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New Missouri Task Force Aims To Help Women Rejoin Workforce Post-Pandemic

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Nicole Xu for NPR
Millions of women left the U.S. workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the economy begins to recover, many women still haven’t returned to work. A new coalition of Missouri women is looking into what policy measures could help.

Women’s participation in the workforce dropped to its lowest level since the 1980s during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the economy begins to recover, many women still haven’t returned to work.

The nonprofit organization United Women’s Empowerment is launching a task force to study what’s holding Missouri women back from finding jobs and advancing their careers.

Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of United WE, said top priorities will include pay equity and increasing access to paid family and medical leave, as well as high-quality, affordable child care.

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United Women's Empowerment
Wendy Doyle is the president and CEO of the nonprofit United Women's Empowerment, which conducts research and advocates for policies to better support working women in Missouri.

“The child care impact really hit the small-business industry pretty significantly for women-owned businesses. And that held true in Missouri, as well,” she said. “It's not an easy solution.”

Without more women in the workforce, Doyle said Missouri is leaving money on the table. She noted the state could grow its economy up to 15% by 2025 if more women enter the workforce, according to a study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute before the pandemic.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get women back to work,” Doyle said.

Over the next few months, the task force will host seven town hall meetings to hear from women across Missouri about the barriers they’re facing and what policy changes might help. The first meeting will be in Joplin next month. Others will take place in Florissant, Kansas City, Kirksville and Sedalia, and two will be hosted online.

Doyle said the task force will compile those stories with additional research commissioned by United WE to produce a report with policy recommendations for lawmakers by Thanksgiving.

The task force is made up of 18 women with leadership roles in state and local government, as well as at civic and corporate organizations. St. Louis leaders on the task force include Cora Faith Walker, chief policy officer for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, and Susan Coatar, vice president of Centene Corp.

Becky Willard is also on the task force. She’s the executive director of the Hawthorn Foundation, a non-partisan organization made up of businesses and labor groups that support economic development across the state.

She said the foundation has experience working with the governor’s office on task forces like these. Willard said she’s seen the Missouri Legislature find common ground on veterans and military family issues, and she hopes lawmakers will work together to make it easier for women to get back into the workforce.

“The problem of having a trained and ready-to-work workforce is something that we are all starting to see, and I think by the time this report is done and the legislature is getting ready to reconvene next year, it’s going to be even more of a problem,” she said.

But Gary Parker, director of Washington University’s Clark-Fox Policy Institute, worries that a legislative approach to implementing policies that better support working women will be tough.

For years, Parker has pushed for policies such as increasing quality and affordable child care for working mothers, but he said the Missouri legislature, which holds a Republican supermajority, hasn’t budged.

“I’m worried there are a lot of women who want to engage in the workforce and just can’t,” he said. “But the state and the governor should be more worried because as long as we are putting barriers in front of women and preventing them from engaging in the workforce, we are delaying economic recovery — and that is not good for the state.”

Parker said he’s found that appealing to the business sector is a better route in Missouri. However, he said he’s impressed by the lineup of women on the task force and hopes they can drive policy change, especially around increasing child care subsidies and implementing universal paid time off.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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