How the US can accelerate progress on gender equity

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The Biden administration has signaled its intent to address long standing disparities and inequalities for women and girls. Reports out of the newly established White House Gender Policy Council suggest bold and ambitious goals. 

But the work ahead is daunting, especially as the pandemic has aggravated long entrenched gender inequities. To accelerate progress on gender equality and women’s wellbeing, President Biden and his team would do well to look to our democratic counterparts across the globe. 

The 10 top-ranked nations on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, including Germany, New Zealand, Ireland and Spain, have closed more than three-quarters of their gender gaps in health, education, political representation and the economy. 

The WEF projects that Western Europe will reach gender equality in 54 years; Latin America will achieve it in 59 years. That may seem like a long time until you consider its projection for the United States. Given the current glacial rate of progress, it will take us nearly three times as long — 151 years — to close our gender gaps.

We were not always this far behind. 

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. and Western Europe were at a roughly equivalent level on key measures of equality. But while progress accelerated in other wealthy advanced democracies — not just in Europe but in nearly every region — it stalled here. 

Consider just our position relative to our North American neighbors. On the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index, the United States ranked 19th, Canada ranked 20th and Mexico ranked 91st. In 2019, Canada was the 19th best-performing nation in the world, Mexico had leapfrogged over the U.S. to the 25th position and the U.S. had fallen to 53rd out of the 153 ranked nations. 

Yet despite this depressing trend, there is encouraging news. Over this same period, Americans overall have become more supportive of gender equality and more attuned to the obstacles facing women. Nearly six in 10 adults think the country has not gone far enough on “giving women equal rights with men,” according to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center. 

In short, we have the will to work toward women’s equality and gender equity. We just need a way.

Biden’s Gender Policy Council is certainly a good start. But to make progress faster, we should heed the lessons of our democratic peers and allies who are doing so much better than we are. Their approach to advancing opportunity, empowerment and wellbeing is working. 

Many nations, especially the best performers on global rankings of gender equality, take a two-pronged approach to tackling the biases, systems and structures that sustain and reinforce gender inequality.

Like us, they enact policies specifically targeted toward boosting women’s status and wellbeing and closing gender gaps — on equal pay or reproductive health care, for example. 

Yet their gender equality work goes well beyond what we conventionally think of as women’s issues. Committed to the principle of equality in their constitutions, these nations embed gender action across the full range of policymaking. They recognize that key drivers of women’s inequality lurk within policies and sectors that aren’t conventionally considered to be biased or discriminatory, such as taxation, environmental protection, economic development, transportation and so on.

Consider Canada’s immigration policy. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the counterpart to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is mandated to conduct an intersectional gender assessment of its programs and report to Parliament annually. To mitigate gender inequalities and imbalances for immigrants and refugees, IRCC has piloted a program to provide occupation specific work permits for in-home domestic workers, thus reducing their dependence on a single employer. It dedicates resources to support employment and career advancement for women of color immigrants. The agency has also made permanent a process allowing people to change their gender identity to nonbinary on a Canadian passport.

In many nations, applying a gender perspective to the budget process is commonplace. In line with this trend, Argentina recently created a national director of economy, equality and gender. The feminist economist appointed to the post secured the equivalent of $1.3 trillion in the 2021 budget — 3.4 percent of the country’s GDP — to reduce gender inequalities. The budget was also trans inclusive.

Rarely, but occasionally, this broader perspective finds its way into U.S. policymaking. Thanks to former Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) leadership, women’s distinct health concerns were integrated into the heart of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

Applying a gender perspective widely across government activities has yielded impressive results. Women’s lives have been substantially improved, as attested to these nations’ comparatively soaring scores on global indexes. Equally encouraging, the most successful nations have also employed this comprehensive approach to chip away at cultural and social norms around gender roles and identity to benefit everybody, not just women. 

The Biden administration appears to be moving rapidly on many of the targeted measures needed in the U.S., issuing executive orders on reproductive health care and including child care funding in the covid relief package, for starters. Still, the vast majority of the work of government goes forward under the faulty assumption that it is gender neutral. 

Without a comprehensive government-wide approach to significantly advance gender equity, from Congress as well as the administration, America’s efforts are likely to fall short of the dramatic and urgent need. And the United States will keep falling behind.

Nancy L. Cohen is the president of the Gender Equity Policy Institute

Tags Barbara Mikulski biden administration economy Gender equality Gender pay gap Global Affairs Global Gender Pay Index ICE IRCC Joe Biden WEF White House Gender Policy Council

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