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What If We Achieved Real Equality for Women?

Amy Traub

Today marks 95 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and 44 years since Congress designated its anniversary Women’s Equality Day. This gives us the opportunity to consider how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and envision what the world would look like if women attained full equality. I will leave a discussion of political equality to my colleagues working tirelessly in that mission, and focus on the economy.

Women make up almost half of all workers in America and working mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of the nation’s families, so economic equality would make an immense difference for families and the economy as a whole.

Just how immense? The Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that if working women were paid the same as men of the same age with similar education and hours of work then the US economy would have produced additional income of $447.6 billion in 2014. The average incomes of families with a working woman would increase by $7,078 annually and poverty rates would fall dramatically. Equal pay for working women of color, who face a far larger pay gap than white women, would boost the average incomes of their families to a still greater extent.

To achieve this, lawmakers must enact policies to combat overt discrimination such as the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. But that’s not enough. We must also uproot the structural factors that prevent women from pursuing and attaining the same career opportunities as men.

Since women are more likely to leave the workforce or scale back on employment to care for children, elderly parents, or other loved ones in need, paid leave is a critical reform to boost family incomes and enable women to remain attached to the workforce. The catch is that to fully benefit women without imposing a stigma that could backfire on women’s wages and employment, leave policies must be crafted so that men have incentives to take advantage of them as well. In other words, an America where women are equal is one where men also have greater opportunity to cuddle their babies and be present for their aging parents—roles that growing numbers of millennial men say they crave but have difficulty achieving.   

At the same time, while it is entirely legitimate (and quite important) to ask why there aren’t more female executives at the nation’s largest companies and partners at top law firms, women’s equality also demands that we work for a world where the jobs that employ a majority of women are no longer so poorly paid.

It is unacceptable that early childhood teachers—increasingly recognized as critical to children’s development—still earn wages too low to live on, and see little or no increase in wages when they have greater educational attainment. Similarly, it’s intolerable that minimum wage and overtime pay standards that apply to other employees still have not been extended to home care workers, a workforce overwhelmingly made up of women of color. Strategies that target poor conditions in these and other disproportionately female occupations are needed, as are those that increase women’s opportunities in higher-paid, male-dominated jobs.

In the meantime, policies that lift up working people in general—from raising the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage to improving overtime pay and expanding the ability to join unions—wind up providing substantial benefits to working women and are a key part of achieving equality. 

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama declared:

“when women succeed, America succeeds.”

Achieving genuine equality would lift up the entire nation.