Let’s Start With the Women Moderators Tonight — and Continue Until the End of this Cycle — to Talk Work-Family, Dignity, Wages and Care

Vicki Shabo
Nov 20, 2019 · 4 min read

Tonight’s fifth Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta will be moderated by four formidable women journalists, the first time in this election cycle and only the third time in history that women debate moderators will exclusively own the questioning of candidates. As an advocate for gender equity and equal representation, I should be celebrating and hopeful that this debate will be qualitatively different than the others in terms of the range of topics candidates are asked to address — and I am. But I am also worried about a looming double Catch-22.

First, tonight’s debate must include more discussion of issues that have received completely inadequate attention thus far. According to TIME’S Up’s scan of 150 questions asked thus far this cycle, the first four debates saw no questions on paid family and medical leave, sexual harassment or child care, two on equal pay and little attention to the wages and working conditions for people (largely women) who care for our children and our elders. It has been beyond frustrating to see these issues mostly ignored so far by both moderators and candidates.

The biggest threat, of course, is that tonight’s debate is more of the same, with key issues affecting the economic security, health and dignity of women ignored because the women moderators do not want to be pigeonholed as uniquely positioned to speak and ask questions about gender.

And if moderators don’t ask, all evidence from past debates suggest candidates won’t pivot to these issues. In previous debates this year, some candidates have shared personal stories about workplace discrimination, maternal health, family health issues — and, according to New America’s tracking, most candidates have articulated solid policies on some or all of these topics. But the candidates have not seized the chance to connect their personal stories to the public policies that could transform voters’ lives and our country’s structures around work and care.

So, without a doubt, tonight should be a start of a shifted debate, treating these issues as the economic issues they are.

But that leads to the possibility of a second Catch-22 — that tonight’s debate will be the only one in the primary cycle where candidates are asked about these issues because the moderators are women. If that happens — like a box that’s been checked by four women moderators for tens of million of women in the audience — the networks and the moderators will have set the issues back, reinforcing misperceptions that these are side issues rather than core to health, economic security, equity, safety and dignity.

So what’s the answer? The moderators should ask about work-family and gender equity policies, not because they are women or speaking and asking questions on behalf of other women, but because these issues are critically important to building women’s economic security and wealth and to creating a strong 21st century economy.

Workers’ lack of access to paid family and medical leave costs families an estimated $21 billion per year. The wage gap costs women overall hundreds of thousands of dollars — and Black women and Latinx women about $1 million or more — over their lifetimes and affects their ability to build wealth, attain or help children attain a college degree, and even afford basic expenses like food and rent. Sexual harassment means women are held back at work and unable to position themselves for greater workplace opportunities and earning power. Lack of affordable child care may mean parents — and usually women — leave work altogether for a substantial period of time, which affects their job prospects and earnings for years to come. Paid care workers, whose labor has long been dramatically undervalued, struggle to find care for and feed their own families.

This week must be the start and not the end. A robust conversation must occur, and it must be a trigger for every subsequent debate to address these same issues in a substantial and meaningful way. Candidates must be pushed — and embrace the chance to discuss — their personal relationship to gender inequity and their visions for a 21st century America in which everyone has an equal chance to be paid fairly, treated with dignity at work and able to care for themselves and their loved ones. The debates should also provide the opportunity for candidates to explain their stark disagreements with the incumbent president, whose policies have gutted equal pay data reporting, rolled back worker protections and given only lip service to an inadequate half-measure version of paid parental leave.

It is well past time to bring work-family issues, unfair treatment of women at work and unequal pay into the mainstream of the 2020 debate. This is about addressing the deep-seated concerns of people across the country who lie awake at night — working the night shift, fretting about providing care to new babies and sick family members, or worrying about what their bosses might say or do to threaten their livelihood and safety. It’s time for the main stage on these issues and it cannot just be up to the women moderators to get them there.

Vicki Shabo

Written by

Tenacious optimist fighting for an equitable and family friendly America. Senior Fellow at New America. Views are my own. Twitter: @vshabo

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