Secretary Elaine Chao

 
 
 

Women on the World Symposium

Good morning! It is great to be in a roomful of women!

Today, women are uniquely positioned to benefit from the strength of our country’s economy, which is the envy of the world. In 2006, the U.S. economy grew at a remarkable 3.4 percent.

Our country has seen 41 months of job growth, with more than 7.4 million new jobs created since August 2003. That’s more jobs than the entire European Union and Japan combined have created. In fact, the last Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows one million more jobs were created in the past 12 months than have previously been reported. And the national unemployment rate remains a historic low of 4.6 percent. That’s more than a full percentage point lower than the 5.7 percent unemployment rate of the 1990s.

America’s workers are the most productive of any major industrialized economy. And strong productivity translates into higher wages and higher standards of living. In 2006, real wages in the U.S. rose 1.7 percent.

America’s workforce is characterized by our flexibility and mobility. Nearly one-third of America’s workforce of 153 million changes jobs every year, largely to access better opportunities. Let me emphasize that the majority of people who leave their jobs do so voluntarily, often because they have found a better job. The average American worker will have held more than 10 jobs by age 40. Change is the norm in our society, and it’s a tribute to the dynamism of our economy!

Preserving the dynamism and flexibility of the U.S. economy is vital to remaining competitive in the worldwide economy. Our country is transitioning to a knowledge-based economy that places a premium on higher skills and education. So what we are seeing is not so much a wage gap, as a skills gap. There is an increasing mismatch between the skills of workers looking for jobs and the skills required by employers who have jobs to offer. Over the next decade, nearly two-thirds of the new jobs created in the U.S. will require some kind of post-secondary education. So more than ever before, education, training and retraining are the keys to future earnings.

Here are just a few examples of the strong link between earnings and education. Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher average over $1,300 per week, and have a 2.1 percent unemployment rate. Workers with an associate degree average more than $800 per week, and have an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent. Workers with a high school degree average about $700 weekly and have a 4.2 percent unemployment rate. But workers who drop out of high school average less than $500 per week and have unemployment rates of about 6.8 percent. So higher education really pays off!

And women are well-positioned to benefit from this trend. While there are many reasons why women are succeeding in today’s workforce, one of the key reasons is that we appreciate the importance of education.

Today, American women complete high school at higher rates than men. They are more likely to enter and graduate from college than men. In fact, the number of women holding a bachelor’s degree or higher has more than doubled in the past 20 years. And just look at how far women are advancing in the professions. Recent estimates show that:

  1. Almost half of all medical school students are women,
  2. Nearly 38 percent of all MBA students are women,
  3. And nearly 48 percent of all law school students are women.

And a look down the road shows that women are positioning themselves for even greater gains over the next twenty years. Last year, women comprised more than half of all advanced degree holders under the age of 40. So it’s no surprise that the unemployment rate for women is slightly lower than men.

Women today are contributing to our nation’s economy in so many ways. Women-owned businesses are growing at twice the rate of businesses owned by men. And small businesses are very important to workers and to the U.S. economy. Two-thirds of the new jobs created in this country in the last decade have been created by small businesses.

And women are playing an increasingly important role in public life. Over the past six years, President George W. Bush has appointed a record number of women to high level positions in his Administration, including five women to his current Cabinet. Today, the U.S. Senate has 16 women and the U.S. House of Representatives has 71 women. And to date, women have been elected statewide to executive offices in 49 out of our nation’s 50 states. And there are 1,734 women state legislators.

This Administration supports many initiatives to help women succeed and balance work and family life. All of us have something in common, regardless of which position we hold. In any survey of working women, one of the most sought-after benefits is time: time to care for a child, or a loved one, or other important family matters. That’s why this Administration supports comp time and flex time. Currently, federal government workers have the option to choose, on a voluntary basis, comp time instead of paid annual leave. And flex time is also available. This Administration would like to extend these options on a voluntarily basis to workers in the private sector.

And the Labor Department has created other programs to help women balance work and family life. The Department has a special mentorship project, Flex-Options for Women,which helps employers create and strengthen workplace flexibility policies.

Many women also leave the workforce for extended periods to care for family and then return to the workplace. So the Department’s Working Women in Transition project was created. It assists women in finding employment, helps them develop strategies to increase their earnings and identifies education and training opportunities in high growth sectors of the economy.

As we talk about women in the workplace, let’s not forget that women working at home are making equally important contributions to our society. And the fact that American women have the option to make this choice is a positive reflection on our economy, not a negative one. In many countries in the world, women — and great numbers of children, as well — are forced to work because they have no other choice.

Women have come a long way in our society. And the future holds even greater promise, as women position themselves for success through education and lifelong learning. Americans are living longer and healthier lives. And after retiring, many Americans are choosing to re-enter the workplace on a part time basis, or answer the call to service. So our country offers many opportunities in all phases of life. Whether it’s in the workplace, in the home, or a combination of both, women are key to making our country stronger and more competitive.

Thank you for everything you are doing to advance the role of the women in the workplace. Working together, we can continue to ensure that the doors of opportunity remain wide open for all.