A Call for Change for Women

January 1, 2022

Winter 2022 Issue of Wellesley magazine

Cover of Winter 2022 Issue of Wellesley Magazine showing a woman climbing

As we completed our strategic plan for Wellesley College over the 2020–21 academic year, we were extremely conscious of the “she-cession”: the fact that the economic pain of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women. Women, particularly women of color, lost jobs in the service sector in large numbers. They struggled with their unequal responsibilities at home, as schools and child-care centers closed. Millions of women dropped out of the workforce, and others found their career progress stalled.

We believe that as the preeminent women’s college in the world, Wellesley has an obligation to advance women’s empowerment and gender equity, not just here on campus, but in society at large. Using our voice and influence this way is one of the pillars of our strategic plan.

For women in the workplace, nondiscrimination is not enough. We need to create the conditions that recognize the realities of women’s lives, their bodies, their responsibilities—conditions that will give them an equal chance to thrive.

As women in the U.S. moved rapidly into career and professional jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, the floor was set. Just being present in laboratories, courtrooms, and lecture halls felt like a triumph. However, elevating women above that floor, where our lives are fully integrated into our careers, has been an ongoing struggle.

By the late 1990s, the United States had one of the highest rates of women’s labor force participation among advanced economies. Today, we have one of the lowest, because a lack of affordable child care and paid family leave make it so difficult for women to balance their obligations at home and at work.

The costs to our economy and our society for failing to put the right structures in place for women are high. The U.S. is the only nation among the 38 studied by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not ensure paid maternity leave. We also have the worst maternal mortality rate among high-income nations, with Black mothers particularly likely to die. A contributing factor to these terrible outcomes: Women without paid leave often have no choice but go back to work too soon after giving birth. Unable to envision managing children and a career, many women are simply forgoing having children, and the birth rate in the U.S. has declined for the sixth straight year, a long-term problem in an aging nation. Others opt out of their careers, depriving the nation of both their talents and their earnings. And those who do continue working are paid less than men in almost every occupation. Goldman Sachs estimates that if both the pay gap and the gap in labor force participation between men and women were closed, U.S. GDP would rise by 7.3%, or $1.5 trillion, every year.

In my role as the founder and first executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology and chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I saw how inequities in health policy contributed to economic inequities. I served on the Institute of Medicine committee that recommended preventative services for women under the Affordable Care Act. We argued successfully that contraception was a preventative service that should be covered without out-of-pocket costs. It was a radical idea at the time, but long overdue, after years in which some insurers paid for Viagra prescriptions but not for birth control, and discriminated against women by charging them higher premiums and excluding maternity coverage.

In this issue of Wellesley, you will read about a number of our faculty and alumnae who are engaged in the fundamental struggle for gender equity in the American economy. (See “Toward an Equal Economy.”) To highlight their ideas and those of other experts, the College is convening a virtual summit on April 1 and 2 to consider what it will take to create a women-centered economy. I hope that all of you will join us for the event, and that you will contribute your own ideas for structural change that will level the playing field for women in their careers and lives.

At Wellesley, we tell our students that they can achieve everything they dream of. To ensure that for them, and for the sake of women everywhere, we are going to identify the obstacles that hold women back—and use our influence to call for change.