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The Women’s Economic Agenda: A Path to Increased Opportunity and Stronger Economic Growth

Corporate profits have done well in the lopsided recovery and the stock market is hovering near record highs. Working women and men have been left behind, however, as companies have failed to translate these improvements into robust job growth, rising wages or improvements in the quality of jobs. Income gains since the economy bottomed out in July 2009 have all gone to the top 1 percent of households.

Women lost fewer jobs than men in the recession; the slow recovery in men’s jobs requires far more attention from policy makers than it has received. But women have also fared poorly as job creation has predominantly occurred in low wage jobs as retail sales clerks, restaurant wait staff, child care workers, cashiers and food service. Protracted problems facing women workers that preceded the recession have only been exacerbated by slow employment growth. 

Perhaps the most meaningful measure of women’s economic opportunity is the share of women between the ages of 25 and 54 – the prime years for both motherhood and employment – that actually have jobs. In 1990, the U.S. was a leader in terms of employment opportunities for women. Today, it is a laggard. In the years preceding the recession, 72.5 percent of prime age women in the U.S. held jobs. Now it is 69.2 percent – barely above its post-recession low of 69.0% in 2011 and the same as the employment rate of women in Japan, a country not known for providing women with economic opportunities. In fact, the U.S. ranks 24th out of 34 industrialized countries, behind not only the Nordic countries and the major countries of continental Europe, but behind the rest of the English-speaking world (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the U.K.).  

The failure of U.S. businesses to create the jobs a growing workforce requires is one reason that the share of prime age women with jobs is relatively low. But it is also due in no small measure to the lack of policies that let a woman go to work knowing that her children are well cared for and that she won’t lose her job if she needs to be there for her family. Employment standards have not been updated to match the 21st century realities that working women and their families face. It’s no secret that workers paid the minimum wage cannot buy the basics for their families. Their lack of purchasing power means less business for the groceries, pharmacies, repair shops and stores in their communities. Except in Connecticut and a half a dozen cities, U.S. workers are not guaranteed the right to earn paid sick days; and a shocking 40 percent of American workers lack even one paid sick day. Just three states make it possible for workers to contribute to a state insurance fund so they can draw income when they need to be home to care for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a new child. Pregnant women have few protections against discrimination on the job, and workers with family responsibilities often find themselves passed over for training and advancement opportunities. Few working families have access to affordable, quality child care and pre-school for their young children.

In July 1848, five women braved ridicule and insult to call for an assembly to demand an end to the constraints holding women back. 300 women and men met in Seneca Falls, New York and declared that it was time to update the nation’s laws and business practices to respect the contributions of all women, to end slavery, to give women the vote, to let women keep the wages they earned, to reduce barriers that prevent women from entering ‘male’ occupations, and to improve the inhumane working conditions prevalent in factories and mills. On July 18 of this year, minority leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Women of the House will launch an agenda that addresses the economic challenges facing women and families today. The planks of this agenda call for raising wages for women and their families, enabling working parents to take paid leaves when they must care for their families, and providing access to quality and affordable child care.

The Women’s Economic Agenda, launched on the 165th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, holds the promise of higher earnings and more secure employment for women and men and higher growth for the economy as families feel more confident about the future and have more income to spend. And, like that earlier document, the Agenda increases economic opportunity for workers and promotes a stronger and more robust economy.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Eileen Appelbaum

Eileen Appelbaum is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC, Fellow at Rutgers University Center for Women and Work, and Visiting Professor at the University of Leicester, UK.

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