How to Build an Economy that Works for Women

March 29, 2022

Published in the Boston Globe

As the president of a women’s college, I have never been more concerned about the economic prospects of young women.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating. More than two-thirds of the net job losses since February 2020 have been suffered by women, and there are still 1.1 million fewer women in the workplace than before the pandemic. It was not only that women lost jobs in huge numbers in those sectors most affected by shutdowns — it was also that women’s already unequal household responsibilities exploded as schools and child-care centers closed. Many women felt they had no choice but to leave their jobs. Those who stuck it out often found their careers stalled as the need to supervise children made their working hours less productive.

Bad as it has been, the pandemic revealed an underlying truth about the American economy: Women — 47 percent of our workforce — are asked to build careers without the basic scaffolding at home, on the job, and in the public sphere that allows them to fully succeed.

The United States is alone among advanced economies in its lack of recognition for the realities of women’s lives. We have the highest maternal mortality rates among high-income countries, especially for Black women. These terrible outcomes are rooted in structural racism and sexism — but a contributing factor is our failure to ensure paid maternity leave. We are the only nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not guarantee paid time off for women who have just given birth. The United States is an outlier overall in its lack of support for working mothers: We rank near the bottom of OECD nations in public spending on early childhood education and care.

Gendered expectations both at home and at work also impinge on women’s careers. If paid work and what’s referred to as the “second shift” are combined, working mothers with young children put in a longer day on average than working fathers. Yet they often answer to shortsighted employers who consider the ideal employee as one with no obligations outside of the job — a reason women still earn less than men in almost every occupation.

At Wellesley College, we are convening a summit on April 1 to consider how to build an economy that actually works for women. In advance of the summit, we surveyed 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 30 across all demographic categories and asked what they see as most important to their own futures

Not surprisingly, having experienced the pandemic downturn, these young women consider financial security their first priority, with 81 percent calling it “very important.”

And they are not buying the idea that it will be easy to integrate a career that will give them financial security with a family. Fewer than half envision having a child in the next five years. While two-thirds agree that it is very important to be a good parent, only a third feel it is very important to have children.

They are very clear about what they want from their employers: Overwhelmingly, they want healthy salaries, and they want respect. Unlike previous cohorts, who expected employers to share their values (operating sustainably, promoting a social good), this group instead wants to be valued. And almost all of them view good mental health as key to their career goals.

All of us in positions of power have to listen to this generation of women, who firmly believe that the economy should work for everyone. Employers, currently desperate for talent, need to consider the elements that make for a truly respectful workplace — one that measurably fosters emotional well-being and life satisfaction and is free from sexual harassment.

Young women shouldn’t have to choose between a career and children. Since a healthy economy moving forward requires women’s full participation in the workforce, the federal government needs to make the nation less of an outlier in its lack of support for families. Moody’s recently calculated that if prime working-age women participated in the workforce at the same rate as in other developed nations, US gross domestic product would rise by an additional $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

The pandemic’s ultimate influence on women’s careers has not yet come into focus: Will remote work allow women to better integrate career and family in the future — or will it increase gender gaps by making women less visible to the people who decide on pay and promotions? Will policy makers now understand that having a strong caregiving infrastructure is essential for a robust economy? And will our culture finally outgrow sexist assumptions about the division of labor at home?

These questions are social, as well as political and economic, so every American has a vote here. We’ve lived through a period of tremendous upheaval. If we seize the opportunity now to rethink and engage all parts of our society in building a working world that fully values the contributions of women, we will make our economy better for everyone.