06/18/2014 02:03 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

America Needs to Renew Focus on Women in the Workplace

During National Women's History Month and International Women's Day on March 8, it is worth pondering this one, simple, five-word phrase under the lens of our nation's economic recovery: When women succeed, America succeeds.

As I travel throughout the Capital Region, the top concern I continue to hear from constituents is job growth and economic development. We cannot get serious about helping the private sector create quality jobs without focusing first the main drivers of our economy -- the American middle class and those struggling to enter it. And we cannot get serious about economic development while hamstringing more than half of our workforce, which is exactly what we have been doing for decades by not supporting women in the workplace.

When women succeed, America succeeds.

Those five words serve as the foundation for our approach to putting people back to work and boosting economic growth.

First, Congress must act swiftly to raise the minimum wage. The purchasing power of the middle class has diminished greatly since the last increase in the minimum wage, let alone since its peak. In 1968, the floor for wages was $1.60 an hour, which equates to $10.71 in 2013 real dollars. Since then, we have seen inflation rise and those who work in full-time, minimum wage jobs falling behind in their ability to feed, raise, clothe, and educate a family.

A hike in the minimum wage might not sound like a "women's issue," but when you take into account the fact that average age of a minimum wage earner today is 35 years old, and approximately 60 percent of which are female, the urgency to boost these workers comes more into focus.

Second, Congress must strengthen the 1963 Fair Pay Act by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would put into place protections against gender discrimination, and authorize grants for skill training programs which address our nation's skill gap.

In our congressional district, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. Think of your mother, your daughter, you sister, your niece, your aunt, or your female friend that lives in a community in our area. That gender pay gap represents a total loss of $431,000 over a lifetime for families across the Capital Region. In 2014 not only is that no way to promote economic activity, it's just plain wrong.

Finally, Congress must realize that, when we strengthen families, we increase productivity of our workers and position ourselves to develop a healthier and highly educated next generation of leaders. The Healthy Families Act would permit employees to earn at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. In this department, we are way behind. It is time to catch up with more than 145 countries around the world -- many of which aren't exactly world renowned for their treatment of women -- that employ policies that provide paid leave days to mothers and fathers to take care of a sick child. In the greatest country in the world, no one should worry about losing their job because their kid gets sick.

Plain and simple, Congress must act to meet the needs of our constituents. We can do that by strengthening families, increasing the minimum wage, and ensuring equal pay for equal work.

We can do that by renewing our focus on women in the workplace -- a focus that has been criminally absent for decades.

For too long, we have left well over half of our workforce out in the cold. We need to build an economy that works for everyone.

Because when women succeed, America succeeds.

This piece was first published in the Times Union, Albany, N.Y.