Editor’s Note: Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the First Partner of California; filmmaker behind Miss Representation, The Mask You Live In and The Great American Lie; and Founder of the Representation Project. Heather McCulloch is the founder and executive director of Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, a national network of more than 500 nonprofit, philanthropic, public and private sector leaders working together to build the long-term economic security of women with limited or no wealth. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a problem at the heart of our economy with glaring clarity: Women, and especially women of color, are more likely to be the breadwinners in their households than ever before, while most of the unpaid responsibilities at home continue to fall on them. Yet, our public policies and private sector practices are rarely designed to support their dual roles, leaving us all vulnerable as a result. As we work our way through the pandemic-induced economic crisis, we must center women in our economic decision-making and recognize the key role they play in the financial security of their families, communities and the nation at large.
Women contribute trillions of dollars to the US economy. They start businesses at higher rates than men; and they are often the sole, primary or co-breadwinners in their households. For millions of women of color, they have long been pivotal to the financial security of their families and communities. For example, 81% of Black mothers are the primary earners, and the number of businesses owned by women of color is growing at a faster pace than businesses owned by white men and white women.
Despite the important role of women as the linchpin of their families’ economic security and key drivers of our nation’s prosperity, national economic policies have rarely been designed with them in mind. In fact, going into this crisis, the United States was the only advanced industrialized country with no national paid sick or family leave policies. At the same time, women workers were also heavily concentrated in low-wage and undervalued industries, as is evidenced by the staggering income and wealth gaps women, and especially women of color, face in America.
The economic danger of these gaps — the gap between a workforce being held up by women and a lack of policies to support them — became especially evident at the onset of the pandemic.
To date, working women — in particular women of color and immigrant women — have been on the frontlines of this pandemic and the resulting economic fallout. Not only are they the majority of the workforce most at risk for exposure to the virus, such as registered nurses (88%, according to analysis by the National Women’s Law Center) and grocery store cashiers (66%), but they are also concentrated in sectors with the largest numbers of layoffs — retail cashiers/salespeople (77%) and restaurant workers (70%). For the women on the frontlines, there is no “work from home” option; they must choose between their health and the economic security of their family. And for those who have lost their paychecks, it means millions of American families are now in economic limbo for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, Congress acted quickly to patch some of the holes in our existing public and private employment systems by mandating and subsidizing temporary paid sick and family leave for employers; increasing funding for child care; and expanding unemployment insurance. Yet huge gaps remain as millions of workers were left out. So what must we do going forward?
In California, we are already leading these efforts by extending paid family and sick leave for our frontline workers, expanding unemployment benefits and increasing access to childcare for those who need it most. And with the launch of our new business and jobs recovery task force last month, equity and inclusion promise to take center stage as we plan our state’s recovery.
But now, more than ever, the rest of the country must follow California’s lead by putting women at the center of our economic decisions. We need to make paid sick leave and family leave policies permanent, with adequate replacement rates for lower-wage workers, and we need adequate and affordable childcare. And, we need to invest in sectors that produce jobs women can access, while we break down barriers to employment in sectors where they are left out.
Additionally, we must ensure that taxpayer-subsidized investments are not deepening existing racial and gender income and wealth disparities. For example, several banks have already prioritized the allocation of public funds to companies and small businesses with whom they have existing business relationships. While gender neutral on its face, this approach reinforces existing disparities because women-owned firms receive just 16% of conventional financing.
As we continue to build our economic recovery, we must also seize the opportunity to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace. For example, companies that receive public funds should have to commit to providing equal pay for equal work and to closing median pay gaps across their firms. Additionally, all firms that receive recovery-related public funds should be required to implement diversity, equity and inclusion strategies that reflect industry best practices.
These changes may be hard, but they are essential to creating a lasting economic recovery. Now is the time to recognize the significance of working women as co-pilots in our economic recovery and our families’ financial security. And now is the time to invest in women’s roles — as the entrepreneurs and innovators, executives and policymakers they are and have the potential to be. And when we do, we all benefit.