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Women-friendly job plans offer few easy wins

U.S. women still aren't participating in workforce as actively as in the past
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Childcare tax breaks as proposed by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, can have unintended results. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/POOL

By Anastasia Chacon

WASHINGTON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Women-friendly job plans aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. U.S. unemployment hit a 16-year low of 4.3 per cent in July, but women still aren’t participating in the workforce as actively as in the past. Childcare tax breaks as proposed by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, can have unintended results, too.

The overall level of participation in the labor force increased slightly to 62.9 per cent last month, but women remain stuck at around 57 per cent, down from roughly 60 per cent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Trump has suggested allowing people to deduct childcare expenses from their taxable income if they make less than $250,000 a year. The Tax Policy Center estimates that 70 per cent of that benefit would go to families that make at least $100,000, thereby offering only modest help to the middle class.

Japan offers one set of lessons. In 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed policies to encourage women to go to work to replace aging employees. He expanded subsidized day care and supported paid parental leave. By 2016, women’s labour-force participation increased by three percentage points. But cultural biases shift only slowly, and the government had to cut its goal of having 30 per cent of managerial positions occupied by women by 2020 to just seven per cent. Women still make up the bulk of part-time or contract workers.

Elsewhere, Chile in 2009 required firms with 20 or more female employees to cover childcare expenses for kids under two years old. Workforce participation jumped by almost six percentage points by 2016. But because employers faced higher costs, women’s salaries took a hit.

In Estonia, meanwhile, the labour-force participation rate for women has stalled since 2011 despite having one of the best European programs in place, according to the World Bank.

Ivanka Trump also wants employers to be required to offer paid maternity leave, which would end the United States’ tenure as the only OECD country that has no such mandate. Yet with approximately eight million baby boomers set to leave the workforce through 2035 and Trump senior clamping down on immigration, exploring how more women can be encouraged to work is sensible. Studying the mixed record of experiments overseas would help Washington’s policymakers avoid missteps.

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