Women Are the Social Safety Net

By Sallie Krawcheck

“Other countries have social safety nets. The US has women.”

Oof. What a gut punch those words are, from sociologist Jessica Calarco, in an article by the same name last week.

Other countries have affordable child care. Other countries have universal preschool. Other countries have paid sick leave. Other countries have greater access to health care. Other countries — in fact, almost all other countries — have paid family leave.

The US has women.

In the US, when whatever carefully constructed family arrangements we’ve each made fall apart — say, when a parent or child gets sick, or when there’s a global pandemic — it’s not a social safety net that kicks in. It’s women, and their careers, that bear the brunt.

Because we have internalized “her” as the caregiver. And “him” as the breadwinner.

Because we still value her work less.

Because that means she earns less.

Because work inside the home is valued less than work outside the home.

Because we’ve convinced ourselves that paid family leave is an expense, not an investment — and ignore that it’s an investment that very quickly pays for itself through greater economic (and household income) growth.

Because as women we’ve been taught that we’re not good with money, that we’re not good investors, that that’s the responsibility of the men in our lives.

Because rugged individualism is a story that we Americans tell ourselves ... even while the cowboy on the open range and the (white) settlers of the West were given — for free — the land that they were ruggedly individualizing on (land that wasn’t even theirs to be given).

Two other sentences from the same article that hit home: “Instead we — especially women and people from other systematically marginalized groups — are taught to self-help-book our way out of structural problems. To believe that all our problems would go away if only we were to strictly follow some 17-step plan.”

That we can find work-life balance. That we can get the promotion if we just ask the right way. That we can make it all work if we just freeze enough meals on a Sunday to last most of the week. And that we can be wealthy if we just give up the latte.


In the month of September 2020 alone, 865,000 women left the workforce, presumably to take care of all of the kids who are going to school by Zoom, part- or full-time. And 25% of working mothers are considering leaving the workforce, many for the same reasons.

The cost of the pandemic to women may well be decades of economic and financial progress. Which means that the cost to their families is that same loss of economic and financial progress.

Double oof.

How do we go about solving this? Mandated paid parental leave, of course. Stimulus spending. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. Working to improve our child care policies, not just during the pandemic, but for the long term.

And here’s something new: New Zealand just implemented an innovative law that might actually work. Instead of just looking at “equal pay for equal work,” the law addresses pay equity — the idea of paying different jobs of comparable worth the same, while also analyzing the “emotional labor” that typifies work commonly done by women. That approach forces us to directly examine what we value and why we value it.

That’s not small. As the New York Times put it, “This can be a messy process, one that requires unlearning decades of bias about gender and work, as well as political goodwill and a spirit of collaboration.”

But it’s already seen some progress in New Zealand — a country that is weathering the pandemic well due to a science-led policy that emphasizes collaborative effort and empathy.

Hopefully, the tenor of the times is changing in that direction in the US as well.

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Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck is the Founder & CEO of Ellevest.