During her appearance at the Women in the World Summit in April, Hillary Clinton—who also announced in that same month that she would be running for president during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections—said “there is no better time to be a woman.”
And in a lot of ways, she might be right.
Today, women in the United States hold more than half of all professional-level jobs, earn a majority of undergraduate degrees, control 80 percent of consumer spending and have seen their share of board seats at S&P 1500 companies increase more than 90 percent.
Yet, those strides are often overshadowed by persistent discrepancies such as the gender wage gap; the number of women in Congress or serving in statewide elective posts; and the ratio of women to men in senior-level posts and on boards at major corporations.
With two female candidates on the ballot, Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Carly Fiorina for the Republicans, many say the upcoming election will be a pivotal time for women across the country.
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While this certainly isn’t the first time a woman has run for president of the United States, experts say Clinton has placed gender issues atop her priority list while Fiorina—who has downplayed “the gender card”—has a history of being a trailblazer as the first women to land in the C-suite at Hewlett-Packard.
What will be the main issue on women’s minds when they hit the polls during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election?
Experts say it hasn’t changed much over the last several decades and it actually entails a series of variables that fall under one umbrella: economic security. Women want stable jobs, higher pay and the assurance that their families’ financial futures are intact.
“Economic issues drive women voters,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women tend to be more financially insecure and more likely to need the social safety net that the government supports, so they vote accordingly.”
That social security net, Walsh noted, includes government-funded programs that aid in job placement, subsidies for household bills and health insurance coverage.
According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in March, the largest occupational categories across the country are made up of relatively low paying jobs. The largest occupational group—office and administrative support jobs, a category with a mean salary of $35,530—just happens to be dominated by women who comprise 73 percent of the category.
More and more women are taking on financial responsibility for entire households and can no longer afford to be pigeon-holed into lower-paying occupational roles, experts say.
“I think economic security is what people want and I don’t see those issues as women’s issues,” said Juanita Duggan, president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. “Everyone needs economic security.”
Walsh agrees—noting however, that while both genders see economic security as the top priority, there are key differences.
Among those key differences is the persistent gender wage gap. According to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau (2013), women who work full time earn, on average, only 78 cents for every dollar men earn. The gap is even greater for women of color.
Walsh said issues such as work-life balance, education and the environment are recurring election hot topics but will take the back burner to economic issues this year.
“I think a lot of women are in an economic survival mode right now,” said Walsh. “Women want to put food on the table, fill their cars with gas, and be able to plan for their retirement more so than work-life balance.”
So what it will take to get the country where it needs to be on women’s issues?
Experts are mixed in their feedback but Walsh said placing more women in roles of power is a step in the right direction.
“It matters to have women in politics—not just for fairness but because if women’s voices are not at the table, then we’re wasting talent,” said Walsh. “Women have different life experiences and that affects how they operate in government and the policy issues that they make a priority. It’s about substance—not just fairness.”