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It's not enough: women's rights in the US

Georgia Strong | United States Fellow

According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, the United States (US) is ranked 53rd in the world for its gender equality practices. The report scores countries out of 1 based on women’s educational attainment, health and survival, economic participation and political empowerment. The US achieves relative gender equality in the first two measures, scoring 1.000 and 0.976, but it stumbles in economic participation (0.756) and political empowerment (0.164). Its total score of 0.724 puts it behind developing, low-income countries such as Rwanda. As a signature to the 2015 United Nations Development Goals, the US has a responsibility to empower women and girls and seek gender equality in all areas. Not only that, but as the leader of the free world, the US cannot continue to ignore the disparity in freedoms enjoyed by men and women due to institutional biases.

In 1920, the US passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Although women have maintained higher voter turnout rates than men since 1980, they do not participate as frequently in political processes. Just 23.6 per cent of Congress’ seats are filled by women, and female ministers account for only 21.7 per cent of the cabinet. The OECD average of female representation in the lower houses of national legislatures is 28.7 per cent.

Low female participation rates in politics are troubling because it alters the type of bills presented to parliament. For example, recent polls by the Pew Research Center have shown that only 27 per cent of men have experienced an interruption in their work to accommodate caregiving roles, compared to 39 per cent of women. If men cannot see or experience the problems that plague women, how can they be expected to legislate a solution and reduce the gender equality gap? Although the Nineteenth Constitutional Amendment was a huge step forward for women, progress towards gender equality has stalled out in recent years. In response to gender equality, the US must develop a comprehensive gender equality policy agenda. At its current rate, North America (Canada and the US) are expected to close the gender equality gap in 151 years, compared to 54 years in European countries. We cannot accept the status quo as good enough.

Several outdated institutions, ideas and unconscious biases continue to plague a woman's ability to have equal rights with men. Since 2006, the US’ gender score has increased just 0.020 points to 0.724. Women continue to earn only 81 cents to the median man’s dollar. Although this gap has shrunk from 64 cents in 1980, there is still substantial work to be done. Women cannot be expected to work an additional 39 days a year to receive equal income with their male counterparts. Not only is that unreasonable, but it is impossible.

Diversity in the boardroom also remains elusive. In 2018, 32 of the Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO. In 2019, this figure decreased to 24. Initial gains made by women are not always consistent or sustained. Although the US has offered women some opportunities, it must continue to strive for equality and not settle for its current state. The difference in female and male CEO levels is attributed to a “broken rung” in the workplace; women may be hired at the lower levels of a firm, however only 85 women for every 100 men are promoted to managerial positions. The unequal treatment of men and women produces a difference in skills and implied capabilities that prove difficult to bridge.

In response to low female economic participation, the US government needs to consider policy responses designed to reduce the stress of caregiving on women. Childcare costs claim roughly 22 per cent of the disposable income of a full-time, dual-earner couple with two children. This cost increases to 50 per cent for single parents. Households who cannot shoulder this cost are forced to sideline female workplace participation in favour of childcare tasks. Furthermore, the US is the only OECD country that does not offer nation-wide paid maternity leave and the minority that does not provide paid paternity leave entitlement for fathers. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a champion of gender equality and knew that greater female workforce participation can only occur if men take over a portion of the caregiving role expected of women. She led the way to equally entitling men and women to parental leave for newborn children – demonstrating a truly feminist approach to employment law. Equal parental participation in the early days and years of parenting will reduce the burden on women and encourage equitable workforce outcomes.

The COVID-19 recession provides a unique opportunity for the US government to design a series of programs targeted at gender equality and economic stimulus. Should governments around the world carefully consider their initiatives, they would be adding USD$13 trillion to global GDP by 2030. We cannot continue to accept 72.4 per cent rights for American women as enough.

Georgia Strong is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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