Equitable Growth’s history of focusing on women’s role in the economy: A review

One of the ways that The Washington Center for Equitable Growth is recognizing Women’s History Month is to bring to attention some of the work we’ve published over the past few years on the role women play in the workplace and the U.S. economy, the challenges they face in meeting their work and family responsibilities, and why and how government should be making it easier to do so. Following are some highlights of our many articles, issue briefs, and reports addressing these issues.

  1. The United State of Women: How women are reshaping the American economy. Speaking at the White House United State of Women Summit in 2016, Equitable Growth Executive Director and Chief Economist Heather Boushey discussed the role of women in the economy. Their increasing participation in the workforce from 1979 onward raised Gross Domestic Product by an additional 11 percent, she said, and they are now the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of U.S. families. But federal policies in the 21st century have not kept up with the growing need for family leave, schedule stability, and other support to ensure that women can enter and remain in the workforce.
  2. Gender wage inequality. Despite the increase over the past several decades in women’s work hours and incomes, which are now a significant part of overall household financial stability and U.S. economic growth, women are still severely limited by gender pay inequality. Their average earnings are nearly 20 percent less than men’s average earnings. This comprehensive 2018 report, by sociologist Sarah Jane Glynn, presents in detail the reasons why gender pay inequality persists today in the United States and possible policy solutions at the federal level, as well as in select state and local policy settings. The paper also contains significant analysis of intersectionality and incomes, shining a light on how race and gender combine to affect economic outcomes.
  3. Paid family and medical leave in the United States: A research agenda. Changes in women’s labor force participation in the United States mean that the majority of families no longer have a stay-at-home spouse to provide unpaid care for a new baby, a sick loved one, or an aging family member. Too many workers are unable to provide such care or deal with their own health challenges at the expense of their own financial well-being. This failure takes a broader toll on the health of the U.S. economy. A growing number of states are experimenting with policies designed to provide widespread access to paid family and medical leave. This 2018 paper, by Equitable Growth Senior Director for Family Economic Security Elisabeth Jacobs, explores the evidence from these experiments of the need for and impact of such policies; surveys a wide range of literature that spans labor market outcomes, health outcomes, and broader macroeconomic outcomes; and lays out a research agenda designed to accelerate the evidence base for state and federal policymakers.
  4. Women have made the difference for family economic security. The steady movement of women into the U.S. workforce over the past five decades has dramatically changed the composition of family incomes across the country and up and down the income ladder. But this 2016 issue brief by Heather Boushey and Kavya Vaghul showed that family income did not increase faster than in earlier eras despite women’s additional earnings. The authors explored how over the previous four decades, women’s increased earnings and increased annual hours of work were essential, as families across the United States sought to find and maintain economic security.
  5. The gender gap in economics has ramifications far beyond the ivory tower. The economics profession has a well-known gender discrimination problem. Obstacles in the paths of women seeking to succeed in economics are numerous and pervasive. This has ramifications not only for women’s careers and the economics discipline, but also for U.S. society. In this 2017 column, former Equitable Growth Policy Analyst Bridget Ansel describes a working paper by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Anusha Chari and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham of the New York Federal Reserve that shows how economists’ own experiences affect the issues they elevate, and that the shortage of women in the profession has an impact on the issues raised to policymakers and the analysis they receive from the profession.
  6. Understanding the link between bodily autonomy and economic opportunity across the United States. In this 2018 column, Equitable Growth Economist Kate Bahn argues that retaining control over decisions about if, when, and how to bear a child is one of the many work-life challenges women face in the U.S. labor market. Access to reproductive health care is critical to retaining control over childbearing. Bahn describes a paper to be published later this year in which she and her co-authors demonstrate the effect of access to reproductive health care by examining the current variations in occupational mobility between states for women and men, as a comparison group, based on such access.
  7. The wages of care: Bargaining power, earnings, and inequality. Women perform by far the majority of care work in the United States. This is a good example of gender segregation, and it’s no coincidence that care work is a traditionally low-paying profession. Nancy Folbre of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Kristin Smith of the University of New Hampshire report that their analysis in this 2018 working paper “raises important questions regarding the impact of gender on wage determination. Are care workers paid less because they are women? Or are women paid less because they are care workers? The answer to both questions is probably yes.” Neither employer discrimination nor individual preference is solely responsible for the effect of gender on earnings in the care industry. The lower pay does, however, reflect on how the labor market treats vital, but stereotypically feminine, capabilities.
  8. Motherhood penalties in the U.S., 1986–2014. This 2018 working paper by Ph.D. candidate Eunjung Jee and professor Joya Misra of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and U.S. Census Bureau Research Economist Marta Murray-Close addresses the pay gap between mothers and childless women. The authors examine the evolution of this phenomenon, known as the “motherhood penalty,” over three time periods: 1986–1995, 1996–2004, and 2006–2014. They find that the motherhood penalty has persisted over time and may have worsened for mothers with one child. While it has narrowed due to mothers gaining in education and workforce experience, it persists when those factors are controlled for. Their findings may confirm the need for policies aimed at supporting mothers’ employment to reduce the motherhood wage penalty.

March 19, 2019


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