A small sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Labor tasked with identifying women’s issues in the workforce will play a key role in ensuring that the Biden administration’s labor investments encourage women, who are normally excluded from male-dominated jobs.
Wendy Chun-Hoon, director of the women’s office, said she focuses on three main targets: occupational segregation, gaps in care infrastructure, and gender discrimination and harassment.
Historically, the more than 100-year-old agency primarily researches and investigates issues affecting working women and has the authority to support these efforts. But his latest task will be to ensure women also reap the benefits of the billions of dollars that Congress has earmarked for training and labor support programs in various recent legislation designed to boost the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing capacity.
Chun-Hoon told Bloomberg Law the agency plans to use its data analysis skills and grantmaking powers to meet the Biden administration’s goals of an equitable recovery and ensuring there is a sufficient workforce to support future infrastructure and manufacturing projects to complete.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For those who don’t know, tell me a little about the history of the Bureau and how the Biden administration intends to use it to further some of its goals?
In terms of budgets, in terms of staff, we are by far the smallest, but with women making up half of the workforce, we definitely feel like an outsized task. We’ve really tried to hold up this coat and be as loud as possible on that front.
We focus on working women and what’s difficult for working women – where there are breakthroughs, how to expand on those breakthroughs, and we also keep a laser focus on what’s not working, what working conditions are making it difficult. And since we have recovered from this pandemic, how can we defeat it more fairly? Not because this was an aberration, it’s a mirror for sure. Some of these conditions have existed for a long time.
I’m going to talk about how we divide up the main parts of our work, which are clearly the administration’s priorities.
Too few women are employed in the best paying jobs, like all the infrastructure jobs we invest in through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, CHIPs, the IRA, and so on. And women are overwhelmingly in jobs that pay some of the lowest wages in the economy, such as the nursing jobs, as do many leisure and hospitality jobs.
So this notion of this historical pattern of professional segregation has consequences. And women, as a result, have borne the brunt of the pandemic economically. So we talk a lot about this topic, we have strategies to address that and we do a lot of data analysis on that.
A second area is the structural gap around the supply infrastructure. As the frequent and increasingly primary breadwinners in our families, who still carry the majority of household responsibilities, the lack of a robust care infrastructure contributes not only to women’s current wages, but also to the practicalities in which women work at disadvantages as well on economic security.
And then the third area is gender discrimination and harassment. Whether it is structural wage inequality, pregnancy discrimination or gender identity discrimination based on sexual orientation, or the broader category of gender-based violence and harassment. While you’re trying to see more women and more gender parity in some of the infrastructure “jobs,” of course, these jobs are male-dominated jobs that carry conditions or risks of gender-based violence, harassment, or discrimination.
So those are the three main pillars for the women’s office under this administration.
What tools does the WB have to advance these goals?
Data analysis allows us to anchor a very clear gender, and now sort of an intersectional gender lens, like race, ability, LGBTQ status, and immigration status. So this data capacity is one of our superpowers.
We also have regional offices across the country that are really listening and listening to the community, a type of stakeholder engagement that I think is helpful as an information channel. Our regional offices across the country and our teams out there really serve as an extension of our national office and then really serve as a stakeholder feedback loop for the administration.
We also have a grant eligibility. We actually invest money and not a lot of money, right? But it’s important to seed innovation funds to find best practices to help women, women of color and women of diverse ability access some of these apprenticeships to find higher-paying jobs in non-traditional women’s jobs. And that was a really helpful lever for us, especially in times of big investments in heavily male-dominated professions.
A more recent grants strategy called FARE – Promoting Access Rights and Equity – and it’s really about helping women understand their employment rights, their rights in the workplace but also the benefits available to them. Make sure families knew you were eligible for the child tax credit. Yes, you are eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Insurance. And we make sure we help women exercise all their labor rights so they can exercise those rights and access the financial support available.
Caregivers in particular have not yet fully recovered from the pandemic. What role does the Bureau play in solving this problem?
We’ve still lost one in ten workers in childcare, nursing and residential care. So first and foremost we keep that focus, that attention to what the data is showing us.
Much of what we did in the first year and a half of government focused on bailout funds that went towards stabilizing and restoring childcare. And we’re having conversations with our sister government agencies to say, “Hey, what have states in this region done to innovate using stabilization dollars and additional access dollars under ARPA? Who innovates in this way? What do we learn from that?” And then repeating that in every region across the country.
And in another example of a federal partnership, we spoke to the Treasury Department and saw how city leaders choose to use the money to expand access, increase affordability, or support the workforce in the case of childcare. So we’re really trying to use our resources to improve some of the ways that local and state governments have really taken those funds and innovated to pave the way for future reforms.
On the subject of abortion. It has really become a big issue in women’s minds, whether they have the opportunity to have a level playing field in the labor market. So I wanted to see what role, if any, the Bureau plays on this issue and on ensuring women have equal access to the labor market?
If you look at access to contraception, you see the economic impact. If you look at the lack of access to contraception and things like reproductive choices, you can see the economic impact.
What we at the Women’s Bureau are trying to do is continue to focus on the fact that public policy in this area has an absolutely economic impact on women and their families. Similar to access to care infrastructure, if you don’t have access you face very, sometimes dire, economic consequences. So I think there is a very fair connection between reproductive health care, contraception, which has long been documented in economic success data, and economic security. So let’s push this as far as we can.