What politicians get wrong about the fall in women’s employment

October 31, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
<> on October 28, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado.
GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Marco Rubio at CNBC's October 28 debate.
Justin Sullivan 2015 Getty Images

If presidential aspirants and the American people want to really understand the differing levels of participation in the workforce between men and women as well as the gap in pay, then they need to look at America’s failure to implement policies that reconcile the demands of work and family in our society.

In the half a century since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, women have increasingly gained greater opportunities in the workplace. Most tellingly, women’s rising hours of work and higher earnings have kept many families afloat financially. As male earnings fell due to a lack of wage growth and falling employment over the past several decades, the traditional male breadwinner soon had a companion in the labor market—women’s greater employment and earnings are the reason family incomes grew at all since the 1970s.

These changes have been good for families and good for the overall economy as well. According to Stanford University economist Peter Klenow and his colleagues, the entry of women and minorities into the workplace accounted for a fifth of overall economic growth between 1960 and 2008. My own research with John Schmitt and Eileen Appelbaum finds similar effects.

It’s clear that if we want to increase the pace of economic growth, we should make it easier for more women to work. We all know that the gender pay gap remains at 78 cents on the dollar. And, after a rapid rise in the 1970s and 1980s, the percent of working women has screeched to a halt over the past 15 years and is now on the decline. But what is less well known (except among economists) is that this gap in pay (as well as the gap in labor force participation) between men and women are due in no small part to our inability to help workers with child care or elder care responsibilities.

The U.S. used to rank 7th among 24 developed countries in terms of labor force participation. Our rank now stands at 17th as other countries have figured out a way to enact family friendly measures that allow more women to pursue long-term careers, while balancing the needs of their families. The lack of policies such as paid family leave, flexible schedules, affordable child care, and a higher minimum wage overwhelmingly disadvantages female caregivers. And, with men taking on a larger share of the responsibility for child care and elder care, they too are facing a workplace that makes it impossible to be a good worker while handling family demands.

It is great to see politicians on both sides of the aisle engaging in a lively debate about women’s economic security. But a serious discussion requires a more careful look at how our lack of family friendly workplace policies hold back almost half of our workforce. This is an urgent task that not only benefits women but the health of the economy as a whole.

Heather Boushey is executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict.

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