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What's Keeping So Many US Women Out of the Workforce?

Photograph by Twenty20

The U.S. is slipping further and further down in a list of countries with the largest percent of women in the workforce. Recently, Japan bested the United States, which once dominated in the No. 7 spot but has now slipped to 20th. The fact that a greater percent of the Japanese workforce is made up of women than in America is of great distress to Gail Collins, who drills down a bit to find out where we went wrong.

Two words: child care.

In some states, child care costs more than college tuition, which is a hilarious little statistic until you remember how no one can afford to pay for college out of pocket, but that there's sort of no thing as child care loans. (Actually, there are child care loans! But it looks more like turning over one-third of your paycheck to the daycare center and paying for everything else with a credit card.)

Add to that the fact that maternity leave is largely unpaid in the U.S. (if it exists at all) and you've got a situation where if a woman can stay home with her baby she might really consider doing so. Some have tried to fix this (think Netflix and others offering Scandinavian levels of time-off after baby and huge incentives for men to stay home sometimes, too). More than 40 years ago, Collins points out in her New York Times column, "Congress passed a bipartisan bill that would have made quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it," but President Nixon vetoed it. (Vetoed!) It's been a battle for balance ever since.

Slipping national feminist credentials aside, there's good reason to revisit the failed plans of yesteryear—or to look to Japan for solutions. More women in the workforce, no matter how you get them to stay there, boosts the economy. It's good for everyone.

Collins comes short of calling for solutions, sticking to the point that can't be made enough: We need solutions.

But it's clear, whether you want women in the workforce for feminist pride reasons or for the strong conclusion that working women are better for the economy, solutions are what we need. Take care of children from birth to adulthood, and you can have both of those outcomes.

Most of the rest of the world gets this. Someday the U.S. will, too.

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