Women supported and sustained the U.S. wartime economy during the world’s largest, most lethal, and most destructive conflict in history. In fact, the 50% growth in women’s paid labor force participation between 1940 and 1945 proved so instrumental that one of the greatest economic legacies of World War II is that of women’s economic enfranchisement. That boded well not only for women but for an entire nation in turmoil.
Fast-forward six decades and the U.S. is navigating yet another harrowing juncture—this time at the intersection of health, economy, and race. At this crossroads, at this moment in history, as we celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, America has a choice to make.
Will we enshrine gender equality in our Constitution, paving the way for women’s unrestrained economic participation and leading us toward a Brave New Normal? Or will we continue to be among the 24% of countries worldwide without a constitutional provision for gender equity?
Why now: the economic case for the Equal Rights Amendment
In my lifetime, it was legal to:
- discriminate against pregnant women at work
- exclude women from juries
- deny women business loans without a male cosigner
- charge women higher healthcare premiums on the basis of gender
- refuse single women lines of credit
While we’ve certainly made progress toward matters of equality in the past few decades, most recent estimates indicate that the U.S. won’t achieve gender parity until 2227. This time line is an insult to our economy and potential as a country. Achieving gender equity could unleash $2 trillion, lift millions of women and children out of poverty, and lay the foundation for a stronger, more inclusive economy 4.0. So why are we waiting another 207 years to close the gender equity gap?
With the right tools and legal framework, we can speed up the clock and achieve gender equity in this lifetime. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is pivotal to this process because it legally protects women and men from discrimination on the basis of sex. As it stands, the supreme law of the land and source of all government powers (i.e., the Constitution) does not guarantee the full and equal participation of women in society and the economy. The consequences of withholding such legal protections reach far and wide.
From starting a job to receiving a pension and nearly every step in between, U.S. women face systemic barriers that impede their economic and social advancement. In fact, these barriers are so prohibitive that our country doesn’t even rank in the top 60 economies (out of 131 total) on the World Bank’s index of economic inclusion via legal gender protection. For comparison, countries such as Ecuador, Albania, Colombia, Togo, and Hong Kong fared better than the U.S. on this index.
We can do better and we must do better. With the help of the ERA, we can hold ourselves to a higher standard by removing the double standard that exists between the sexes.
The Equal Rights Amendment is more than symbolic
First drafted by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman in 1923, the ERA came off the heels of the 19th Amendment’s adoption to the Constitution. It seemed right that the next step toward gender equity would take us beyond the ballot box and into all matters of life (divorce, employment, credit, property, etc.) by constitutionally enshrining equal rights for all American citizens.
Yet here we are nearly a century after the ERA was first proposed and we still don’t have a legal mechanism to unequivocally protect U.S. citizens from discrimination on the basis of sex. Women continue to be treated as second-class citizens, and this fact is reflected in nearly every facet of our society.
Despite a handful of key legislative victories over the decades (such as the Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act), women are:
- disproportionately represented among the poor
- experience pay inequity across all occupational categories
- face gender bias at every stage of the employee life cycle
- are more susceptible to sexual harassment than men
The ERA would federate the inconsistent patchwork of legislation and “put the full weight of the U.S. Constitution” behind fixing systemic gender inequities. With the adoption of the ERA, sex discrimination would—for the first time ever—be upgraded to the highest, strictest level of judicial scrutiny, compared to the “intermediate” level of scrutiny it receives currently. Or, in the words of Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, “A constitutional amendment is forever. It cannot be repealed, rolled back, or expire. It is not subject to the whims of who controls Congress, a statehouse, or the White House.”
Businesses need the Equal Rights Amendment too
Earlier this summer, corporate America also cemented its enthusiasm for the ERA in an amicus brief for the Virginia v. Ferriero case. Apple, WeWork, Google, Twitter, and Goldman Sachs—all companies who’ve had their fair share of high-profile gender inequity issues—were among the 93 signatories of the brief. In it, they state their commitment to gender equity as a business imperative:
“[We] seek the full participation of women in the economy. Operating in a wide range of industries and markets and serving a diverse and multicultural customer base, [we] understand that diversity in the workplace drives business performance.”
And it’s true. Businesses that want to thrive in the new economy need gender equity and the improved profitability, return on equity, innovation, and revenue that accompanies it.
Our Brave New Normal starts with equal rights
By 2023, the ERA will have joined the centenarian club. I hope that it will be a part of the U.S. Constitution by this time as well. The ERA is the cornerstone of our new and more inclusive economy. It’s the next iteration of the great experiment of American democracy. It will increase the velocity of our economic recovery and lead us down a path of sustainable prosperity. Our entire economy needs the ERA as much as women do—because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from conflicts of the past, it’s that working together matters. When women do well, everyone does well.
Katica Roy is the CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity.