Working for Justice

Lessons on Women’s Economic Progress and Policies from the Fed Chair

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve and arguably the most powerful woman in the world, is best known for her role in U.S. monetary policy.  But in a recent speech, she tackled a totally different subject – women’s economic progress over the past century.  Her speech, So We All Can Succeed: 125 Years of Women’s Participation in the Economy, is a compelling read.  Here are some key takeaways:

Women’s work is a boon to the economy.  Yellen cited research showing that “[b]etween 1948 and 1990, the rise in female participation contributed about 1/2 percentage point per year to the potential growth rate of real gross domestic product.”  Additionally, Yellen says, “since 1979, women have accounted for a majority of the rise in real household income.”

The gender gap in pay and professional advancement is real.  Yellen confirms that the gender gap in earnings remains significant, though it is not as large as it was years ago.  Yellen also cites research that “although women now enter professional schools in numbers nearly equal to men, they are still substantially less likely to reach the highest echelons of their professions.”  In fact, because women aren’t making it to the top at the same rates as men, “the wage gap actually remains largest for those at the top of the earnings distribution.

Women’s labor force participation has stalled in the United States.  While in 1990 the United States had one of the highest rates in the world of labor force participation among prime working-age women, that’s no longer the case.  As Yellen summarizes, “in the intervening years, while the participation rate of U.S. women was roughly stable, elsewhere it increased steadily, and by 2010 the United States fell to 17th place out of 22 advanced economies with respect to female labor force participation.”

Laws matter – a lot.  As Yellen explains, a major reason why women’s labor force participation has stalled in the U.S. while improving in other advanced economies is the existence of “policy differences–in particular, the expansion of paid leave following childbirth, steps to improve the availability and affordability of childcare, and increased availability of part-time work.”  In other words, passing laws to support working mothers is an important way to get more women in the workforce.

There’s a lot more that must be done to support women’s work, but there are already laws on the books that outlaw gender discrimination and caregiver discrimination.  (Yellen specifically talks about the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace.)  If you believe you may have a pay discrimination case or other gender discrimination case, you should speak to an experienced employment discrimination lawyer and find out what your rights are.

Alexandra Harwin

Alexandra Harwin

Ali Harwin is a partner in the New York Office of Sanford Heisler Sharp and Co-Chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Title VII practice. Learn More

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