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In tackling the country’s biggest problems, Biden and Harris need to prioritize gender and racial equity

December 17, 2020, 10:00 PM UTC
From left: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris along with Biden administration nominees Avril Haines, John Kerry, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield at an event on November 24 in Wilmington, Del. To best address the nation's current crises, the administration will need to systematically take gender and racial equity into account, writes Katica Roy.

During the Democratic presidential primaries, both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris committed to what is called gender mainstreaming of policy issues. In other words, each promised to apply the gender lens when making major policy decisions: How would Policy X impact the 51% of our population that is female; and how would that differ from its impact on the other 49% that is male? 

In his Agenda for Women, Biden also committed to creating a White House Council on Gender Equality. This council, to be chaired by a senior member of the Executive Office of the President, will do something that many economists (including myself) have been urging the government to do for decades: evaluate policies through an intersectional gender lens.

The intersectional gender lens takes the idea of gender mainstreaming a step further by factoring in not only gender, but also race and ethnicity in policy evaluation. This more nuanced view of how policies impact the population leads to more efficient, more effective allocation of resources.

And this approach will be key to achieving the new administration’s goals when it comes to tackling what Biden and Harris recently announced as their top four priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change.


Putting an intersectional gender lens on COVID-19 response efforts would not only lead to more efficient resource allocation, it would also help reverse deepening economic inequity. 

As it stands, none of the over $2 trillion in economic stimulus deployed by the U.S. government to combat COVID-19 so far has been allocated with this lens in mind. Instead of creating a targeted response plan that took into account the unique experiences of each gender and race/ethnicity, government resources were distributed broadly. Policymakers have seemed ignorant of the extent to which the pandemic hindered women and people of color to a greater degree on multiple levels.  

To give one example of what COVID-19 response efforts look like through the intersectional gender lens, consider that women hold over 75% of healthcare jobs, according to the Census Bureau. They also dominate caregiving roles within the industry. They make up 89% of registered nurses, 88% of nurse practitioners, and 87% of healthcare support workers. Among those 87% of support workers (which include home health aides and nursing assistants), a remarkable 23% are Black women. 

Despite their work on the front lines, women healthcare workers in the U.S. are paid less than men. In 2018, a female healthcare support worker brought home $0.83 for every $1 her male counterparts brought home. Over a lifetime, that adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost economic opportunity, mobility, and security. Decades of pay inequity, such as that experienced by our front-line heroes, created cracks in the country’s economic foundation. And when the crisis hit, the foundation collapsed. But the COVID response so far hasn’t taken these disparate impacts into account.

To rebuild the foundation of our economy post-crisis, we need a recovery plan that accounts for the systemic cracks (including pay inequity and many others) that COVID-19 has so swiftly brought to the surface. 

Economic recovery 

If women in the U.S. were compensated for the “second shift” of unpaid labor, including childcare and housework, they would earn an additional $40,000 each year, on average. But as we know, women are not compensated for their unpaid work, and our economic recovery is in jeopardy because of it. With women continuing to burn both ends of the stick faster than before, it’s time we thoughtfully reconsider the long-term impact of relegating them to be the country’s social safety net. 

We are already witnessing women fall out of the workforce at a rapid clip. Our economy has been set back three years in terms of the number of women participating in the labor force, and 32 years in terms of the rate of women participating in the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And while white women have recovered 61% of the jobs they lost during the pandemic, the Washington Post reported that Black women have recovered only 34% of their jobs.

Since achieving equity in the labor force is key to reviving the middle class, boosting consumer spending, expanding the economy by $789 billion, and ultimately unlocking the $2 trillion economic opportunity of intersectional gender equity, it’s paramount to create a recovery plan with the needs of our most vulnerable (i.e., women and people of color) at the core. This is the only way we can truly build back better. 

To accomplish such a task, we need a more complete view of our economy than what we have historically been given. What does the economy look like for a Black breadwinner mom? What does the economy look like for a same-sex couple? What does the economy look like for a stay-at-home dad whose spouse was denied a promotion because of pregnancy bias

Without a nuanced, intersectional understanding of our economy, recovery efforts will continuously fall short and lead to deeper economic inequity. It’s time we start horizontally integrating gender, race, and ethnicity into all phases of the policy lifecycle. From ideation to creation to evaluation, intersectional gender data is key to unlocking insights that will sharpen our recovery efforts.  

Racial equity 

President-elect Biden recognizes the importance of building an economy that welcomes all Americans as full participants. To build the type of economy, where, as Biden has put it, “every American enjoys a fair return for their work, and an equal chance to get ahead,” our elected officials need a mechanism to embed myriad lived experiences into the policy-making process. 

As outlined in their top four priorities plan, the Biden-Harris administration aims to achieve racial equity via thirteen smaller goals. Let’s take a look at just one goal, “boosting retirement security and financial wealth for Black, Brown, and Native Families,” through the intersectional gender lens.  

First, we need to understand why boosting retirement and financial wealth matters. Black, Brown, and Native families face pay gaps that dampen wealth creation, economic security, and overall wellbeing. Latina Equal Pay Day, for instance, took place on October 29 this year—which is symbolic of the extra ten months Latina women had to work to catch up to the earnings of non-Hispanic white men from 2019. With the average Latina woman experiencing a lifetime wage gap of $1.1 million (as compared to non-Hispanic white men), it’s no wonder the poverty rate of Latina-headed households is nearly four times the aggregate U.S. poverty rate (39% vs. 10.5%). 

So how might we begin to use this information to shape more targeted, efficient, and equitable policy solutions to boost retirement security and financial wealth for Black, Brown, and Native families? Perhaps we should pass legislation to ensure pay equity. Maybe we need to forgive student loan debt because it disproportionately takes money out of women’s wallets before they even have an opportunity to start building wealth. (Yes, there’s such a thing as a student loan debt gender gap.)

Climate change 

As Vice President-elect Harris has said, “It’s a woman’s issue to care about climate change.” Women are 51% of the U.S. population, and they—together with their lived experiences, unique perspectives, and specific talents—need to be integrated into climate solutions.  

When it comes to disaster management, I wonder what the recovery of Hurricane Katrina would have looked like had the intersectional gender lens been applied to recovery efforts. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council83% of single mothers could not return to their homes two years post-hurricane. What resources would we have distributed to meet the needs of those women if we’d been thinking in terms of equity? What pathways for reemployment would we have created for the women who lost two-thirds of all the jobs eliminated as a result of Katrina?

And when it comes to disaster mitigation, it’s time we give women a seat at the table. Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. Female policymakers are more likely to sign international treaties on climate resolutions than male policymakers according to a study published by the European Journal of Political Economy.

Climate change—like COVID-19, like our economic recovery, like racial justice, like intersectional gender equity—impacts all of us. We cannot keep these issues siloed any longer. Through the diligent application of gender mainstreaming, as executed by the head of the White House Council on Gender Equality, we can truly build back better. 

Katica Roy is a gender economist and the CEO and founder of Pipeline, a SaaS company that leverages artificial intelligence to identify and drive economic gains through gender equity.