Shutterstock

There’s a way to reduce the persistent problem of income inequality: supporting women workers. A new report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress outlines how women’s increased participation in the labor force has not only helped the economy grow, but has limited the rise of income inequality.

In other words, there is still a growing gap between the rich and the poor in the United States, but it would be worse if fewer women worked.

While income inequality rose 25 percent between 1963 and 2013, married women’s earnings also rose fivefold. If the earnings of women had not increased, CAP found, inequality would have grown more than 50 percent faster.

Brendan Duke, the policy analyst who calculated that figure, told Next America that women’s rising labor-force participation and wages have provided a “critical countervailing force against the rise of income inequality.”

More Women Working = Less Inequality

That force would grow, the report argues, if more women entered the workforce. Right now, though, government policies in the U.S. lag behind those of other industrialized nations. The U.S. is one of the only high-income nations that doesn’t guarantee workers paid sick leave and paid family leave. In places where such policies have become standard, such as in Scandinavian countries, women have become more likely to work and income inequality is lower. Between 1990 and 2010, the report notes, the U.S. dropped from 6th to 17th out of 22 countries in female labor-force participation. One reason? A relative lack of policies that facilitate both work and raising a family.

But groups like CAP see a new opening to push for policies such as universal preschool, paid family and medical leave, and flexible work schedules. There’s been a recent shift in understanding work-family balance as a political issue, said Sarah Jane Glynn, CAP’s director of women’s economic policy, and increasing bipartisan agreement that the issue needs to be addressed.  

A Political Issue

President Obama has regularly called for paid leave and instructed federal agencies to give employees up to six weeks after the birth of a child, while Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently proposed a tax credit for businesses that offer paid leave.

While the approaches are different, it’s a politically smart move for lawmakers in both parties to support ideas like paid family and sick leave. Polling suggests broad support among American workers for such policies.

Where Republicans and Democrats tend to differ is on whether those policies should be mandated. Democrats are more likely to back the idea of a national paid-leave plan, while Republicans often argue that incentivizing plans through tax breaks like Rubio proposed, or improving the overall economy, will encourage more women to work.

Glynn said the argument that raising overall wages and conditions without thinking specifically about women misses the mark.

That “assumes men and women have similar lives within work and outside of work,” she said. “That only works if everyone’s lives are exactly the same, and that’s just not the case.”

Women continue to do most of the childcare and housework. They take babies to doctors’ visits more often and typically handle the school run. In other words, they would benefit disproportionately from a flexible work schedule and other family-friendly policies.

Women of Color Stand to Benefit Most

Women of color, in particular, might be brought into the workforce in greater numbers if such policies became standard. In research to be published in the next several months, Glynn finds that even when factors like income, education, and occupation are accounted for, women of color, particularly Latinas, are less likely to have access to paid sick days.

While Washington’s current political climate might make the passage of national policies unlikely in the near future, Judith Warner, the author of the report, told Next America that “states and cities are moving in the right direction.”

San Francisco started the trend in 2007, and since then cities like New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. have followed, along with states like Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts.

“The change is real,” Warner said, adding that she thinks the laws will “create even more of a wave of public opinion and a sense of the feasibility and necessity and the normalness of these policies.”

If so, the nation might begin to see a decline in income inequality.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.