The United State of Women: How women are reshaping the American economy

Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, gives remarks at the White House United State of Women Summit on June 14, 2016.

Let’s get right to the point. Women are not just half the population; we are half the economy. We are economic powerhouses. At least that’s what the numbers show. In the United States, 74 million women work outside the home. That’s six-in-ten women.

Since 1979, because of women’s added hours of work, our economy grew by 11 percent more than it would have otherwise. This is the equivalent to $1.7 trillion, equal to what we spend in a year on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid combined.

Women’s talents add to our nation’s productivity. And, their earnings boost family incomes.

Across the world, when women have access to education and jobs, we can see the positive effect on the economy. But, too often that power remains untapped. Economists estimate that the gender gap in employment leads to losses in GDP of 20 percent in Greece, Italy, and Japan to nearly 35 percent in the Gulf States and Iran. The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 865 million women who have the potential to contribute more to their economies. Most live in emerging or developing economies.

Here in the United States, we have solid evidence that women contributing their talents to American business and their family’s income has been good for our economy. This difference in how women spend their days changes everything. Women are not only their family’s caregiver, they are their family’s breadwinner.

The American Wife has become the American Worker. Only one in five children live in a family with a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver. Two out of every three mothers earns so much that she’s either the primary breadwinner or a co-breadwinner for her family. This is even though women earn only 79 on the male dollar—and women of color have an even larger pay gap.

We can all picture the “Leave it to Beaver” family. June’s at home caring for the Beav while Ward’s at work. Actually, can we? How many of you have even seen that show? How many see your family in that fictionalized portrait? Yep, that family’s experience is seriously outdated. Yet our workplace policies still presume that’s what a family looks like. They assume we all have a magical silent partner at home taking care of all of life while we’re at work. But that’s fantasy.

Caregiving—whether for a child or an aging parent—remains time-consuming and is increasingly expensive. To reconcile this, we need to rethink our nation’s basic labor standards and social protections. The United States stands with only Papua New Guinea in not having paid leave for mothers. And, I hear that Papua New Guinea is about to fix this!

California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and—soon—New York have universal, statewide paid family leave programs. In those states, a worker has the right to stay home—with pay—when they have a new child or to care for a seriously ill family member. Or when the worker herself is ill. On top of this, nearly three dozen places—five states, one county, 26 cities, and the District of Columbia (which, of course, is not a state)—have put in place the right for workers to earn paid sick days. That’s progress, but only for the lucky few who live in the right place.

Over 75 years ago, the first woman to lead a federal agency—Frances Perkins—helped craft into law two pieces of legislation that continue to define the rules that govern the boundaries between work and life. The Social Security Act gives us a set of insurance programs for when we cannot work, because we are a senior citizen, are too disabled to work, or when we’ve lost a job through no fault of our own. But we don’t have the same right to income support when we cannot work because we need to care for a family member for a few weeks  months. And, too often, those that have it earn the most. That’s not fair. To improve our economy, that needs to be fixed.

Every worker needs access to paid family and medical leave, including men. While women continue to do more care, men are increasingly stepping up and they’re realizing that it’s hard. In some surveys, men report more work-life conflict that women do.

The truth is, without the added hours of women, most families would have seen their incomes fall in recent decades. Women’s earnings have boosted family incomes, while also improving our overall economy through improving productivity. That’s why today’s workers also need predictable schedules and the right to talk to their boss about their schedule without fear of retaliation.

Putting sane rules on hours was another idea Mrs. Perkins championed. The Fair Labor Standards Act eradicated child labor and established the minimum wage and 8-hour workday. Recently, the Obama administration updated the overtime rules to cover an additional 4 million people.

This is a much-needed step forward. However, without a silent partner at home, chaotic or unpredictable schedules can wreak havoc on family life. And, it can mean that for an employee to be their most productive, they may need a little flexibility. With fewer than one in ten private sector employees having a union to help them negotiate schedules, most of us are on our own.

New rules that update our labor standards could fix this. Vermont and San Francisco are doing just that. They followed the lead of the United Kingdom and New Zealand, offering workers the right to request flexibility. And, San Francisco also added rules on predictability.

As many states and localities have recognized, the American Wife is the American Worker. That’s good for families and the economy.

We need new federal rules.

We can fix this.

The United States is and remains one of the richest nations the world has ever seen.

So, let’s do it.


Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch