older. This is exacerbated by the fact that women typically live longer than men and face age discrimination in the workforce that makes it harder to catch up on lost savings, says Roy from Pipeline Equity.

In addition to lost wages and motherhood penalties, women also spend more than men on education, consumer goods, and healthcare, which further impacts retirement savings. As a result of gender disparities in how women earn, spend, and save, women have median retirement savings of $42,000, while men save three times as much, with a median savings of $123,000, according to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Pettersen, Donovan, and Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp (D-Arvada) have sponsored a bill—it’s scheduled to go before the Senate Appropriations Committee next week—that would create a Secure Savings Plan Board to study the impact of creating a public-private secure savings plan to enable small businesses to offer a low-fee IRA to employees. The bill targets more than 80 percent of Coloradans who don’t have employer-sponsored retirement plans, and the small businesses that can’t afford to provide them. Statewide, 56 percent of Hispanic workers, 49 percent of black workers, and 44 percent of female workers lack employer-sponsored plans.

Both the family leave insurance and secure savings plans are designed to be portable, so that workers who are contractors, self-employed, or have multiple jobs can carry over benefits, says Winter. In Colorado, women are twice as likely as men to work part-time and have also doubled their participation in the “gig” economy over the last decade, according to the Bell Policy Center. “A lot of the legislation that you’re seeing this session is saying how do we not punish people for the color of their skin or the gender that they identify by,” Donovan says.

Bringing the story of gender inequity full circle, Winter is also sponsoring a bill to further increase women’s representation in the legislature. The Campaign Contributions Dependent Care Expenses bill, which passed the Senate on 26–6 vote on April 12 and now heads to the House, would enable parents who are running for office to use campaign funds to reimburse child-care expenses.

“I don’t want just independently wealthy women or older woman who don’t have children to run,” says Winter, who brings her own children to campaign events and the Capitol.” The more diverse women in leadership positions, the better lawmakers can understand—and uproot—the systemic gender and race inequities that compound over women’s lives. “I don’t hide from the identity of being a mom. I actually embrace it,” says Winter. “And that’s when democracy works best.”