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Valerie Young's picture

I was reminded of the very many reasons I do this work at the 25th anniversary party of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research a few weeks ago – part briefing, part swanky catered wonk-fest, it was the best of both worlds. It’s easy to see that we need data on women and every aspect of their lives if we are going to make this country a fairer place with open opportunities for everyone.  If you don’t have the facts to support your argument, you’ve got no argument. Here are some of the gems I picked up from the high-powered, uber-savvy speakers.

Women are poorer than men at every age, in all races and ethnicities. The size of the pay gap between them is not narrowing, but proceeding along parallel lines. During the ages of 18 – 44, poverty rates for women are at their highest. Can you guess why?? These are our child-bearing years! I find it so ironic that at the very time we are at our most productive and in need of resources for ourselves and our children, we are least likely to have them. You can bet that the absence of paid maternity leave and paid sick time negatively impacts mothers and their ability to stay in the paid work force while bearing and caring for family.

Of course, getting to the point of pay equality won’t change everything, yet there are some important connections between women’s economic status and other types of power. Countries where women earn nearly what men earn tend to have more women in elected office. Women in public office expand the scope of legislative initiatives, as can currently be seen with health reform, gun control, the adjudication of sexual assault claims within the military, family leave insurance bills, and the push for paid sick days. Female legislators generally introduce, sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than male legislators. The U.S. makes a poor showing though, ranking 93rd of 181 countries surveyed for the percentage of women in public office. Rwanda, Finland and Sweden have a higher percentage of women in the national legislature than we do. In fact, half of all the countries in the world elect more women to national office. Making it worse, women as a whole contribute less often and in much smaller quantities to political campaigns. We just have never exercised our considerable clout in any concentrated, organized way. Consequently, when the budget ax falls, it falls first on social programs benefiting women and children, like child care subsidies and food stamps, rather than increasing taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, where men would be more directly affected.

Data also reveals that men and women take different paths toward taking that oath of office. Women are likely to become engaged about a particular issue, like a situation in their community, or concern about their children’s schools. That “issue-based mobilization” will lead to a longer commitment to public service. Men are often asked to run, or decide to on their own – and are quick to assume they are qualified and electable and that their families will  make the necessary sacrifices. Women are asked to run much less often, and even when eminently qualified, they think they are not. They have to be asked many more times than men before they will even consider running, and they more than likely decline because of concern over the toll on their family lives and privacy of their family members. While not a complete list, these facts do explain some of the discrepancy between men and women in public office.

So, after 25 years of effort from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and other analysts, there’s a lot we know. There’s even more we don’t know, but it’s clear that our political, social, and economic policies were built on a family model that is becoming more and more rare – the one income, one caregiver nuclear family makes up less than 25% of all households in the U.S. Crafting policies that answer the needs of the current workforce, where women are still overwhelmingly mothers but also more educated and more likely earning essential household income, will require even more information. Let’s hope IWPR is still around 25 years from now.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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