Women Power US Economic Engine

One of the biggest stories of the past 50 years has been the movement of women into the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers. The income mothers and wives bring home has changed how we live, what we buy, and improved our quality of life while men’s wages have remained largely flat. It has also been a primary driver of the expanding American economy, as Janet Yellen, the first female Chair of the Federal Reserve, pointed out recently at a Women’s History Month celebration on Capitol Hill. “Making fuller use of the talents and efforts of women in the workplace has made us more productive and prosperous.” For once, credit is being given to women for their power and effort as valuable economic actors.

In spite of hostility, discrimination, and persistent barriers to equality and success, the steady flow of women into the labor force was the fuel that fired the engine of economic expansion. Turning that wealth of talent and ability into paychecks and marketable output transforms our society, empowering women and benefitting the nation as a whole. However, we remain a very long way from realizing the full potential of this half of the population.

Only in the US  do mothers work without the benefit of a guaranteed paid maternity leave program. With few options, we can only hope our employer offers some paid time off, or we can quit, or drag ourselves right back to work. Paid leave for fathers is even more rare, so few women can hand the baby off to Dad as they head back to work. Every time a job is interrupted, you lose the ground you’ve gained and cycle back in to start the climb again. So women’s income remains blunted by caregiving, their families don’t see the lost earnings, and their potential is never fully maximized by the market.

The inefficiency is obvious in the gap between the high percentage of female graduates and the low proportion of women in leadership of any field. Women are better educated than ever before, and have been awarded more degrees, at every level, than men for years. Nonetheless, we remain only 18% of the US Congress, 15% of Fortune 500 executive level posts, 29% of all tenure track positions in academia, 15% of equity partners in law firms, and just 25% of top leadership positions in medical school faculty, regulatory agencies, and hospital administration. It is not a question of having patience and allowing women time to work their way through the pipeline. Study after study has established that women’s increase in the upper echelons has either stalled or slowed to a glacial pace.

Having established their competency and desire, women nonetheless fail to progress throughout their careers in anything resembling the proportion in which they started. While the reasons for this are varied, there is no doubt that had women fully realized their market potential, and achieved leadership representation on a par with their percentage of the population, the benefit to the economy would have been even more dramatic. Imagine if equal pay was a reality, and childcare was readily available and affordable. Imagine if work could be harmoniously woven into the caregiving we do for our families. Imagine if women could fully utilize and be paid for all they know and can do. Our failure to craft an infrastructure which permits these things is actually a lost opportunity of immense proportions, not to mention a threat to our global competitiveness.

Chair Yellen is fully aware of this. “I would hope that our nation continues to reap the benefits of greater participation by women in the economy and that we do everything that we can to foster that participation.” America, are you listening?

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