Closing The Gap

Why bringing women back into the workforce is Joe Biden's greatest opportunity to recharge the economy

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at transition Covid-19 advisory board briefing on Nov. 9, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Photo by Joe Raedle | Getty Images

We've heard plenty of discussion about President-elect Joe Biden's plans for taxes and economic stimulus. But little attention has been paid to perhaps the greatest opportunity to recharge the battered economy: Bringing women back into the workplace.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep structural flaws in America's workplaces, setting back women's advancement by decades.

In August and September, 80% of the more than one million employees who dropped out of the workforce were women — that's a stunning loss of 865,000 women. And a recent McKinsey & Company and survey found that one-third of all working mothers were considering scaling back or quitting altogether.

The "she-cession" that began in the spring is only accelerating. While the total unemployment rate is less than half of its April peak, the majority of those regained jobs have gone to men.

The situation is particularly dire for women of color; the unemployment rate for Black and Latina women in October was 9.2% and 9% respectively, versus 5.8% for white men. And that doesn't count the many women who have dropped out altogether.

At the beginning of this year, women made up the majority of the workforce. Today, their number has thinned by 2.2 million, and the share of women either working or looking for work has plunged to levels not seen since 1988.

In theory, the Biden presidency would offer women, especially working women, a lifeline. But quite a bit will have to do with how amenable Congress is to the policies that Biden supports, and how aggressive his administration will be in championing them.

Among the most notable measures he backs:

  • Twelve weeks of paid family and sick leave. This is something we desperately need, as the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that doesn't have some sort of paid family leave requirement.
  • Access to affordable childcare and universal preschool. All working parents, especially mothers, who are bearing the brunt of home schooling and childcare would benefit from this. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a third of women ages 25 to 44 say they aren't working because of childcare demands — almost three times more than their male counterparts.
  • Wage gap transparency. Requiring companies to disclose wage information by gender, race and ethnicity was actually introduced by the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has attempted to roll back.
  • Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This would help women afford to both work and pay for child care.

Assuming the Senate remains divided, we almost certainly won't see all of these measures, and it will be a struggle to pass any of them.

While more women have been elected to the incoming Congress than ever before, they still comprise a minority in both houses. Biden would need bipartisan support that crosses gender as well as party lines in order to effect real change. And yet, enabling women to contribute to the workforce is the surest way to jump-start the economy.

The math here is crystal clear: More women in the workforce raises GDP. Last year, McKinsey & Company estimated that if women participated equally with men in the economy, global GDP would rise by $28 trillion by 2025.

The bottom line is, this isn't a "female" issue. Nor is it a blue versus red issue. Women's economic empowerment crosses gender and party lines. It's an "all-of-us" issue.

Let's hope that our political leaders can agree at least on that. Since the start of the pandemic we've taken women's progress back by three decades. It's imperative to reverse that dangerous slide.

Joanne Lipman is one of the nation's leading journalists. She is a CNBC contributor and author of the bestselling book "THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID: What Men and Women Need to Know About Working Together." Follow her on Twitter @JoanneLipman.

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