Help the Economy: Empower the Women

By Carol Vlassoff

This article was originally published on

Carol VlassoffAt a time when women are nearly half of our workforce, among our most skilled workers, are the primary breadwinners in more families than ever before, anything that makes life harder for women makes life harder for families and makes life harder for children. When women succeed, America succeeds, so there’s no such thing as a women’s issue.

These words, spoken by President Obama in an interview with CNN preceding the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, remind us that, even in the US, where women are outperforming men in high school, college, and graduate school completion, there are still challenges to their success on the job.

In essence, the difficulties facing women in the US are not so different from those in a very different context, that of rural India where my research found that jobs and disposable income for rural women were key to India’s economic and social development.

Yet good jobs for rural Indian women are not emerging in any meaningful way. In rural India, a girl’s education is seen as a way to find her a good husband and to help her be a better mother and homemaker. Except for the poorest Indian women—whose only option is back-breaking, minimum-wage work as daily laborers for wealthier farmers—young rural women are confined mainly to the household. This is true even for those with secondary education and more. But, in the village of Gove in Satara District, Maharashtra, India, those who managed to break this barrier and work in professional, skilled, and self-employed jobs had fewer children, made more use of contraception, and were less dependent on sons for support than unemployed women with the same amount of schooling.

That education alone was not enough to enable women to counter traditional family pressures was a surprising finding to me, given the popular mantra of researchers and aid donors who tell us that female education is the key to women’s empowerment. I found that those women who are able to work in the modern labor sector derive important outcomes: exposure to the outside world, the confidence to make decisions, and a desire to contribute meaningfully to society.

At the White House Summit, President Obama announced concrete initiatives to support American families with fair and equal employment and a meaningful work experience. He mandated all federal government agencies to expand employees’ access to flexible work schedules and gave employees the right to demand them. He promised to promote paid family leave, to ensure child-care arrangements for people who want to enroll in job-training programs, and to increase the minimum wage.

Supportive arrangements for working women were needed in Gove too, though the kind of support required was at the family, not institutional, level. Young Gove women who worked outside the home stressed the importance of family support in child care and transportation, because it is culturally unacceptable for them to travel alone on a public bus.

Sanjeevani Jangam, who works as a fashion designer in Satara, eight miles from the village, explained, “I couldn’t manage to work without the help of my in-laws—my mother-in-law looks after my 18-month-old son, and my father-in-law, who drives a milk truck, takes me to and from work every day.”

The White House Summit is not the first time a United States president has tackled the issue of family-friendly work arrangements. In a 1994 Memorandum on Expanding Family-Friendly Work Arrangements in the Executive Branch, President Clinton also mandated greater attention to flexibility in the workplace and supportive policies.

Why, then, 20 years later, is our commitment to enlightened workplace policies still lagging behind other countries? Why, as President Obama notes, is the United States the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave?

This can be explained partly by the different roles men and women have traditionally played in our societies, and in much of the world women are still viewed as homemakers first and workers second. But I also think that the economic evidence for the employment of women and worker-oriented employment policies has not been sufficiently convincing for the average employer. However, strong arguments in defense of these policies are emerging and expanding.

President Obama cited research showing that flexible employment policies make for happier, more productive, and loyal workers. A recent study by the Center for American Progress & Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that, without women’s participation in the workforce, the U.S. economy would be 11% smaller today than 30 years ago.

Strong arguments are being made for young women’s employment throughout India. At the national level, comparing India, China, and Egypt, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has argued that the only way India can hope to compete with countries like China and Egypt is to convert its “youth bulge,” especially the large population of young women, into a “demographic dividend” by finding them productive, modern jobs. Creating environments conducive to women’s inclusion and advancement will be essential for that to succeed.

President Obama argues that an economy’s strength depends on getting the most out of each and every citizen. “Right now, we’re leaving too many people on the sidelines who have the desire and the capacity to work, but are held back by one obstacle or another.” Whether in rural India or America, this message is clear.

Equality & Inequality in Rural India“In both countries, and throughout the world, both education and rewarding jobs are needed to help us compete in the global economy,” says John Seager, president of Population Connection. “We share a common duty to give our citizens, especially young women, the opportunities and support they need to make them full participants in this marketplace.”

Carol Vlassoff
Adjunct Professor
Dept. of Epidemiology & Community Medicine
University of Ottawa
Board member, Population Connection

Canadian demographer and women’s health specialist Carol Vlassoff  has had a long career in international development, including 17 years with the World Health Organization. Throughout her career she has studied and published extensively on issues related to rural India, reproductive health, gender, and tropical diseases.