Erbe: U.S. overtaken as a leader in women's progress

"It seems as if our best years may

"It seems as if our best years may be behind us when it comes to leading the world on women's advancement," writes Bonnie Erbe. (Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services)

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When I covered the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, I had no idea what heady days those would seem to be in retrospect. That was the convention where then-first lady Hillary Clinton made her speech forever branding women's rights as equal to human rights and vice versa.

Then, the United States was a world leader on the issue of women's rights. But that was 18 years ago and this is now.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union's website reveals that the United States has fallen to 82nd on the list of countries with the highest representation of women in national legislatures. We are behind most of Europe, China, even Kyrgyzstan. It's an absolute embarrassment. Many countries have now elected at least one woman to the office of president or prime minister. Great Britain, Germany, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Liberia are among them, and the list goes on and on. Of course, the United States has yet to elect a female president.


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Fast forward to 2013 and our reverse thrust is becoming strong enough to halt a jetliner. A new report by a pair of economics professors at Cornell shows that U.S. women's workforce participation lags behind that of more countries than before.

Women started diving into the U.S. workforce in record numbers in the late 1960s. By 1990, the United States had the sixth highest female labor participation rate among 22 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. But by 2010, our rank had fallen to 17th, according to authors Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, who wrote a January working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

It's not that fewer American women were in the workforce in 2010 than in 1990. In fact, our rate rose a little bit. It's just that other country's rates rose exponentially. They overtook us, in other words.

The authors credit "family-friendly" policies such as paid parental leave and part-time work in other OECD countries as a major factor influencing why they experienced such high growth. They say our lack of federally subsidized day care, paid leave and so on is part of the reason more women were not tempted into the U.S. workforce. They add that if the U.S. were to adopt similar federal laws, which Congress is hardly likely to do, some 82 percent of American women would have been working in 2010, up from the 75 percent who were in the workforce.

At the same time the Cornell economists say family-friendly policies tend to drive up part-time work by women and the number of women in low-level jobs. Bottom line: U.S. women are more likely than women in other countries to have full-time jobs and to work as managers or professionals. So the news is not all bad.

Still, it's no badge of honor for the status of American women. Combined with our woeful performance in the political arena, it seems as if our best years may be behind us when it comes to leading the world on women's advancement. As if to reinforce that point, 1990-2010 was the period in which the religious right made incredible progress, or shall I say regress, turning back hard-won reproductive rights gained by women in the early 1970s. If that's true, it's a sad, sad story to tell.

Bonnie Erbe, a TV host, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.

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