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Remarks at Women’s Leaders Conference in Bern, Switzerland

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Acting Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank
Remarks on Women's Leaders Conference in Bern, Switzerland

The Changing Role of Women

Everyone in this room could, in one way or another, be called a “powerful woman.”  I always think that’s a great phrase, one that would make no sense in many cultures or at many points in history. Even today, in too many countries, women are still powerless and often without civic or legal rights. We have come a long way to gather in this room today, and that is worth celebrating.  

But I suspect that no woman, whether powerful or not, would claim that our societies have solved the problems of differential treatment of women. If we assess where women are today, there is much good news, but there also remains troublesome news and areas where ongoing challenges remain if we want women to have the same economic and political opportunities as men.

What I’d like to do this morning is to set the stage for today’s conversations…to talk about some of the areas where we can celebrate progress, as well as to highlight some areas where we face ongoing challenges.

I’ll start by talking about women’s education and labor market involvement, then discuss how these changes have interacted with a variety of changes in women’s traditional roles inside marriage and motherhood. I’ll end with a few comments about political leadership…an area where we still face significant challenges.

Education is the route from poverty to economic stability, and it is often the route from powerlessness to public voice. The economic research is very clear that one of the most important things that less-developed countries can do to improve health and to raise family incomes is to educate girls as fully as boys.  

In the U.S., women have made enormous strides in education.  In fact, women are becoming increasingly better educated than men. Women earn 60% of all the 4-year college degrees in the U.S.  

They are more likely to attend college, and more likely to complete college.  And women are more likely to complete post-college graduate level training than men as well – a major turnaround from 5 decades ago when very few women did any graduate training.

I do not have as detailed statistics for Switzerland.  But women in Switzerland are attending post-high school training at increasing rates. Twenty-one percent of all women did some ‘tertiary’ training in 2008, according to United Nations statistics…that’s college or University training. This is well above the share in such programs 20 years ago and higher than Germany or France, but below the U.S, and below the share of men in such programs.

As a basis for future earnings and for future leadership, education is key.  In this area, women have made great advances in both countries. But in an increasingly global economy, more women… and men… with University training will benefit both of our countries.

Economy and Labor Force
So let’s turn to the labor market. Here the news is a bit more mixed.

On the one hand, women are working in record numbers in both countries. According to the report prepared for this conference, in 2011, 68% of women were in the labor force in the United States and 76% in Switzerland.  

“Work” means something different for women in these countries, however.  In Switzerland over half of all working women (57%) work only part-time. In the U.S., only about a quarter of working women are part-time workers, so women in the U.S. work at a slightly lower rate, but those who do work, work more hours than in Switzerland.

There has also been an enormous explosion in the set of occupations and industries in which women work. In the U.S. women have moved into law, medicine, science, and, as this group knows, business, politics and economics! These enormous changes in women’s work opportunities are the effect of anti-discrimination laws, whose primary effect was to free up the constraints faced by more educated women.  These were the women who were largely not allowed to utilize their skills in many areas of the labor market until the law forced equal treatment by gender.  

Women do continue to work in different industries and occupations than men, however. In the U.S. there remains a great deal of gender segregation at work, but this is more common in lower-wage jobs that require less education. For a woman with limited schooling, her job options look remarkably similar to the job options faced by her mother or grandmother – clerical work, retail sales, or household assistance.  

But for women with college educations, the labor market has changed enormously.  

One result is a growth in the U.S. in wage differences among women. When the only jobs open to educated women were nursing or teaching, most women earned very similar pay. Today, more-educated women earn much more than less-educated women and work in very different jobs. So some of the widening inequality in the U.S. income distribution is due to the opening up of work opportunities for higher-educated women.

The biggest problem in the labor market for women is that earnings opportunities still remain unequal, relative to men. I told you that women have HIGHER levels of education in the U.S. than men, yet they continue to earn less. The average woman earns only about 75 cents for every dollar earned by the average man.  For Swiss women, the number is a little better:  82 cents for every dollar earned by a man.   These ongoing differences reflect two things:  

First, women choose a different set of occupations, and the occupations where women choose to work tend to pay lower wages.  We can talk about why that might be true in the breakout groups later today.

Second, there continues to be labor market discrimination against women, particularly as they stay with a company and try to advance. Men are promoted more rapidly and receive larger wage increases upon promotion. Women remain dramatically under-represented in top-level positions within corporations, and the story is the same in the corporate boardroom, where female representation on Fortune 500 boards isn’t even at 20 percent. This issue is one reason why the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama after he took office was the Lily Ledbetter Law, which gave women more rights in the workplace.

The President also continues to advocate for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act – common sense legislation that would give women better tools to fight pay discrimination.

One last comment on the labor market:  One area where women are seriously underrepresented in the labor market is in self-employment. Women are far less likely to start a new business and own their own firm. While women’s self-employment in the U.S. is growing, women represent only 30% of business owners, and these firms tend to be smaller. Women-owned firms generate only 11% of all revenue from privately-owned businesses.  

There are many reasons for this – including difficulties that women face in getting financing for their firms – but this is an area where we need more women involved.  

Business ownership is a way to built assets and wealth, it is a way to achieve economic independence, and it offers an opportunity to bring new ideas into the marketplace…and thereby create jobs and economic growth.

In the U.S., Small Business Administration loans are 3 to 5 times more likely to be made to minority- and women-owned businesses than conventional loans made by banks. The Obama Administration has expanded SBA lending, making more than $7 billion available through 29,000 SBA loans to women-owned businesses between 2009 and 2011.

Traditional Lives
Of course, changes in education and work involvement are closely linked to other changes in women’s lives. Too often, I think we talk just about education and labor force changes for women without talking at the same time about their traditional lives, as mothers and as marriage partners.   

Women are marrying later, starting families later, having fewer children, and spend more of their adult life living singly. More women are not marrying at all or spending larger periods of their adult life single and without a partner… and often raising children without marriage partners.  These changes are, of course, closely linked to those I just discussed.

It will not surprise anybody here that while women’s work for pay outside the home has grown enormously, their work inside the home has not shrunk at a commensurate rate.

Married women with children still put far more time into work at home – time with children, time in housework – than do married men, even after you adjust for their hours of work outside the home.  Life still isn’t fair for many women, and they do continue to ‘work two shifts’ – at their job and at home.

There are many of us who do ‘want it all’ – we want a challenging job and a good education, but we also enjoy marriage and want children.  I have said several times in the past that the best advice I can give to younger women who ask me, “How do you balance all this?” is to tell them that they need to ‘marry well.’  

By this, I don’t mean that they need to marry a rich man, but that they need to marry a man who appreciates and respects their work, as well as his own, and who will willingly share the work of children.  In my experience, such men are still in shorter supply than I wish they were.
I think we do have to recognize that these changes have had mixed effects. For women with more education, the choice to have fewer children, to work more, even to be a single mom, is often based in the security of being able to earn a stable living. But for less-educated and lower-income women, raising children on a single, low income is tough.  

They may have more independence, but for them it comes at a cost:  Single mothers in America are the group most likely to be poor or near-poor.

Political Leadership
Let me end with a few words about women’s political voice.  Although it did take Switzerland a little longer than some other countries to get there, in both the US and Switzerland, the fight for women to vote is now in the historical past … though, as an aside, if you listened to the recent political fight in America over contraception, you might have doubts about that.  

In both countries, women have become an active political constituency. There is interesting political research looking at whether women voters care about different issues or vote differently than men, and the answer is generally ‘yes’, particularly on social issues relating to children, health and education.  

In these areas, women tend to be more willing to support government programs for lower-income children and families and more willing to want government assistance in assuring adequate health care and education for all.

Unfortunately, one area where women are most under-represented is in the political realm. Women constitute only 17% of the members of the U.S. House and Senate; Switzerland does somewhat better, with women constituting 28% of the members of the Swiss Parliament. In both countries, these are low numbers relative to the population.

Women’s voice in the political realm is important. It is central to the address the disparities and challenges I have talked about. To get more women at the top levels of politics, one must expand women’s political involvement at lower levels, starting in mayor’s offices and city councils.  

We are fortunate to live in this time of greatly expanded opportunities. Many of us have been able to make choices and to do things that our grandmothers would have found unthinkable.

But the challenges are still clearly present:  

  • To make sure girls understand the opportunities in front of them, and to be ambitious about what they can do, educationally and professionally;
  • To make sure that the labor market is fully open to women.  This means no discrimination in wages or promotions.  But it also means a set of family-friendly policies that allow women to take maternity leave, provides flexibility for parents and family needs, and makes child care available and affordable to working women.  For instance, in the U.S., the limited availability of paid maternity leave continues to create serious problems for many women.  In Switzerland, a serious issue continues to be school schedules and the availability of noon-time and after-school care, which can make an enormous difference in the ability of women to work in full-time jobs.  
    • The son of a single mother, President Obama has, not surprisingly, been focused on these issues. In March 2010, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors issued its first-ever report on the economic benefits of workplace flexibility. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor has led efforts around the country to promote workplace flexibility and generate best practices in the private sector.   
  • Finally, we need to encourage girls and women to continue to be path-breakers, particularly in areas where women are under-represented –to get the engineering degree, to start the new business, or to run for political office.

In the end, those of us who have been fortunate enough to have achieved some success, have a responsibility to our sisters, to serve as mentors and coaches to the younger women that we know, and to act as public proponents for the rights of women everywhere.

This conference is an exciting opportunity to come together across the boundaries of our two nations, to dream new dreams for the future, and to re-energize ourselves to work toward our shared goals and challenges.  I’m looking forward to the discussions to come.

Thank you.