Improving Opportunities for Women in the United States


Remarks by Angel Gurría

Secretary-General, OECD

17 June 2016

Washington DC, United States


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for joining us at today’s seminar on “Improving Opportunities for Women in the United States”, jointly organized by the OECD’s Washington Centre and the OECD Centre for Opportunity and Equality.

There is already much to celebrate. In the US, women have more opportunities than ever before and are better off than their counterparts in many other OECD countries. The share of women in managerial positions is high by international comparison. Many women also serve in high level positions in the government, including Cabinet positions that have been traditionally dominated by men, such as the Departments of the Interior, Commerce, and Justice. The Obama Administration has taken positive steps to tackle gender inequality, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the first Bill President Obama signed into law), the establishment of the National Equal Pay Task Force, and innovations such as the Equal Pay App Challenge. Nancy Pelosi made history as the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives. And, of course, Hillary Clinton recently became the first ever woman Presidential nominee for a major party!

These are remarkable achievements, but they should not be a cause for complacency. The US is still facing important challenges empowering women and promoting gender inclusion. Just yesterday I launched the 2016 Economic Survey of the United States, which shows that female labour force participation is 74% in the US, 2 percentage points below that of men. While it remains 2 percentage points above the OECD average, it has fallen below the rates observed in other high-income countries.

Women tend to work in lower paying occupations, are more likely to be engaged in part time or temporary employment, and earn 17% less than men on average, compared with the OECD average wage gap of 15%. Wage gaps also exist across race and ethnicity: Asian and White women’s earnings are significantly higher than African American and Latino female workers. Women are less likely than men to graduate in STEM fields: in 2013, women comprised much less than half of all tertiary graduates in the fields of mathematics, statistics, physical sciences, engineering, and comput¬ing. They also remain under represented in public life. For example, fewer than 1 in 5 seats in the House of Representatives are held by women. This is lower than Afghanistan!

On the issue of parental leave, there is still a long way to go. The US is the only OECD country that does not offer paid maternity leave at the federal level, and remains one of nine OECD countries that do not have a paid leave entitlement reserved for fathers. Less than two thirds of American workers are eligible for twelve weeks of unpaid employment protection around childbirth. And while some workers get paid parental leave from their employers, most do not – particularly those receiving low wages. If the US introduced paid maternity and parental leave at the federal level, this would strengthen parental labour force attachment and give all American children the best possible start in life.

The OECD is working hard to help the US empower women, close the wage gap, and deliver policies that promote inclusive growth. This is not just about fairness, there’s a strong economic case. Meeting the G20 target of reducing the gender gap in labour force participation rates by 25% by 2025 would add 0.13 percentage points per year to US GDP. In the context of the sluggish global economic recovery, this is a significant economic dividend. The OECD is supporting this goal by measuring progress towards the target in G20 economies, which if realised could potentially bringing more than 100 million women into the labour force.

So we can see the results of effective policy action, and today’s seminar will focus on what more the US can do to expand opportunities for women to benefit from growth. The OECD, with its data and evidence based analysis, its horizontal project on Inclusive Growth, and its new Centre for Opportunity and Equality, is uniquely well-placed to help.

Two recent OECD Recommendations on gender equality have been adopted by the US: the Recommendation on Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship and the Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life. There are also the recently updated G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, which provide countries with measures to improve gender balance on boards and in senior-level corporate positions.

Through tools like these the OECD is helping policymakers and stakeholders in the US understand how disclosure requirements, quotas, and voluntary targets can improve representation. They set out how better enactment of equity laws and regulations, better auditing and effective independent complaint and legal recourse mechanisms can help tackle the wage gap.

They show how more family-friendly policies and working conditions, from greater flexibility to more affordable early childcare provision, can increase participation. This is vital for the US, where, on average, parents of a pre-schooler spend 10.5% of their monthly family income on childcare. For low-income families, this share can be three times as high! This is simply not acceptable, and it’s bad for the economy.

To boost inclusiveness, the OECD is also working with the US to increase the number of female STEM graduates, which lags behind the OECD average. Studies like the OECD’s ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence is helping policymakers and education professionals understand and tackle deeply entrenched stereotypes, which can prevent girls from following their dreams, talents, and ambitions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The way forward is clear. The benefits are clear. And as the iconic American feminist poster says “We can do it!”. But to achieve this, we must work together to reduce gender gaps in labour market participation, wages, attitudes, behaviours, and fields of study to advance growth in an inclusive way. The OECD stands ready to put all our tools and expertise at the disposal of the US to deliver a better, more inclusive future.

Thank you. We look forward to hearing your views.