Women's Reproductive And Workplace Rights Will Help the Economy

In a world where 62 percent of U.S. voters say their president is causing the country to be more divided, it can be difficult to recognize common ground—particularly when it lies at an intersection as unexpected as reproductive rights and economic growth.


Gender inequity in the workforce is holding the U.S. economy back. And a lack of reproductive rights is contributing to that inequity.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the GDP of the United States would increase by five percent if women's labor force participation were increased to match men's. Protecting women’s reproductive rights—from childcare to contraception access—is a necessary step in achieving that parity, says Anuradha Seth, U.N. Women policy adviser on women’s economic empowerment.

Women’s ability to participate in the economic landscape can be hobbled by a number of societal and legislative factors, says Seth, many of them connected to reproductive rights. Social gender norms, for instance, can pressure women to do a disproportionate amount of unpaid work caring for their children. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development found that every day, U.S. women spend 242.1 minutes—a little over four hours—doing unpaid work. Men spend just 2.47 hours (148.6 minutes) a day doing unpaid work.

Do the math, and that means women on average are doing 569 more hours of unpaid work per year than men in the United States. At the national minimum wage, those hours are worth $4,124. But the money isn’t the biggest problem, says Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She turns to an economic term to describe the problem: opportunity cost: “the other things women could be doing if they didn’t spend so much time on mundane tasks.”

What amazing goals would [women] accomplish with an extra hour every day?" Gates asks in her 2016 Annual Letter. “[M]any women would spend more time doing paid work, starting businesses, or otherwise contributing to the economic well-being of societies around the world. The fact that they can’t holds their families and communities back.”

When the societal expectation that women should be the primary caregivers in families collides with a lack of policies supporting mothers, women’s careers—and their economic contributions—suffer. A lack of adequate and gender-equitable parental leave policies as well as an absence of childcare options push women to enter into part-time work or leave the labor market completely, says Seth. Those who remain in full-time careers often feel the effects of the “motherhood penalty.”

A study published in the American Sociological Review reported that young American women pay a 7 percent wage penalty per child. Some of that penalty is caused by disparities some women experience due to motherhood, such as the move to part-time employment, breaks in employment and fewer accumulated years of experience, according to the authors of the study. Even after the differences in experience are controlled for, a gap of more than 4 percent lingers.

Access to contraception and abortion services also plays a large role in women’s ability to fully participate economically. A report released by the Guttmacher Institute found that “planning, delaying and spacing births" not only appears to help women reach their career goals, but can also narrow the wage gap between women with children and those without. Conversely, teen pregnancy is the number one reason young women drop out of high school in the United States.

The hurdles that have undermined women economically are complex, but they are solvable.

During last month’s U.N. General Assembly, the governments of Costa Rica, Finland and Zambia hosted an event to talk about how to support women’s full economic participation. The discussion was about global economic empowerment for women, but many of the solutions presented are as applicable in the United States as they are anywhere in the world: Ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services, provide paid parental leave, and establish childcare supports.

The economic benefits of implementing these policies would reach throughout our society.

At last year’s APEC CEO summit in Peru, the IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, emphasized that increasing the number of women participating in the labor force can lead to macroeconomic gains. “If we want everyone to have a bigger piece of the pie,” she said, “the pie has to grow.” The IMF found that Latin American countries could raise their GDP per capita by up to 10 percent if they increased their female labor participation to 60 percent, the average level in the Nordic countries.

The fact that the U.N. recognizes reproductive rights as human rights should be sufficient motivation for politicians and voters to protect access to reproductive health services, paid family leave and affordable childcare.

The reality that policies supporting reproductive rights empower women to participate equally in the economic sphere should be sufficient for us to push our government to enact them.

But, if those reasons are not enough—if more common ground is needed—then the economic benefit the United States stands to reap from making sure women have careers as successful as those of their male counterparts should be the final argument.

As Kai Mykkänen, minister for foreign trade and development of Finland, said during the U.N. event, “Gender issues are at the core of human rights, but we should be stronger in manifesting that reproductive health rights are at the core of economic development as well. Not doing so is a missed opportunity when thinking about effective ways to support economic development.”

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