03/22/2012 03:34 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

Women's Economic Empowerment Starts With Education

I was part of a diverse group of about 20 women business leaders who participated in a roundtable discussion of women's economic empowerment with the United States Senate Democratic Steering and Oversight Committee on March 21. Following is an excerpt from my statement:

Education is the essential foundation for women's economic empowerment. Unfortunately, too many girls and women in the United States, as well as globally, remain under-served educationally. While some indicators do point to women's advancement educationally (particularly in higher education enrollment and degree attainment where women now outpace men in every degree level overall) other indicators continue to underscore the need for serious and prolonged attention to the educational agenda for women:

  • For too many children in our cities, particularly among urban African-American and Hispanic children, the burdens of poverty, parental illiteracy and inadequate access to good healthcare impede educational progress and contribute to unacceptable high school dropout rates. In particular, mothers who cannot read, who are single parents struggling with poverty and often domestic violence, who suffer chronic untreated health problems, have a serious negative impact on the educational attainment of their children. Improving K-12 education is a women's issue; supporting and strengthening programs that boost adult literacy, improve enrollment of women in GED and post-secondary education, provide improved childcare support as well as adequate health care coverage for women will be a powerful factor in improving educational outcomes for the most at-risk children in our cities.
  • Because the education of mothers is key to the educational success of their children, ensuring that all women have access to education at all levels is an essential public policy goal, including women who are immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Immigration reform, including achievement of the Dream Act, will ensure educational success and economic security for the millions of women who are currently unable to attend college because their status prevents their participation in financial aid programs.
  • While women are the majority of students in higher education today, a substantial proportion of those women are older working professionals ("non-traditional" students) who have returned to school to complete their degrees after raising families, experiencing divorce or hitting the wall in promotion opportunities at work. These students need federal financial aid policies that work for the realities of millions of college students today who are self-supporting, attending part-time, taking accelerated programs, earning credit for experiential learning, attending online, going to school around the clock and around the year, completing degrees in more than six years. Unfortunately, financial aid policies continue to be based primarily on the most traditional model of collegiate attendance (the full-time, traditional-aged student enrolled in fall and spring semesters, whose parents pay the bill) even though the non-traditional student population is now the majority. For example, in the last year, Congress approved legislation that eliminated summer Pell Grants, a short-sighted public policy move that will, in fact, slow down academic progress for many women who want to go to school year-round to complete their degrees in order to move ahead in the workplace.
  • Exploitation and violence against women prevent their successful participation in educational and economic opportunities, thus diminishing their ability to support their families, raise their children well and ensure the future educational and economic success of the next generation. Reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act is essential to promote women's empowerment. Lawmakers should also articulate a clearer and firmer commitment to eliminating trafficking both in the United States as well as internationally.
  • 40 years after the adoption of Title IX, women continue to confront barriers to full equality at all levels of education. From the university president's office to the science laboratories to economics classrooms to the playing fields and gyms in large urban public school systems, girls and women are often few, their opportunities often unequal. Remaining committed to a strong Title IX is a vital part of ensuring equality of opportunity in education and employment for women.
  • Beyond keeping Title IX strong, policies that encourage girls and women to enter academic fields where women are under-represented in the workforce (especially the STEM disciplines -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) will have great long-term gains for the national economy.
  • Pay equity remains an elusive goal throughout the workforce. Public policy needs to keep pushing employers toward permanent solutions to this egregious evidence of the continuing prevalence of sexism in employment.
  • Promoting the engagement of women in political affairs, including holding public office and engaging in the processes of lawmaking, should be a distinctive priority for this nation. The Congress of the United States should never indulge the exclusion of women from hearing rooms and opportunities to testify on all matters, and certainly on matters affecting women's health and security.

Congress, of all places, should be a bulwark against those forces that would turn back the clock on women's progress. The United States continues to lag behind many other nations when it comes to the official roles of women in lawmaking and politics. On the Global Gender Gap Index for 2011, the United States ranks 39th among world nations for women's political empowerment, behind such noteworthy havens of women's power like Cuba, Bangladesh, Uganda and other nations we often dismiss as less progressive.

When more women are at the tables where policy issues are negotiated, the outcomes will be more supportive of and sensitive to the critical issues facing women today and in the future. Getting women to sit at those tables, and ultimately, to chair the meetings, requires a relentless emphasis on continuing improvement in women's educational opportunities.