Women’s Equality Day Isn’t a Social Issue, It’s an Economic One.
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
When talking about the economy, we must bring two key policies to the forefront.
First, the 19th Amendment. Over one hundred years ago, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to grant American women the right to vote and states then ratified it. That’s why we celebrate Women’s Equality Day on August 26th.
Second, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (LLFPA). Ten years ago, then-Senator Hillary Clinton watched as then-President Barack Obama signed the LLFPA, Obama’s first bill, into law. Clinton had co-sponsored the LLFPA, which changed the statute of limitations for equal pay.
The mainstream narrative uniting the 19th Amendment and the LLFPA nods to women’s rights, and understandably so. However, by focusing on “women’s rights,” we lose sight of the greater economic connection bridging these two policies, and we forget one fundamental truth: that a win for women is a win for everyone. Let’s use this Women’s Equality Day, the day we commemorate the 19th Amendment’s adoption to the US Constitution, to remember the economic importance of women’s enfranchisement.
The Hidden Link Between Enfranchisement and the Economy
As women started lining up at the polls, they also started taking their seats in public office. The increase in women’s representation in public office saw the creation of societally-advantageous policies. We began to see a rise in progressive legislation proposals, including social spending for sanitation infrastructure, charity organizations, and public-private health campaigns. These policies led to beneficial outcomes such as a drop in child mortality rate (by 15%) and a decrease in school drop-outs. Societal improvements in the post-19th Amendment era have even lessened the sting of our present-day achievement gap.
Now here’s where things get interesting. Women’s increased political representation not only spurred the creation of policies that benefited our society—it spurred the creation of policies that benefited our economy. How? Because female politicians influenced legislation that stimulated women’s economic participation. In fact, women’s labor force participation increased from 38% in 1960 to 60% in 2000.
Issues of fairness aside, everyone should care about women’s economic participation: since 1970, the increased rate of women in the labor force has added $2 trillion to the US economy.
Fighting for Equal Pay, Twice. And Winning
I’m a living example of how women’s enfranchisement impacts the economy. Almost 10 years ago, when I realized I was receiving inequitable pay, Clinton’s co-sponsoring of the LLFPA (in the political arena) made my fight for equal pay (in the economic arena) possible. I had been on maternity leave when my boss was fired. One day after I returned from maternity leave, I was asked to take on a new team. Two weeks later, I was asked to take on another new team. I was now managing three teams. My male colleague took on one additional team and received compensation for doing so. I, on the other hand, received no compensation for my two additional teams. So I did my homework and found the LLFPA, which changed the statute of limitations for equal pay.
I called HR and said, “This is a Lilly Ledbetter Issue, every time you pay me, the statute of limitations starts over. What do you want to do about it?” They increased my level, my pay, and gave me back pay.
When Women Are Left Behind, Everyone is Left Behind
My fight for equal pay is more than a trite “80 cents on the dollar” tagline. As a breadwinner mom of two with a stay-at-home husband, pay inequity goes beyond issues of individual fairness. It impacts my family—who depend on me for their wellbeing—and it impacts our economy. Gender inequity in the US comes with a steep, $2T price tag, so when women are left behind, everyone is left behind.
Now is our opportunity to act. As we reflect on Women’s Equality Day 2019, instead of dwelling on the headwinds women face (the pay gap, the glass ceiling, biased electability narratives) we can remember the connection between the 19th Amendment and the LLFPA, between enfranchisement and economics. Then, we can use this deepened understanding to expand the economic pie for all.
More Voices to be Heard, More Glass Ceilings to Crack
The most pressing issues we should be working to improve for next year’s Women’s Equality Day are both political and economic. On the political side, we need to close the 27-point gap between the percent of women in Congress (24%) and the percent of women as part of the US population (51%). We must also ensure all 50 states elect a female governor by seeding the pipeline of female gubernatorial candidates; 20 states have never had one.
As political entities become more gender equitable, women can use their influence to create more economically-sound policies. Here are two examples (and there are many more) of how female representatives play a distinct role in policy creation:
Higher education. Women are the most educated cohort in the US, and yet their burden of student loan debt is 10 percentage points higher than their attainment rates. Female politicians can reform access to higher education and relieve student loan debt—two key levers to improving the economy.
Binding arbitration. The use of binding arbitration in employee agreements functionally serves to silence employees after workplace bias occurs. Since women are frequently the victims of workplace harassment, pay inequity, and bias, female politicians can advocate for the removal of binding arbitration from employee agreements. This would encourage increased female labor force participation at a time when businesses are experiencing a shortage of 5 million workers.
We just celebrated Women’s Equality Day. Now let’s roll up our sleeves because there’s work to do.