The February jobs report released last week showed a strong month for jobs, with 678,000 jobs added. It was a strong month for women re-entering the workforce as well. Over half of the newly created jobs went to women, according to the National Women's Law Center.
Despite some promising statistics, women still face difficulties in the labor market. Nearly 50,000 women left the labor force last month, bringing the total number of women who have left to 1.1 million since February 2020.
Facts like those contributed to President Joe Biden's establishment of the White House Gender Policy Council on International Women's Day 2021.
The council, a spiritual successor to the White House Council on Women and Girls founded under President Barack Obama and shuttered under President Donald Trump, sits at the same level as the National Security Council and other White House councils on domestic and economic policy, underscoring the importance the Biden White House places on gender issues.
Jennifer Klein, the council's co-chair and executive director, told Cheddar News in an interview that the pandemic and the associated economic impact show both the need for a group like the Gender Policy Council, and the need to address issues that have affected women the most, including access to child care, stagnant wages for low-income workers, and paid family leave.
"These have been issues that have long been true, long been areas that needed to be addressed," Klein said. "If COVID did anything, it brought it into sharp focus and made it entirely obvious that working conditions and a lack of caregiving resources really are front and center."
The president pushed several policies aimed at helping women and working families in the American Rescue Plan, which passed early last year.
The expanded Child Tax Credit, which paid out in monthly installments rather than as a lump sum on a year-end tax return, arguably made the most impact. A Columbia University analysis found that the first installment of the expanded tax credit pulled three million children out of poverty.
Democrats pushed for an extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit during negotiations over Biden's "Build Back Better" framework during the late summer and fall of last year. Versions of the framework included other policies aimed at helping women, including 12 weeks of paid family leave, but negotiations fell apart when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he would not support the economic package.
Despite the congressional setback, Klein said the White House and the council she leads are continuing to push these issues to the forefront.
"[T]here is more work to be done," Klein said. "The president was really quite clear in the State of the Union: We're going to continue to fight for childcare. We're going to continue to fight for paid leave. We're going to continue to fight for equal pay."
Klein said the council is focused on fights outside the nation's capital as well. Lawmakers in several Republican-led state legislatures have passed restrictions on abortion access. Florida became the latest state this week when the legislature passed a 15-week ban on most abortions.
The bill comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a similar ban in Mississippi. The case in question, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, has the potential to reshape existing precedent on abortion, first set out in 1973 in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which found Americans had a constitutional right to an abortion before fetal viability.
"There is literally an assault on women's rights at the state level," she said. "And so we are using the power of the bully pulpit to talk about the issue to expose it."
The council's existence comes from a president who puts representation and diversity at the center of how he governs. Biden set out to have his cabinet represent the country's diversity, and he ended up with 10 women and 11 men from a variety of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and experiential backgrounds.
Klein said it can be easy at times to overlook the importance of that kind of representation.
"I think the thing that we gloss past is sort of the historic nature of representation right now," Klein said. "The president has gender parity in his Cabinet.
"He just nominated the first black woman to the Supreme Court, and when she's confirmed, that will be historic," she added.
Klein said both the importance of representation and the future of the issues she works on cross her mind every day.
"The other thing which I am very focused on…is really supporting the next generation, every single day waking up and thinking about what world we are handing to our girls and gender non-binary people, but also what we need to learn from them," she said. "I think about that every day."