Sitting on the train between DC and New York this week, I overheard two young working mothers talking. One expressed excitement about starting a new job after finally quitting one she didn't like; the other was moving up the ranks at her marketing firm. One conveyed concerns about the lack of diversity at her company. Both had young children and were juggling the typical day-to-day to-do list: coordinating carpool, school photos, soccer practice.
Listening to their conversation, I was reminded of women's achievements and opportunities today. But I was also reminded of the challenges that continue to face many women and their families. While these young women appeared to enjoy their work, they weren't out the door and on the road at the crack of dawn just for fun. One mentioned expensive home renovations; the other, the need to change schools for a child trapped in an overcrowded classroom. Both acknowledged being exhausted.
These women are not alone in facing financial pressures and employment challenges. In fact, millions of American women are without jobs right now -women's labor force participation rate is at its lowest level in close to three decades. Many women can't find jobs at all; still others can't find jobs that pay sufficiently or offer the kind of flexibility they require. And these challenges fall against the backdrop of rising living expenses - homes, food, household goods, childcare.
Noting these challenges, progressives frequently suggest women are a victim-class in need of special assistance from government, and offer a host of government-directed "solutions" - from sweeping legislation to micromanage wages and mandatory benefit packages to the hyper-regulation of business. Of course, none of these proposals would ease the burden or open up opportunities for the women on the train - or the millions of other women around the country. Rather these sweeping government interventions are likely to make matters worse for most women by diminishing economic opportunity and job prospects.
What was clear from listening to my train companions was that what would help them most is a dynamic economy with plentiful jobs so they can find work opportunities that suit their different needs and preferences. That's why this week the Independent Women's Forum released its new report, Working for Women: A Modern Agenda for Improving Women's Lives, which lays out a positive, alternative economic agenda to ensure more opportunity for women and their families.
IWF highlights the importance of eliminating as many unnecessary barriers to entry into the workforce as possible, to make it easier for women who need and want to work to find jobs. Policymakers can start by relaxing minimum wage regulations for those who have been unemployed or are starting out in their careers, and by eliminating unnecessary licensing regulations and fees.
We advocate for lowering tax rates so that women, not the government, take home more of what they earn. And we urge lawmakers to eliminate or reduce workplace regulations that put unnecessary restrictions on how and when women can work so there's more opportunity for flexible schedules.
Childcare costs undoubtedly burden working women like those on the train, which is why policymakers should roll-back regulations of daycare providers. Everyone wants safe childcare, but research shows these government regulations do nothing to improve quality, yet raises costs for working parents. And of course policymakers ought to consolidate government spending and tax credits for children to again put more resources - and choices - in the hands of parents, so they have the ability to choose the childcare arrangement that works best for their families.
Finally we recognize that bad employers do exist and discrimination does occur - as the one woman pointed out not all workplaces respect women equally - so we propose reforms to clarify language in existing pay equity and pregnancy discrimination laws to ensure women are adequately protected.
My experience on the train this week confirmed research that IWF conducted about What Women Really Want in the Workplace. The reality is that women want and need very different things. Mothers tend to be flexibility-maximizers, while non-mothers tend to be salary-maximizers. Both are valid priorities, and we want to ensure that big-government doesn't get in the way of either goal.
The fact is women are not all the same - and their needs and preferences for work life aren't the same either. If we really want to see women advance in the workplace we must insist that government take a step back, allow businesses to grow and create jobs, and give women (and men) every chance to enter the workforce, gain experience, and find jobs that fit their needs.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of Independent Women's Forum.