Women’s participation in the global workforce has stalled in the past two decades, says the report. About 55 percent of women around the world are now part of the official labor force, compared with 82 percent of men, according to the International Labor Organization.
Women are less likely to be in the workforce in part because they spend more time than men doing unpaid work, like housework and childcare. Women in developing countries are also more likely to be part of the informal sector, the grey economy that is not taxed or monitored by the government. The pay gap between women and men, as well as a lack of access to resources like education and start-up capital, can further discourage women from joining the formal economy,.
In an interview with Wonkblog, Chelsea Clinton, the vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, said that the U.S. and other countries need to do more to support women by providing policies like maternity leave and closing the education gap between girls and boys, particularly in math and science. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
A lot of women’s work isn’t counted in gross domestic product, whether it’s unpaid work in the house or childcare, or work in the informal sector in developing countries. Do you think it’s women’s work that needs to change, or our system of counting?
I think it’s both. There are still more than 100 countries around the world that have barriers to women’s equal participation in the labor force, either legalized gender discrimination in hiring and employment, or legalized discrimination in pay, or legal prohibitions against women’s movements. All of those coalesce to constrain the possibilities for women to work outside the home at a full and equal rate to men. We also need to do a better job counting unpaid and domestic labor, so we have a better sense of what work is being done, who is doing that work, and what that work is ultimately contributing to economic growth, whether it’s here in the United States or around the world.
I know you had a daughter in September. How has that influenced your thoughts on how women balance work professionally and at home?
I decided to follow the Clinton Foundation maternity policy, which is three months of paid time off, although I’m not paid by the foundation, I donate my time. I’m so grateful for the time that I was able to spend with and invest in Charlotte. I do believe that paid time for new mothers of infants is a crucial component to ensuring that women can engage fully and equally in our families, communities and economies. The U.S. is one of only nine countries in the world that doesn’t provide for that. As we reflect on what more we could be doing here in the U.S., we have to seriously consider how best to move to providing paid maternal leave to ensure that every woman is able to be the professional and the mom that she wants to be.
We’ve seen a lot of improvement in education for women around the world, but this has not translated into significant gains in the economic sphere. Why is that?
On a percentage basis, there are not more women participating in the labor force in a formal sense today than there were 20 years ago. A lot of that is tied to the education gap that persists. In primary school participation, we have made significant progress around the world. There is still a gap that we need to close -- there are 96 girls in primary school for every 100 boys around the world -- but we have made tremendous progress. But by the time we look at college, in the developing world there are only six young women for every 10 young men in college. It’s important that we are motivated by the progress that we’ve made with the primary school education gap to now turn to the secondary and ultimately the college gap around the world.
What specific initiatives that the U.S. should take to close the gap in economic participation between men and women?
We have made progress, if we think about CEOs or the boardroom or the composition of Congress. But we can’t mistake that progress for success. Five percent of the Fortune 500, or 20 percent of Congress and Senate together, is not equal participation for women. We need more strong women business leaders, because it’s hard to imagine what you can’t see, to help inspire young girls to imagine themselves as the next CEO or CFO or COO. We need more targeted efforts to recruit women into fields like science, technology, engineering and math, where not only has participation stagnated but really declined. In the early 1980s, well north of a third of computer science graduates were women. When I graduated from Stanford in 2001 it was north of 20 percent, and now it’s south of 15 percent.
What is keeping women from reaching high-level careers in the “STEM fields” -- science, technology, engineering and math?
It’s a few things. Again, it’s this challenge of it being hard to imagine what you can’t see. And we can’t overestimate the importance of this diminished pipeline, that fewer women are participating not just in computer science, but in certain engineering fields that translate into STEM careers. This is a real competitive issue for our country. The Department of Labor has estimated that we’ll have more than a million net new STEM jobs over the next decade, and if we’re not ensuring that our highest potential students, whether young men or young women, are raising their hands and wanting to participate in pursuing those careers, we’re not going to be where we want or need to be as a country.
So how do we get more young women and girls involved in math and science?
We need to ensure that high schools and colleges are focused on helping young women understand why careers in science, technology, engineering and math can be exciting, invigorating and financially fulfilling. We had three states last year where not a single young woman took the computer science AP exam. Clearly, local education systems need to be reaching out and encouraging young women to engage. Starting in middle school, research shows that both men and women teachers call on girls less in math class, which is a not-so-subtle signal that their answers aren’t as valid as the boys sitting next to them. We have to ensure that school districts are working with teachers in middle and elementary school to encourage girls to raise their hands, to speak out, and engage with math and science materials.