Last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush received some backlash when he said there was only one way to raise the U.S. GPD. “[P]eople need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we are going to get out of this rut that we're in,” Bush told the New Hampshire Union Leader. He later walked back his statement to say he had meant to refer to part-time workers. But, his comments still struck a chord with Americans, half of whom already work more than 40 hours a week, according to a recent Gallup poll, and many of whom struggle to get by on low hourly wages no matter how many hours they put in. Bush is correct in part, though: Increased participation in the workforce is good for the economy. But he seems to overlook an easier way to achieve that participation: by involving more women.
If women’s workforce participation in the U.S. were raised to equal that of men, the GDP could be raised 5%, according to a 2013 IMF report noted by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in their New York Times column, Women at Work in March. That's a whole percent more than Bush is promising, without requiring workers to put in more hours. “[W]hen we make headway toward gender equality, entire societies prosper,” Sandberg and Grant write.

Since labor-force participation of women in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1990s, it’s actually been on a downward trend in recent years, and countries like the U.K., Germany, France, and Canada have all surpassed the U.S. in their rates of women in the workforce. Why? “When surveys ask people what is preventing them from working, women are more likely to say family responsibilities,” says Marianne Cooper, a Stanford University sociologist and the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. “If we can narrow the gender gap in labor force participation, yes, we can raise GDP. But we need a better understanding of why women are leaving and having difficulty staying in the workforce in the first place.” 

What policies should candidates focus on if they really want to make a difference in the economy? Cooper says:

The idea that people just need to work harder or longer misses so much of the reality of everyday American lives. Closing the gender-wage gap is another part of the story. If women earned the same as men, the poverty rate for employed women would go down by half. But it’s not any one thing; there are a collection of issues that need to be addressed: paid family leave, predictable schedules, child care, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay would all provide not just women, but men too, with that sturdy foundation so they can care for the people in their lives and work and earn money.

Many women with family responsibilities are finding their own ways to join the labor force. “We don’t need a longer workweek when we can easily get more women in the workforce if we let people do their jobs from where they want to,” says Katharine Zaleski, cofounder and president of PowerToFly, a global platform that connects highly skilled women with work they can do remotely. It's been less than a year since the business launched, but PowerToFly has processed over $2.5 million in paychecks. “We see mothers with kids working from their homes in rural Texas for companies in New York. That’s the way to get the economy going,” Zaleski adds.

It’s also important to note that GDP, while one measure of the economy, isn’t everything, says Julie A. Nelson, chair of the economics department at University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies feminism and economics. “We'd be better off looking directly at whether we are getting from the economy what we need and want,” Nelson says. “Policies should move towards shorter, not longer, workweeks, so that the care of families and communities can be spread more evenly, and people can take time to enjoy life — including the important things that money can't buy.” 

Nelson says that instead of focusing on the GDP, candidates might make more headway with voters by focusing on “policies that make life better for women and especially for young families, which right now are too often very hard-pressed, juggling multiple paid jobs and childcare.”

A national campaign, Make it Work, is promoting exactly these kinds of family-friendly workplace policies throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, in hopes of bringing them to the forefront of the economic debate. You can keep track of the organization's agenda on its website and see how all the presidential nominees stack up.

Originally published on July 16, 2015 in Refinery29