The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How sexism holds back the economy

FAIRFAX, VA - DECEMBER 17: Students leave their comments on the blackboard after a day at Finance Park in Fairfax, VA on December 17, 2012.  (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

The United States still makes it too hard for women and African-Americans to contribute as much as they could to the economy, a fact that has suppressed wages and slowed growth in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concludes in its latest assessment of the American economy.

The OECD report, released Thursday afternoon, warns that several impediments are "compromising the economy’s ability to direct skills toward the activities where they are most highly valued" - which is to say, policies and attitudes in America are keeping workers from doing jobs that would maximize their potential to earn money and contribute to growth. It says those factors "still tilt the playing field against some groups—such as women, African-Americans, and those with criminal records."

It also flags the growing share of the working-aged population now collecting disability insurance, which it says "presents barriers to participating" in the job market, for women and men alike.

The report suggests a basket of policy changes to encourage more women and African-Americans to work, and to help those groups obtain more skills and better jobs. They include "family-friendly" policies, such as mandated paid parental leave and expanded public access to day care and pre-school, that help women who might otherwise drop out of the labor force to raise their children and struggle to return to a similarly paid job in the future.

The OECD report includes a statistical analysis that finds a correlation between states that mandate more family-friendly policy and higher rates of women working in those states.

Such policies, said Angel Gurria, the OECD's secretary-general, in an interview, signal to women that "They can have babies and bosses at the same time, or be bosses themselves, rather than choose one.”

After climbing for decades, the share of prime-aged women in the American workforce has fallen over the last 15 years. Other countries in the OECD, which includes Japan and Europe along with the United States, have seen their female labor-force participation rise on average in that time.

Gurria also expressed concerns that the so-called "pay gap" between women and men in the U.S. economy is "still massive," even though it has fallen over the past several decades. He said the country also must find ways to encourage more women - who obtain college degrees at a higher rate than men - to pursue high-value science and engineering fields.

He and the report both suggested reforming America's disability insurance programs to avoid penalizing workers who had been receiving benefits but have become able to work again. More Americans receive disability payments today than unemployment benefits, he said.

Other recommendations in the report focused on improving work opportunities for African-Americans, in part by enacting policies meant to reduce discrimination against hiring prospective workers with criminal records. (Black Americans, it notes, are incarcerated at six times the rate of white Americans.)

It also included broader calls for the government to spend more - and more wisely - on skills training for displaced workers; to encourage more new business formation, partly by reducing licensing requirements for many occupations; and improve access to quality education for the poor. Those policies, the report said, would help make the labor market more dynamic, and boost productivity growth, which has slowed to a halt in the United States - all by giving workers more incentives to do more valuable work.

“Those that are more vulnerable, more unequal, find it too expensive – actually unaffordable – to invest in themselves," Gurria said. "They are too busy using almost all of their income buying the present, meaning today, as opposed to investing in tomorrow.”