To Address Gender Inequality, the State Can Start With Its Youngest Kids

Camille Maben and Jim Wunderman
Camille Maben is the Executive Director of First 5 California, which helped sponsor the Bay Area Council Economic Institute Workplace Connections study. Jim Wunderman is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Bay Area Council.

Since last fall, we have watched along with the rest of America as the #MeToo and TIME’S UP movements have focused attention on the long-simmering and destructive gender inequities in workplaces across America: from movie sets to office buildings and State legislatures. The women who are speaking up are being rightly hailed as brave and inspiring heroes. However, as powerful as these tectonic shifts in workplace culture are, culture change will not happen without accompanying reforms in business practices and public policy.

A next step is to hail everyday heroes tackling unacceptable gender inequities in their workplace—the institutional workplace culture—that does not recognize or support raising young children and the modern needs of working parents. A culture that does not support new parents creates gender inequities harming parents, children, and predominantly, women.

Late last month, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute released a report, Workplace Connections: Gender Equity, Family-Friendly Policies, and Early Childhood Care and Education, that outlines steps businesses can take to support family-friendly policies such as paid leave, workplace flexibility, and providing on-site childcare. These are real-world solutions to generational challenges that have excluded women from leadership roles, enabled unequal pay for equivalent work, and hampered the productivity of workers in companies from all sectors of our economy.

As impatient as we are for these changes to happen now in all workplaces, true culture change takes time. Where change can come more quickly—in many ways contradicting the conventional wisdom that business can move more swiftly than government—is in Sacramento. This year, the Legislative Women’s Caucus and a coalition of advocates for increased spending on early childhood are making the bold but rational pitch that the state invest $1 billion on early childhood programs.

It’s a bold request because it will address a crisis for working families: the lack of early childcare. Affordable childcare is unavailable to the vast majority of low-income, working families. Less than 14 percent of the state’s eligible infants and toddlers have access to subsidized care. Among the 1 million California children younger than 5 who are eligible for state- or federally subsidized childcare and preschool programs, just one-third are enrolled, which means hundreds of thousands of working families each year struggle to find a safe and nurturing place for their child. All too often, the choice comes down to the mother staying home with her child and risking her job—or going to work at the risk of the child’s healthy development.

The pitch is rational by numerous measures, including citations in multiple economic studies that detail how investments in young children lead to the greatest return on investment. A recent study by Nobel Laureate Professor James Heckman shows a 13 percent return for every dollar invested, when accounting for reductions in the cost of schooling, increased graduation rates, and higher lifetime earnings, among other factors. The latest brain science from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child affirms that during the first three of life, children’s brains develop at the greatest rate, adding more than 1 million neural connection each second. In other words: Children aren’t just ready to learn—they are born to learn, and the interactions children have with adults during these absolute formative years influence their lifelong social and emotional growth and development.

These investments to improve the quality of the care and education young children receive and to increase the access families have to these programs are essential strategies to both child development and addressing gender inequities. Access to high-quality childcare can level the professional playing field for thousands of working poor mothers.

The reasons for making these investments have become clearer than ever in this historic year. It should be noted that a great many employers have stepped forward and made significant investments in pay equity, family-friendly policies and on-site childcare. However, absent a significant new investment by the State in childcare, too many will be denied the opportunity to advance in their careers. Making these investments offers an immediate remedy to the generational quandary women have faced: How do I return to a job I love, or perhaps desperately need, if I don’t have a safe and nurturing place to leave my child? It is a searing question that has only worsened as more women entered the workforce, one with ramifications that impact all elements of gender inequality, including the pay gap and the dearth of women in leadership roles.

By making these investments—$1 billion for babies—our state’s leaders have the opportunity today to demonstrate their commitment to gender equity and to do right by California’s working families and its youngest kids in the process.

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