A Chance to Enshrine Gender Equity at All Levels of Government — by Elizabeth Barajas-Román

Published in Governing The Future of States and Localities

The White House is showing the way. Building on that, state and local policymakers have the opportunity to improve well-being for women — and for everyone.

It’s been bleak news for American women lately — the uncertain future of federal spending for paid family leave and the child-care tax credit, a rise in domestic violence linked to COVID-19 isolation, the ongoing economic “she-cession.” But there was a bright spot that has gone nearly unnoticed: the recent release of the first-ever White House National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality.

This whole-of-government strategy identifies 10 priority areas, among them improving women’s economic security, preventing gender-based violence and increasing access to health care. Crucially, it recognizes that all of those priorities are interconnected — in our current systems, child care impacts economic opportunities, which in turn impact access to housing, which impacts health outcomes and more. And the strategy takes an intersectional approach, recognizing that the barriers women face are compounded by forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, ability, sexual orientation and other factors.

It’s an historic and bold strategy, and it’s to be celebrated. But it’s also precarious. After President Trump took office, hundreds of pages of federal website content on women’s health and rights vanished overnight. We can’t let the gender equity gains we have made disappear when the political winds switch directions.

Now is the time for state and local lawmakers to enshrine gender justice at those levels of government too. The jockeying for the 2022 state legislative sessions begins now. As state lawmakers prepare their bills for introduction, they have a unique opportunity to prioritize gender equity.

The federal government has offered a strategic road map for gender equity and equality; women’s funds around the country helped shape that strategy, and have offered concrete policies to put it into practice. State leaders can draw from both.

For example, when the Iowa Women’s Foundation’s research found that the key barrier to economic mobility for women was a lack of access to child care, they formed a statewide coalition to increase its availability and affordability. Their work has resulted in 3,500 new child-care slots and three child-care bills passed so far, working directly with the governor on a new task force to tackle the issue from a cross-sector of industries.

The Women’s Foundation of Oregon provided funding and research for the local coalition that helped pass the 2017 Reproductive Health Equity Act, which ensures that all Oregonians — regardless of income, citizenship status, gender identity or type of insurance — have access to the full range of preventive reproductive health services, including family planning, abortion and postpartum care.

And the Women’s Foundation of Colorado amplified community voices to help pass the Colorado Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, paid family and medical leave insurance, and funding to strengthen the statewide early care and education system, including providing universal pre-K.

It’s beyond time to prioritize gender equity in policymaking at all levels of government. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our country’s overlapping health, economic and caregiving crises. In addition to domestic violence, food insecurity and mental health problems increased for women. Some 2.3 million women left the labor force due to the pandemic, and they were disproportionately women of color. The child-care industry, overwhelmingly staffed by women, was decimated by COVID-19.

Policies that improve well-being for women improve well-being for everyone. With the White House National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality and local organizations like women’s funds as resources, there’s never been a clearer road map for state and local lawmakers to advance gender equity and build a future where everyone can thrive.

Elizabeth Barajas-Román is the president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, the world’s largest philanthropy alliance for gender equity.

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