Women's Agenda

By Melissa Grah-McIntosh

President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, the most important scheduled speech on the US political calendar, closely mirrored his 2014 messages when it comes to gender equality, equal pay and maternity leave, partly because little has changed in 12 months.

“Today, we are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” the President declared. He reiterated the same issues from his 2014 speech, which have not progressed: “Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.”

The president seems irritated and embarrassed that the US is still out on its own, and genuinely keen to get something done. The first bill to be introduced by House Democrats following the State of the Union address was a bill to introduce six weeks of paid parental leave for federal government employees. But despite all his effort, with a recalcitrant congress and a republican majority in the House of Representatives and Senate, unfortunately no-one is really expecting the bill to go through, nor much to change on gender as Obama’s presidency wraps up. The best chance of some success in terms of paid maternity leave might sit with the states. A recent White House statement says the president was to announce $1 million in funding to the states to conduct feasibility studies into paid leave. This follows a first round in 2014 of $500,000 to assist states with ideas for paid maternity leave. The District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Montana, and Rhode Island shared the small pot of funding to develop their studies.

Is this going to be enough for any significant outcomes in President Obama’s final term? Despite the strong rhetoric and consistent calls on congress to pass legislation, perhaps gender was never meant to be a real win for this president. Conceivably this is the platform for the next president, because what Obama has done amazingly well is to provide Hillary Clinton with the material to run a strong, committed and message-tested gender campaign should she run in 2016. He has handed her the platform for the taking.

For Hillary Clinton, the time is perfect. Always a strong campaigner on women’s empowerment, over the past couple of years her profile on supporting gender issues has significantly increased including establishing the No Ceilings Full Participation Project to support and promote the full participation of women and girls. No Ceilings has become an important global initiative for the Clinton Foundation that Hillary created with her husband, former US President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea.

And then there are the learnings from 2008. Many say Hillary didn’t acknowledge gender enough during her campaigning against Democratic contester, Barack Obama, whose speech about race was regarded as one of the most significant of the campaign. Obama openly debated race inequality as an important issue, where Hillary resisted the gender platform, particularly the significance of her possible rise to becoming the first female president of the United States. If this was a mistake for Hillary’s campaign, it looks like she and her team have learnt from the past. Through her foundation work, speaking engagements and highest connections into the corporate world, Hillary Clinton is putting herself in a position that will help ensure that if gender is her platform and she were to become president then we could see some significant and historic policy changes.

Does being the first female president make a difference to America? According to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post which asked registered voters if they were more or less likely to vote for Hillary Clinton because she would be the first female president 24% of Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for her. Only three per cent of Democrats felt the same. However, the majority of voters agreed that it didn’t make a difference at all, with 67% of Republicans and 57% of Democrats answering this way. If the poll is right, Hillary would be the clear winner against any candidate the Republicans are likely to put forward.

With this in mind, the US could finally be on the cusp of change. It is feasible that in a Hillary Clinton presidential term the US might make great inroads at home and abroad on issues of gender equality. The G20 under the Australian presidency set a target of a 25% reduction in the gender gap by 2025. The question now is how will this be achieved?

With her years of global experience campaigning for women’s economic empowerment Hillary Clinton is one leader qualified to sell the benefits of such progress to both the United States and the rest of the world.

This article was originally published at Women's Agenda