The key to boosting America’s economy lies in policy changes that enable more women to work, Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, said in an atypically personal speech on Friday. 

While addressing students at Brown University as part of the “125 Years of Women at Brown” conference, Yellen cited the rise of women in the workforce during the mid-20th century as a “major factor” in advancing America’s affluence. In more recent times, though, the rate of women joining, and thereby improving, the country’s workforce has dropped — and a lack of mandated paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, and flexible work schedules is largely to blame, she asserted.

“Evidence suggests that many women remain unable to achieve their goals,” Yellen said. “If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy at a time when the aging of the population and weak productivity growth are already weighing on economic growth.”

To better illustrate her point, Yellen referenced a range of statistics showcasing America’s female workforce stasis. Following World War II, about one-third of appropriately aged women held jobs outside the home; by the early 1990s, this ratio had risen to about three-quarters of women. 

In the last 20 years, though, this percentage has changed very little, translating to a total drop-off in workforce growth. In April 2017, the number of women between the ages of 25 to 54 who were either working or looking for work still stood at 75 percent. Meanwhile, the number of similarly aged men who were holding or seeking a job clocked in at 88.6 percent — more than 10 percent higher than women.

If the rate of working women were to rise to the same level of working men, America’s annual economic output would stand to benefit by 5 percent, Yellen said. But the only clear way of getting there, she reaffirmed, is by making jobs outside the home more accessible to women by mimicking some of Europe’s more mom-friendly work policies.



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