Women's Advocacy in US Government

The US recently claimed at disappointing 17th place on the Economist's "Glass Ceiling Index", an international comparison of gender equal treatment at work.  Earlier this year, the equal rights amendment for gender equality stumbled after an extended stalemate in Congress.  These recent international and domestic losses raise the question of who's accountable for the US' performance on gender issues.  We know that Obama throws weight behind women's reforms, such as his tour this week to discuss career opportunities with female college students, but few Americans could identify who's in charge of women-related policies beyond the President himself.  In fact, many may be surprised that the US organizes it's women's advocacy apparatus markedly differently from other nations, generally decentralizing women's advocacy roles more than other OECD countries and Asian powers.  Notably, the US government has no Cabinet-level gender equality office,  that may create gaps in our protection of women.

The lack of a central gender equality office sets the US apart from its developed peers.  Sweden, an all-star on women's equality and productivity, established a cabinet-level position for women's equality 60 years ago.  The UK introduced the position under Blair in 1997, a move that received enough attention to prompt a Lord to advocate for the male equivalent.   South Korea and Japan followed suit with a Gender Equality Bureau and Ministry respectively, both of which report directly to the PM.  Although the trend seems to be toward empowering women's bureaus abroad, as far as I can tell, an integrated, centralized office has never been tried at home.

The US replaces this type of cabinet-level role with offices lower in the organization trees of federal departments.  Each department is responsible for gender advocacy within a single public service, though we hope that these pieces would interface together to address holistic priorities for women:

 Table 1: Key Federal Departments with Women/Gender Focus

Public service

 

Agency

 

Description

Health

 

Department of Health Services Women's Health Division

 

The Office on Women's Health provides national leadership and coordination to improve the health of women and girls through policy, education and model programs.

Food Safety

 

FDA Office of Women’s Health (OWH)

 

Established by Congressional mandate in 1994, the office's mission of the office is to: Protect and advance the health of women through policy, science, and outreach and to advocate for the participation of women in clinical trials and for sex, gender, and subpopulation analyses.

Education

 

Women's Education Equity Program

 

This program promotes education equity for women and girls through competitive grants. The program designates most of its funding for local implementation of gender-equity policies and practices. Projects may be funded for up to four years.

Labor

 

U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau

 

The Bureau develops policies and standards and conducts inquiries to safeguard the interests of working women; to advocate for their equality and economic security  and to promote quality work environments

Business ownership

 

Small Business Administration: Office of Women's Business Ownership

 

The office's mission is to establish and oversee Women’s Business Centers in  the US to help women, especially those who are economically or socially disadvantaged, to start and grow their businesses

Foreign policy

 

State Department Office of Global Women's Issues

 

The office seeks to ensure that women’s issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy, to promote stability, peace, and development by empowering women politically, socially, and economically

Decentralizing power over women's issues surely has implications for American women.  What might our current structure miss?

While grocery shopping in Malaysia on Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised to find parking spots reserved for solo women to shorten their nighttime walk to their cars.  The reserved spots were introduced by the Ministry for Women, an office reporting directly to the Prime Minister.  The same office also introduced a women's marathon recently to raise money for women-specific causes.  To choose an example closer to home (at least historically), the UK Ministry of Gender Equality helped to legalize the  use of women-only shortlists in selecting parliamentary candidates, and banned employers from discouraging employees from discussing their pay (a practice that disadvantages generally lower-paid women).

I wonder whether our lack of a central office masterminding and coordinating efforts makes initiatives that fall between the purviews of specific departments less likely in the US?  Imagine a patient with the choice between five specialists or one integrated care doctor.  Seeing all those specialists separately can create gaps in diagnoses and treatments.  In the same way, a single entity empowered with a holistic view of gender equality conditions across policy-making domains may be best positioned to pioneer successful solutions.

Although Americans are inclined to keep powers decentralized and therefore in check, understanding the risks to the model will help us to plug the gaps.  The US boasts a very active women's advocacy private sector, with organizations such as Catalyst and NOW, but private groups cannot touch domains that are distinctly public (e.g. parking space allocation).  Responsibility for the space between federal agencies' may fall on individual politicians who happen to be women, but no representative should be held to (or relied on) to push any agenda.  Given that international benchmarks continue to show room to improve on behalf of women, it is worth considering whether our central government can do more to fill the spaces in between the dispersion of women's advocacy.

 


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