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Women Are Leading Biden's Economic Recovery Plan For The Country And Other Women


March was a good month for women in the job market. Nearly half a million women joined the labor force last month, but that bit of good news comes after a year of devastation for working women. Month after month, the jobs report put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown women bearing the brunt of economic losses associated with the pandemic. Consider this fact. In less than one year, working women have lost labor force gains that took three decades to accumulate. And that is not a woman's problem. That is an American problem, although it may fall to women to try to solve it.

With us today are three of the women who are responsible for U.S. economic policy. Janelle Jones is the chief economist at the Department of Labor. Heather Boushey is a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. And Jennifer Klein is co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council. Welcome to all three of you.

JANELLE JONES: Thanks so much.

JENNIFER KLEIN: Thank you for having us.


CHANG: Well, I first want to ask you all how much of a difference do you think it makes when women, including yourselves, are leading economic policy for the country, like right now? Janelle, why don't you start?

JONES: Yeah. That's a great question. I think it matters who's in the room, whose voices are heard, the experiences that women are bringing that they've had in the labor market. You know, when I show up at work every day, I am bringing with me the Black and brown women who have helped raise me, who have taught me. I went to school at Spelman. Sorry. I have to say it every time.

CHANG: (Laughter).

JONES: But, you know, I am showing up with the Black women whose lives I want to make better through economic policy. So I think that really matters for having folks like us in the room.

CHANG: I'm curious to hear - as each of you came up in the workforce, is there a story that comes to mind where you felt held back because of your gender?

KLEIN: This is Jen. I can jump in. I came to work at this large law firm, and no woman had ever worn pants at the firm. And this is really true.

CHANG: Wait; what year was this?

KLEIN: This was 1990.

CHANG: Woah (laughter).

KLEIN: By the way, it was true of all large law firms in New York and probably across the country. And my office mate and I decided to make a statement and wear pants. And this act of defiance spread like wildfire...

CHANG: (Laughter).

KLEIN: ...Throughout the building.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

KLEIN: And people came to visit us to see us wearing our pants.

CHANG: The modern-day bloomers.

KLEIN: Yes. So that's a story of sort of how far we've come. But in a more serious vein, I also had the great privilege to work for the first lady in the Clinton administration. And when we worked on these issues, people around the White House and really across the country referred to them as women's issues. You know, the great gain that we've seen in the course of that 30 years is that they are women's issues, but they're also seen as core economic issues.

BOUSHEY: Let me jump in on the core economic issues. Is that OK?

CHANG: Yeah. Absolutely, Heather.

BOUSHEY: You know, one of the things that we've learned in 2020, of course, is that if there is no care economy, people can't get to work. The whole economy has been - is really dependent on the backs of women as workers and women's employment in the economy and the productivity that they bring to their workplaces every day. And so I've tried to bring both of those conversations into the various rooms that I've been in.

But your initial question here was whether or not I had felt held back. And I want to note that for myself - I mean, I'm here. The fact that I have made it here is just incredible to my family. And so I don't feel that I've been held back, but I do feel this really important responsibility to make sure that I'm lifting up the voices of working people from across the country in my work every single day.

CHANG: And I want to follow up on the care economy, but I want to give Janelle, if she'd like, a chance to share a personal story.

JONES: Yeah. The economic field is one that is predominantly white, predominantly male. And so often, I show up in the room, and folks ask me if I'm supposed to be somewhere else.


JONES: You know, how did I get invited? Black women in this country have always experienced some kind of obstacle to getting to where they need to be. You know, resistance is very much a part of the DNA of Black women in America. And so I really - you know, I just push past that. Like, I'm here for a reason. I'm here to do some good work. You know, I think we can all on this call speak to the way that our work in this field has probably been looked down upon at points.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - you know, in President Biden's infrastructure proposal, he has set aside some $400 billion for this so-called care economy. That's money for all kinds of caregivers. What do you think? Do you think you would even see a proposal like this if only men were in charge of crafting policy right now?

BOUSHEY: Well, I will start on this one.

CHANG: I hear some laughter.

BOUSHEY: So ever since the president made his announcement about the American Jobs Plan, there's been a debate about what counts as infrastructure. I mean, I got to say, it makes me laugh a little bit because we know. We know what counts as infrastructure are the things that help people engage in the economy. And the care economy is absolutely foundational to that. These are the kinds of kitchen-table issues that families have to deal with each and every day - what kind of child care center their child is in. Can they afford that? Is that a good enough child care center? What are they going to do about, you know, an aging loved one, a mom? And these things are very expensive.

CHANG: I want to move on to a question from a mother of three who's an economics professor at Ohio State. Her name is Joyce Chen. And she had a pretty rough year. She had to sideline a lot of her own research, given the demands at home. But during the pandemic, she's been happy to see a new acceptance of flexible work schedules and flexible work arrangements. Here's her question.

JOYCE CHEN: In the past, this kind of flexibility has come at a price and often puts women on the mommy track, where we are perceived as being less committed, less hard-working and ultimately having less potential and being less deserving of promotions and leadership roles. How can we change this narrative around flexible work to make it the norm rather than an accommodation and better support the careers of women and caregivers?

CHANG: I mean, can we even change the narrative? What do you think? Jen.

KLEIN: I think we have changed the narrative. You know, I never use the phrase opportunity to describe anything related to this pandemic. But, you know, as we've watched a health crisis and, on top of that, an economic crisis and, on top of that, a caregiving crisis, I think it has made it clear that the changes that we need are structural, and things like flexible scheduling and child care and paid leave and all of these policies that we know work to help people navigate their responsibilities at home and their responsibilities at work have become seen as public responsibilities, not just the responsibilities of individual workers and, again, particularly women, who have, you know, in the past, at least in this country, been left to navigate these things by themselves.

CHANG: I want to talk about women of color especially because data from the last year shows that job losses have hit women of color hardest. And, Janelle, I know that is something that you have been thinking a lot about. So can you tell us what can be done about this?

JONES: Women of color have definitely been hit hardest by this pandemic. And, you know, I think the thing that makes me excited - I mean, it's terrible to say anything makes me excited. The world is still - there's still lots of problems.

CHANG: Yeah.

JONES: Something that I'm looking forward to is the president's American Jobs Plan because it doesn't just restore women of color back to January of 2020. It doesn't even restore them back to four years ago. It really is looking at a once-in-a-generation investment in the sectors that mostly employ Black and brown women. I mean, the investments in care as infrastructure and the care economy and small business owners who run child care centers, this will change - Black and brown women - the entire trajectory of their economic life.

You know, one of the stats I like to keep in my back pocket is after the Great Recession, we saw headlines say, you know, this is the biggest and longest and best expansion of the economy we've ever seen. But Black women's employment didn't actually return until 2018.


JONES: So when I (inaudible) headlines saying that, you know, the economy is great, I think, not for people who look like me, not for Black women. They are still suffering recessionary conditions. And I'm just so, so, so excited that we are not just, like, providing immediate relief and recovery, but also just really investing in long-term structural change.

CHANG: You know, I was struck as I was digging into the data for this conversation by how long the U.S. has had an economy that just is not structured to favor women or people of color or families, for that matter. I mean, women have been such a large part of the workforce for decades. And I'm just wondering, as each of you spends your days thinking about the economy, why do you think it has been so difficult to implement policies that bring more equity?

BOUSHEY: I'll chime in here and let Janelle and Jen chime in as well. As women have entered the labor market and moved into different jobs and we've opened up all different occupations through civil rights legislation, what we haven't done yet, as you alluded to, is really address the needs of families to have someone to help deal with those caregiving aspects. And that has really haunted our economy. And this is - makes us very different than our economic competitors who have made those investments. So it's hard because we have to get a new mindset that actually addressing these inequalities across our economy will create stronger growth. And that's the new narrative.

CHANG: But let me ask you, is there truly a new narrative? Janelle or Jen, does this moment really feel different, that there really will be a shift towards more equitable policies for women in this economy?

JONES: I think it is. I think the pandemic and this recession have shown that we really do need each other, that an economy built on the structural flaws of racism and inequality is less stable for everyone, right? It has decimated entire structures, entire sectors, industries, local economies. It really has shown that when we have an economy that is, you know, just the rich getting richer and everyone else doing worse off, we just - we're all worse off. And so I think that this really has opened up a new audience to, you know, progressive economic ideas, to say that when we invest in low-wage workers, when we invest in the middle class, it makes our economy more resilient. And it makes us better off.

KLEIN: And I think we finally are at the moment, having seen what we've all seen, you know, what this pandemic has made visible, what has so long been invisible is that this change is not only the right thing, but it's also the smart thing for everybody.

CHANG: Jen Klein is co-chair of the White House Gender Policy Council. Janelle Jones is the chief labor economist. And Heather Boushey is a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. These are three of the women leading U.S. economic policy right now.


Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Shannon Rhoades is NPR's senior editor for interviews.