Will Obama Fight to Close the Gender Gap?

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In the 1950s, Betty Friedan identified women's dissatisfaction as "the problem that has no name." In the Bush years, it became the problem that has no data. The administration eliminated a key equal employment survey that tracked advancement and wages by race and gender. At the time, women's organizations were outraged. How are we supposed to remedy a problem if we don't know the extent to which it exists?

Tuesday the White House Council on Women and Girls, a coordinating group created by President Obama "to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy," released a report on the status of women in America. The report, Women in America, reconfirms that there is indeed a wage gap: at all education levels, women earn about 75 percent of what their male counterparts do. There is a caregiving gap: Women are likely to be more responsible for supporting and raising children. And there's also a health gap: Women are more likely than men to suffer from depression and chronic health problems, yet one out of seven adult women is without a source of health care. All of these gaps are even wider for women of color than for white women.

None of these things, in and of themselves, are particularly earth-shattering. They are, indeed, the sorts of statistics that prompted the creation of the council in the first place. But that's kind of the point, Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Rebecca Blank told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. The council seeks to provide a comprehensive look at the lives of women and girls, and so this report's value is its synthesis of data from across government agencies.

True, you can't solve a problem if you don't know it exists. But with the release of this report, the question the Obama administration is about to face is even thornier: Once you name and quantify the problem, how do you go about solving it?

Even as it highlights the major advances women have made over the past few decades, the report raises some challenging questions about the meaning of women's progress. Does it matter that more women are getting educated if they still aren't making money on par with their male colleagues in the workforce? Does it matter that women are delaying childbirth if they still overwhelmingly end up as primary caregivers? Does it matter if women live longer if, over the course of their lives, they suffer from more mental and physical health problems?

"You really have to look at the whole story of a woman's life," Obama senior adviser and Council chair Valerie Jarrett said on the call, "and this report gives us a comprehensive framework to do that."

The report is indeed comprehensive -- and rightfully so. Deep social problems like gender and race disparities are caused by a complex web of factors. But it was clear from Blank and Jarrett's comments that disentangling those factors and designing policies to address them one-by-one is a daunting task. In other words, the comprehensive nature of the report may be precisely what prevents it from providing the framework Jarrett hopes it will.

When asked what specific new initiatives might be created as a result of the report, Jarrett said that data had inspired the administration to seek partnerships with private-sector companies to encourage girls to go into higher-paying fields. Blank discussed how women's disproportionate caregiving responsibilities affect their salaries. These are worthy goals and important insights, to be sure. But the confluence of the wage, caregiving, and health gaps remains a problem that has no solution -- at least not as outlined by the Women in America report.

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Ann Friedman is a contributing editor and columnist for The American Prospect and a freelance writer and editor. She blogs at AnnFriedman.com and Feministing.com.

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