President Joe Biden is showing just how seriously he takes the issue of gender equality. In an announcement this week, his administration plans to take a step that past administrations have tried before: instituting a Gender Policy Council. The difference is that this council, unlike the ones that came before it, will have teeth.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported on Biden's plan to revitalize the idea of having a council that's focused specifically on issues of gender equity, something that was the brainchild of Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady. In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton announced an Interagency Council on Women, pegged to the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage. That council was quietly disbanded by President George W. Bush, and subsequent administrations have worked on gender issues in a piecemeal way.
For example, after President Donald Trump dismantled President Barack Obama's Council on Women and Girls, Ivanka Trump took on issues of paid leave and childcare on her own, but she lacked the power or any formal mechanism to push policies through. In other administrations, the council has been housed within the Office of the First Lady, rather than with the president.
Biden is assuring that his council won't follow that downward path. The Gender Policy Council is intended to correct the problem of "women's issues" being seen as an afterthought by making several significant changes from how councils have worked in the past. How, exactly? For one thing, it will be located in the White House itself and every cabinet member will participate in it. Unlike councils past, which had people working on the issue on top of or in addition to their full-time roles, this council will have four full-time staff members (three working on policy and one handling administrative tasks).
There will also be two co-chairs at the helm: Julissa Reynoso, former ambassador to Uraguay, and Jennifer Klein, former senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during her time as First Lady. The hope is that the staffing structure will make it more difficult for future administrations to dismantle the council.
“This is not just a council,” Klein told the New York Times. “It’s a plan to take a government-wide approach to gender equity and equality.” This will allow issues like the wage gap, gender-based violence, reproductive health, affordable childcare, and paid family leave to be integrated into larger policy conversations instead of having them siloed.
This council is also especially important now when the U.S. is in the midst of a pandemic that has devastated women economically and emotionally. "We need to maintain a laser focus on the particular needs and priorities for women and girls," Klein told NPR. "If you look at last month's job numbers, women have lost jobs in historic numbers, particularly women of color, and the caregiving burden is falling disproportionately on women." Women — women of color, in particular — lost 100% of the jobs in December 2020 and experts estimate it will take women at least a decade to recover from the workplace progress they've lost during the pandemic.
“The council is an absolutely critical first step,” Hillary Clinton told the New York Times. “It sends a very clear policy message to the rest of government that there is going to be constant attention paid to how important it is to integrate the kinds of concerns women are facing, especially post-pandemic.”