State of the States: A Globally Competitive Workforce Starts with an Equitable Workplace

April 23, 2018

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (5/2/17) Photo: Iowa Public Radio

Every year, at the start of their respective legislative sessions, governors across the country deliver their assessments of the condition of their states. They offer esteem for outstanding achievements among their citizens or groundbreaking triumphs within their legislature, each one assuring that their state is progressing in a positive direction. In addition to recounting the successes of the previous year, the addresses offer an opportunity for governors to speak on any legislative concerns and present a strategic plan to support statewide improvements in these policy areas. As in most years, governors used their 2018 state of the state addresses to speak about the strength of state economies and the prioritization of programs to further grow workforces. But how will we build a more robust workforce when half of the population still faces stereotypes, gender bias, and discrimination that hinder their paths to success? While states are making headway into many of the issues that AAUW members prioritize, substantive discussions about the role of gender equity in the economy were largely left out of the conversation.

Of the 47 gubernatorial addresses that were delivered in 2018, 32 made a strong push to improve education and build a more competitive workforce for high-demand careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Yet only one governor mentioned the importance of supporting women in these fields. Women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce (and have surpassed men in college enrollment), but women still only account for 29 percent of those in STEM careers. In order to remain globally competitive in this rapidly expanding sector, we cannot overlook the professional capacity of half the population. STEM job growth must be coupled with conscious efforts to diversify the workforce and expand STEM education opportunities for women at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. Yet since the start of this year’s legislative sessions, lawmakers have made virtually no attempt to promote the inclusion of girls and women in STEM programs. Understanding the importance of diversification is a critical piece of creating an increasingly innovative and internationally competitive workforce.

While governors cited numerous legislative efforts to fortify their citizens’ economic welfare, one key element seemed to be consistently ignored: pay equity. Only three of our nation’s governors even discussed efforts to close the gender pay gap. AAUW applauds the governors of Connecticut, Louisiana, and Oregon for addressing this issue, but where is the commitment to pay equity from the other 44? Paying all workers a fair salary is a linchpin of a strong economy. With so many strong examples of state equal pay laws – notably a newly enacted law in Washington and a bill awaiting gubernatorial signature in New Jersey – there is no shortage of places to look for inspiration.

Even though few governors addressed the need for equal pay, state executives were more receptive to the nation’s cries to address sexual harassment. Over a third of the country’s governors used this platform to declare their states’ positions of intolerance of harassment. Though this crucial policy area undoubtedly requires more than just lip service, AAUW is excited to see that many states have actually introduced substantive legislation during this session to address sexual harassment in the workplace. There is real momentum behind combatting sexual harassment and assault, but we need to continue putting pressure on our legislators to turn this momentum into concrete solutions.

Creating a strong and healthy workforce means more than just increasing the availability of high-paying positions. States must establish and implement measures that promote the success of an ample portion of their labor forces. This year, we hope to continue addressing and upending the barriers to women’s professional advancement. In order to remain a pertinent entity in the ever-evolving STEM industry in particular, the country needs to address these obstacles from the classroom to the workplace. We need more than just superficial avowals for reform, let us see more initiatives to recruit girls into male-dominated fields of study, let us engage in rich discussions about pay equity, and let us build workplaces that are free from sex-based discrimination.

This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Intern Alyssa Thibodeau.


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