Marty Walsh Is the Man to End the She-cession

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Almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. faces unemployment numbers that should rattle Americans to the core. Women have been hit especially hard. As 2021 begins, we are well into a “she-cession” with no clear exit strategy. Employers cut 140,000 jobs in December and women accounted for all the job losses, losing 156,000 jobs while men gained 16,000. Black and Latina women have borne the brunt of these losses.

President Joe Biden has nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to fix this mess as Secretary of Labor. This is no small appointment. The secretary will have to tackle both the short-term drop in female employment as well as its long-term implications, which some experts estimate will outlast the pandemic by as much as a decade.

Walsh is the right person for the job. Since his inauguration as mayor in 2014, Walsh has developed a reputation for a candid and can-do approach to improving the lives of wage-earner women. He quickly established paid parental leave for city employees and launched Women’s Entrepreneurship Boston, a collaboration between the city’s Office of Small Business and its Office of Economic Development. He also formed the 100% Talent Compact with the Boston Women’s Workforce Wage Council to close the city’s gender wage gaps, which are some of the highest among major American cities. This public/private partnership now includes more than 250 Boston-based businesses who have signed a compact to improve conditions and opportunities for women. 

Another collaborative project: creating free salary negotiation workshops for the women of Boston with the American Association of University Women. The program has now trained thousands of women, and a review showed about half have successfully won raises.

Walsh also launched a new office, the Office of Women’s Advancement, which has tackled affordable child care as one of its priorities. One initiative, recognizing that the problem of child-care provision is certainly not lack of demand, was creating a Childcare Provider Entrepreneurial Fund to increase both the quality and availability of child care by awarding grants to those trying to break into the business. Having granted $227,500 to 55 individuals in 2020, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the goal is to surpass enrollment in 2021.

This initiative seems particularly relevant to the nation now: Can there be any doubt, after months of day care and school closures, about child care’s importance to the broader economy? “Families are starving for support,” says Roselyn Miller, a policy analyst at New America’s Better Life Lab. “Over the past year, people really had to adapt a lot. Covid has made the care crisis relevant to all.” 

The approach Walsh has taken to the child-care problem is instructive.

First, gather data. Massachusetts is the second most expensive state for child care in the U.S., with center-based infant care costing an average of $20,913 per year. The Boston 2019 census drew insights on the best ways to support parents and young children. And a study commissioned by the Mayor's Office of Women's Advancement examined the Covid-19 pandemic's impact on working families with child-care needs. The study drew three important conclusions: Boston's families are balancing competing fears (Covid-19, job loss and quality child care); workplace flexibility is not enough to alleviate these problems; and the care options available to families do not yet reflect their preferences.

Finally, work with experts to identify solutions and move into action. Using the data they’d gathered, Walsh’s office quickly brought new programs to life and threw its support behind the Federal National Childcare is Essential Act. 

Walsh’s collaborative, public-private approach to tackling such problems seems especially helpful during a shaky economy and polarized moment. Despite his pre-mayoral reputation as a labor leader, Walsh has proven to be a business-friendly mayor. During the pandemic, in the absence of federal leadership on Covid-era child care, many private companies have stepped up to offer working parents more support and flexibility. Walsh can mine for ideas at companies like Amazon, Edelman, Dell, Accenture, JP Morgan, CitiGroup and Bank of America, all of whom have boosted benefits for parents over the past year.

That would be in line with his approach as mayor. Kim Borman, executive director of the BWWC, credits the collaboration between government and business with the Council’s success. “It is why other big city legislators and women advocacy organizations have called us to help them figure out how to create a similar organization.” 

“The Mayor is not afraid to hold CEOs accountable which I think is very relevant for his new job,” Borman continues. “But he doesn't do it by edict. He uses careful conversation and deliberate actions.” 

This also makes it likely that Walsh will revive the Department of Labor’s now-anemic Women's Bureau. Founded in 1920, the Women’s Bureau is now 100 years old. Under President Barack Obama’s Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, it had a flourishing dialog with the private sector, including in particular the White House Summit on Working Families. Another initiative focused on addressing child-care deserts. But the Bureau has now suffered four years of neglect; turning the lights back on is a start, but only a start. Priorities should be child care, workplace flexibility and viable career paths for women.

Walsh will also have to work closely with the rest of the cabinet. For example, collaborating with the education secretary nominee, Miguel Cardona, on the execution of new or revised programs addressing preschools, day cares and schools will be important, especially if Covid-19 continues to keep some closed. 

But — let’s be fair — expectations should be managed. I know that patience will be hard to summon after nearly a year of the pandemic and a painful economic backslide for women. But the mess we have inherited will not be cleaned up overnight. Women and working families will need legislative action as well support from the DOL. It will likely be slow progress. Walsh will have his hands quite full. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Julia Beck is the founder of the It’s Working Project. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, the Washington Post, Slate, In Style, Experience and Time.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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