In the midst of a seemingly endless stream of dismal economic news, I saw real reason to be optimistic about the future on March 11th as President Obama signed an executive order establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls. While the efficacy of the various stimulus and recovery packages remains in question, the creation of this interagency council signals the President's and his administration's serious commitment to long-term systemic economic reform.
As the President and CEO of Girls Incorporated-the nonprofit organization that has inspired girls to be strong, smart, and bold for 145 years -- I am intimately familiar with the crippling effects of gender-based economic injustice on the girls of this country. Sixty-five percent of the more that 900,000 girls we reach each year, live in families earning less than $25,000 a year; nearly half are growing up in single-parent households, most headed by women. In families that struggle to make ends meet, girls in particular are called on to take up part of the responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and looking after younger siblings. As a result, they miss out on critical opportunities for growth and development, and the system of inequality perpetuates itself.
So it was particularly heartening for me to hear President Obama frame the impetus for the creation of the council in terms of fundamental social need rather than one of accommodation. "And I want to be very clear: These issues are not just women's issues," the President said. "When women make less than men for the same work, it hurts families who find themselves with less income, and have to work harder just to get by. When a job doesn't offer family leave, that also hurts men who want to help care for a new baby or an ailing parent. When there's no affordable child care, that hurts children who wind up in second-rate care, or spending afternoons alone in front of the television set."
Development efforts in emerging economies the world over have increasingly focused on the education and empowerment of girls and women. It is high time that we in this country come to terms with the fact that we have continued to undermine our own future by paying lip service to the issue of gender inequality without addressing some of its most persistent and pernicious causes. The White House Council on Women and Girls might just be the tool we need to start making real progress toward equity.