What Happens When a Women’s Empowerment Agenda Disempowers Women

Former President Barack Obama signs a memorandum creating a task force to respond to campus rape during an event for the Council on Women and Girls in Washington, D.C., January 2014.

Amid the myriad controversies and contentious debates that have engulfed the Trump administration’s first six months in office, the potential demise of the White House Council on Women and Girls has largely flown beneath the radar. A few recent articles have observed that the council—which was established in March 2009 to ensure that federal agencies assess the needs of women and girls when developing policies and programs—appears to be dormant, with virtually no activity taking place since Trump’s inauguration. But little else has been said, and the administration has made no mention of the council’s direction going forward.

The Trump administration has taken what appears to be a different approach to its work on issues affecting women and girls, touting instead Ivanka Trump as leading what has been described as work focused on women’s empowerment. The president’s daughter—a White House senior adviser—has identified paid parental leave and child care as issue priorities, but the results have been few and far between. The administration’s proposed 2018 budget includes brief language outlining a paid parental leave plan, but the plan has been sharply criticized as unworkable, in part, because it covers too few caregivers and requires states to absorb most of the cost. The Trump administration has yet to detail its child care proposal, but the plan put forward during the presidential campaign focused on tax benefits that would have mostly helped wealthy families rather than working families most in need. Beyond the occasional statement about these issues, there have been scant specifics on how the administration expects to advance any of this work—or other work addressing women and girls—or develop a structure, if any, to organize and facilitate their efforts inside and outside the government.

It is common for successive administrations to structure their work on issues related to women and girls differently in order to conform to their preferred administrative approach. What matters, however, is how administrations deploy their resources to examine the diverse experiences of women and girls; understand their distinct concerns and challenges; and develop and prioritize responsive policies. That effort must combat systemic barriers; explore how factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, and economic status affect disparities and inequality; and ultimately better position women and girls to chart their own futures. How an administration goes about this work determines the women and girls who are served, who is left out, who achieves progress, and who is left behind. Thus, it is critical that the work in support of women and girls undertaken by any administration consist of more than elevating a figurehead or a pet project. Advancing a comprehensive agenda to improve the status of women and girls, promote equality and access to opportunity, remove barriers, and create a level playing field for all requires a commitment—not only in words but also backed by concrete investments, institutional resources, and infrastructure. The Council on Women and Girls provided a tangible structure to demonstrate and effectuate this commitment in a sustained manner.

Given this context, the silencing of the council raises serious concerns, particularly coming at a time when the Trump administration has undertaken extensive rollbacks eroding critical protections and gains for women and girls. Across multiple agencies, the administration has pursued policy changes that undermine important protections against sex discrimination; that reinforce gender stereotypes; that eliminate access to critical health and employment services; and that seek to limit the ability of women to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives without interference from policymakers. These rollbacks are a step backward and send a clear message about the administration’s lack of commitment to measures critical to moving women and girls forward.

Rollbacks across the administration

Recent actions taken at the U.S. Department of Labor threaten to weaken progress on improving women’s wages and on enabling women to move up the career ladder into jobs that pay higher wages. President Donald Trump rescinded important protections promoting greater pay transparency, even though women consistently identify equal pay as a top workplace concern. The president’s budget proposes to slash funding by 75 percent for the Women’s Bureau, an agency that has worked for decades to highlight the unique challenges facing women in the workplace, push for better workplace policies to expand women’s opportunities, and report on recent data about workplace trends for women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. These budget cuts would eliminate the regional offices and severely hamper the overall work of the agency. Trump’s budget also proposes to eliminate funding for grants aimed at getting more women into higher-paying nontraditional jobs, which are critical to improving women’s economic stability. Further, the budget proposes to move toward the elimination of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) and fold its work into that of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The budget includes a reduction of almost one-quarter of OFCCP staff in the short term but provides no new funding for the EEOC. The OFCCP has been instrumental in ensuring federal contractors adhere to sex discrimination protections and in rooting out pay discrimination, and its elimination would have a devastating impact on enforcement and holding employers accountable for their workplace practices.

The U.S. Department of Education has taken steps to roll back its commitment to addressing sexual assault on college campuses. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expressed skepticism about existing protections, and Candice Jackson—her director of civil rights enforcement—asserted, without evidence, that most sexual assault is the result of drunkenness. She later retracted that claim. Such attitudes reinforce false stereotypes about women who report sexual assault and will discourage future victims from coming forward. The Education Department, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, also rescinded groundbreaking protections established during the Obama administration that safeguard the rights of transgender students.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has begun a systematic effort to curb access to the full range of reproductive health care services throughout its programs. For example, the agency quietly ended grants targeting teen pregnancy prevention at a time when programs have helped to reduce teen pregnancy rates to their lowest levels in years. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of State has left the Office of Global Women’s Issues without a director for months, reinforcing a message of indifference in an area where the United States historically has been a global leader. Furthermore, the State Department’s proposed 2018 budget eliminates funding for international family planning and reproductive health. At the Justice Department, potential budget cuts have put at risk critical programs to assist victims of domestic violence. And overall, President Trump has proposed budget cuts that would hamper the work of civil rights agencies, which play a critical role in enforcing a wide range of laws prohibiting different forms of gender discrimination.

The practical implications of these actions are that, increasingly, women and girls will be unable to rely on the administration to uphold key protections and reforms at a time when women are playing a vital role in the economic stability and overall well-being of their families and the U.S. economy. Overall, two-thirds of mothers are now sole, primary, or co-breadwinners for their families, meaning that mothers’ economic contributions are essential. For many families of color, mothers play an even more vital role: in 2015, 70.7 percent of black mothers and 40.5 percent of Latina mothers contributed at least half or more of their families’ income, compared with 24.7 percent of white mothers. Moreover, the administration’s actions stand in stark contrast to what is needed to empower women, despite the rhetoric of Ivanka Trump.

By undoing critical protections for women and girls, the administration has diluted the principles of equality, fairness, and individual autonomy that should be at the heart of any empowerment agenda. Empowering women to be effective and meaningful cannot be achieved without a clear understanding of why women lack power in the first place. Entrenched systemic barriers that limit women’s opportunities; long-standing biases and stereotypes about women’s roles and capabilities; and the persistent undervaluing of women’s contributions often work together to depress women’s economic standing and their overall health and well-being. Changing the status quo for women, thus, requires a shift in the balance of power. Women must have both the autonomy and authority to pursue opportunities and determine the lives they want to lead. This change cannot occur in a vacuum. It requires the existing legal, governmental, and institutional infrastructure to recognize, respect, and affirm women’s power—and to take action to tackle gender barriers and level the playing field for all. That is the role that the Council on Women and Girls played and that the Trump administration has ignored, resulting in actions that have disempowered women and girls. The lack of an engaged council is a loss for women’s equality and women’s empowerment, and its absence means that women and girls—at least as far as this White House is concerned—are now on their own.

Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.