A small US Labor Department subagency tasked with identifying women’s issues in the labor force will be a key player in ensuring that the Biden administration’s workforce investments lift up women who are typically left out of the male-dominated trades.
Wendy Chun-Hoon, chief of the Women’s Bureau, said she’s focused on three main targets: occupational segregation, gaps in care infrastructure, and gender-based discrimination and harassment.
Historically, the more than 100-year-old agency primarily researches and investigates issues affecting working women, and has grant-making authority to support those efforts. But its latest task will be ensuring that women also reap the benefits of the billions of dollars Congress set aside for training and work-support programs in various recent laws aimed at boosting the nation’s infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities.
Chun-Hoon told Bloomberg Law the agency plans to use its data analysis abilities and grant-making power to help deliver the Biden administration’s goals of an equitable recovery, and to ensure there’s enough workers to complete future infrastructure and manufacturing projects.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For those unfamiliar, tell me a little bit about the history of the Bureau and how the Biden administration wants to use it to advance some of its goals?
In terms of budgets, in terms of staffing, we are by far the smallest, but we definitely feel an outsized mission with women making up half the workforce. We really tried to hold up that mantle and be as loud as we can in that regard.
We are focused on working women, and what is hard for working women— where there are breakthroughs, how to expand those breakthroughs, and to also keep a laser focus on what isn’t working, what those conditions of work are that make it hard. And as we’ve recovered from this pandemic, how do we beat it more equitably? Not because this was an aberration, it’s a mirror for sure. Some of these conditions have been long standing.
I’m going to talk about how we bucket the main bodies of our work, which clearly are the priorities of the administration.
Too few women are employed in the jobs that pay the most, like all the infrastructure jobs that we are investing in through the bipartisan infrastructure law, CHIPs, the IRA, etc. And women are predominantly in jobs that pay some of the lowest wages in the economy, like the care jobs, for example, like a lot of the leisure and hospitality jobs.
So this notion of this historical pattern of occupational segregation, there are consequences. And women as a result bore the brunt of the pandemic economically. So we talk a lot about that issue, 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 care infrastructure. Clearly, as the often and increasingly primary breadwinners in our families, and still holding the majority of household responsibilities, the lack of a robust care infrastructure also contributes to not just women’s wages in the moment, and practicalities about which jobs women are in, but also disadvantages in terms of economic security.
And then the third area is discrimination and harassment that is gender based. Whether that’s structural pay inequity, or pregnancy discrimination or sexual orientation gender identity discrimination, or the broader category of gender-based violence and harassment. As you try to see more women and more gender parity in some of the infrastructure “jobs,” of course, being male-dominated jobs, those jobs carry with them conditions of, or risk to, gender-based violence, harassment, or discrimination.
So those are the three major pillars for the Women’s Bureau under this administration.
What tools does the WB have to advance these goals?
Data analysis allows us to really anchor a very clear gender, and now sort of intersectional gender, lens, like race, ability, LGBTQ status, and immigration status. So that data capacity is one of our superpowers.
We also have regional offices across the country that are really doing that close-listening, ear to the community kind of stakeholder engagement that I think helps as an information conduit. Our regional offices across the country and our teams out there are really serving as an extension of our national office, and then, truly a stakeholder feedback loop for the administration.
We also have a grant-making capacity. We’re actually investing money, and not big money, right? But it is important to sort of seed innovation money to figure out best practices on helping women, women of color, women of different abilities gain access to some of these apprenticeships into better paid jobs for non-traditional-for-women occupations. And so that’s been a really helpful lever to us, especially in the era of big investments in what are very much male dominated jobs.
A newer grant strategy, it’s called FARE—fostering access rights and equity—and it really is about helping women to understand their employment rights, their rights on the job, but also benefits that are available to them. Making sure that families knew yes, you are eligible for the Child Tax Credit. Yes, you are eligible for pandemic unemployment insurance. And making sure that we’re helping women to avail themselves of all their employment rights, so that they’re able to exercise those rights and they’re able to access the financial supports that are available.
The childcare workforce in particular is not fully recovered from the pandemic yet. What role does the bureau have in addressing this issue?
We’re still down one in 10 workers on the childcare side, the nursing, and the residential care side of it. So we first and foremost keep that focus, that attention, on what the data are showing us.
A lot of what we’ve been doing in the first year and a half of the administration has been focused around rescue dollars that went into childcare stabilization and recovery. And hosting conversations together with our sister government agencies to say, “Hey, what have states in this region done to innovate using stabilization dollars, using additional access dollars, under ARPA? Who’s innovating in this way? What are we learning from that?” And then repeating that in every region across the country.
And in another example of a federal partnership, we’ve been talking to the Treasury and noticing how city leaders are deciding to use the money in order to, in the case of childcare, expand access, increase affordability, or support the workforce. So we’re really trying to use our resources to elevate some of the ways in which local and state governments have really taken these funds and innovated to lay a path for future reforms.
On the topic of abortion. It’s really become a huge issue on the minds of women, the question of whether they have the ability to have a level playing field in the labor market. So I wanted to see what role, if any, the Bureau has on this issue and in ensuring that women have equal access in the labor market?
When you look at access to contraception, you see the economic impact. When you look at lack of access to contraception, and things like reproductive choice, you see the economic impact.
What we’re trying to do from the Women’s Bureau is continue to focus on the fact that public policy in this realm absolutely has economic impact for women and their families. Much like access to care infrastructure, when you don’t have access, you are faced with very, sometimes dire, economic consequences. So I think there is a very fair nexus between reproductive health care, contraception long documented in the data about economic success, and economic security. So we’re bringing that forward as much as we can.
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