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Women Warn Budget Talks Should Not Be All Male

As Congressional leaders and the administration debate the country’s fiscal future, a collection of women’s organizations on Tuesday requested that they infuse one missing ingredient into the high-level talks: estrogen.

Vice President Joseph Biden and administration officials met Tuesday to discuss the deficit with Members such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) as well as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew and economic adviser Gene Sperling attended the talks as well.

“Women are not prominently there at the meeting,” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said during a conference call with reporters. “We are concerned that the disproportionate impact on women of the proposed budget cuts is not at the center of the analysis and must be at the center of the analysis.”

O’Neill’s group along with 14 others, including the Older Women’s Economic Security Task Force, the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the National Women’s Political Caucus, sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to put a woman at the table.

“We welcome the opportunity to bring our voices and expertise to a discussion with you and your advisors, and we request that members of your administration with expertise on women’s issues, such as Secretary Hilda Solis and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, be added to the White House’s advisory team working on these negotiations,” the women’s organizations wrote in the letter. “It is not simply enough to send a few privileged men to the table to ‘solve’ the nation’s budget problem.”

A spokeswoman for the vice president said the administration has not forgotten about women’s issues in the budget fight.

“President Obama and Vice President Biden are deeply committed to creating greater economic security for women and their families and will continue to protect programs and promote policies that support this effort,” Amy Dudley said in an email. “We will also continue to oppose plans, such as Congressman Ryan’s, that put women’s economic security at risk.”

Some of the female administration members involved in budget matters include senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Nancy-Ann DeParle, deputy chief of staff for policy, and Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council.

O’Neill said her group has heard back from the president’s staff members, who are willing to meet with them. “That is a good first baby step,” she said.

And the women’s organizations are finding they have some allies on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Republican-proposed changes to Medicare will hit women harder than men.

“Women often work part time or leave the workforce while raising families. As a result, they have less average savings for retirement and lower Social Security benefits,” she said on the Senate floor, according to prepared remarks. “For these women, Medicare is a critical source of financial security.  It keeps many of them out of poverty. The House Republican proposal will end that security.”

Representatives from some of the groups said that women, who statistically earn lower wages than their male counterparts, are being left out of the economic recovery and will be increasingly at risk if cuts to food stamp programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security pass.

Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, said that after age 64, men’s average income is about $31,000, while women’s is about $16,500.

“Clearly, women have been left behind,” Dorfman said. “I don’t believe that the women’s perspective and women’s experience is being given the visibility that it’s due.”

She added that women own one-third of all businesses in the U.S., and her group wants to ensure those entrepreneurs have access to the contracts and capital they need to grow. “The important thing is to make sure when we look at economics that we do not leave women out from the discussion or from the resources,” she said.

Many of the women’s advocates said they support deficit reduction but want policymakers to find cuts in military spending or alternatives to programs that women rely on for health care and basic needs.

“We support rational approaches to addressing this deficit that do not include any cuts to Social Security,” said Bobbie Brinegar, executive director of the Older Women’s League. “Social Security and Medicare are bedrock. Cuts to these programs would have an enormous impact.”

Some women’s advocates said that in general they have found the Obama administration to be responsive to their issues and were shocked to learn that a woman was not included in the talks.

“It didn’t occur to a lot of us that there wouldn’t be a woman there,” said Sherry Saunders of the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation. “I find it stunning in an administration that we feel is very sensitive to women’s issues that this could’ve happened. Certainly, there is a plethora of women who could join the discussion.”

Saunders and some of the advocates noted that in Congress, as well, women are underrepresented when compared to the general population. Women make up about 17 percent of Congress.

Perhaps that’s why when White House officials and Congressional leaders talk about job creation, the women’s advocates said, they are often discussing employment areas such as construction that are male-dominated.

“What we have seen in this recession is that men have gained 80 percent of the new jobs, whereas only 19 percent of those jobs have gone to women,” said Cynthia Harrison, vice chairwoman of the Women’s Committee of 100.

She said federal and state support is needed not only to stimulate construction jobs but also for positions dominated by women, such as teaching and nursing. “We need to be sure there’s an opportunity for women to train for the male-dominated job categories that pay higher wages,” she added.

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