On Tuesday, Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis will introduce a motion to create a five-year Initiative on Women and Girls in Los Angeles County government. It directs all 37 county departments to address the disproportionate disadvantages facing women and girls here. If it is enacted, the county would systematically review its activities and refocus resources in order to advance women’s opportunities.
Such a comprehensive approach to promoting gender equality is unusual in the United States. But it’s not as if it’s untested. Governing with a gender perspective has become the norm in democracies in every region of the world. And the approach is yielding promising results.
Chile’s process resulted in thousands of free daycare centers for low-income mothers who are working, in school or seeking employment. The policy has placed more women in the labor market, increasing incomes for families and provided better educational opportunities for children. Mexico analyzes part of its budget through the lens of gender, which has led to the addition of emergency obstetric care in the national insurance plan. All in all, more than 60 countries consciously consider women’s needs when they draw up budgets.
The benefits of such a policy approach go well beyond traditional women’s issues. Urban planners in Vienna, under a gender mandate applied to all city programs, made it a point to interview women about their use of public transportation. They discovered that women moved between paid work and caregiving throughout the day, walking and using public transit more than men, often with children in tow. In response, the city widened sidewalks. Busy intersections were radically redesigned to accommodate children in strollers and people using walkers. More lighting was installed to make streets safer at night. These changes constitute “best practices” for making cities more women-friendly while improving safety and mobility for all.
Gender-focused initiatives represent an explicit commitment to equal rights, as well as a growing recognition that progress for women has stalled using conventional policy techniques. Anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws — the typical approach in the United States — are indispensable, but they’re mostly aimed at punishing civil rights violations. There’s a much wider range of proactive steps available to advance women’s equality.
Governments make unconscious gender assumptions all the time in big and small ways. Consider just one of the thousands of programs run by L.A. County — juvenile detention camps. For boys, some camps offer a Fire Academy as part of their vocational education programs, and those who participate describe it as “a life-changing experience.” Some say they’ll consider firefighting as a career. The program isn’t offered at the girls camps, where, until a few years ago, the only vocational offerings were cosmetology and culinary arts. To its credit, the L.A. County Probation Department, under recent direction from the Board of Supervisors, is expanding its programs for girls.
Kuehl and Solis’ initiative could quickly shape county policy. For example, it’s estimated that Measure M, the transportation package that Angelenos just passed, will create about 450,000 jobs. If business as usual prevails, these jobs will go overwhelmingly to men, because construction, engineering and transit work are male-dominated professions. (Equal opportunity laws have done little to boost women’s share of construction jobs — less than 1% of L.A. County women work in construction.) But with gender equity as a starting principle, policymakers could require simple measures that would encourage women to seek these high-paying jobs.
Metro could require construction contractors to implement robust measures to reduce sexual harassment. And training programs shouldn’t just be open to women — pre-apprenticeship programs, for instance, should be specifically designed to level the field for women, providing them with prerequisite mechanical skills men often already have.
Such steps can be taken with current resources, and the payoffs can be large. A McKinsey Global Institute study concluded that California could add 8% to the state’s annual GDP by working toward gender parity in the workplace, and recruiting women into male-dominated occupations is a key step in reaching that goal.
Integrating a gender perspective into policy could also help address deep inequities in L.A. One out of five women in the county live below the federal poverty line, and the incidence of poverty for Latinas and African American women is even higher. Women make up a third of the county’s homeless population.
The experiences of women and girls — 51% of the population of Los Angeles County — are different than those of men and boys. Designing everything from childcare to homeless services to parks programs from that perspective is not just the right thing to do, it’s smart government.
Jennifer M. Piscopo is an assistant professor of politics at Occidental College and a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author of four books. @jennpiscopo @nancylcohen