Amid a global pandemic, a strained job market, and an inadequate infrastructure for working women, the United States' lack of progress is becoming increasingly apparent. Laurel Leader, founder and CEO of All In Together and author of the 2016 book Crossing the Thinnest Line, spoke with CEO.com on the effects of the pandemic and the importance of diversity as an economic asset.

Leader, who also serves as the former co-founder and president of the women's leadership organization No Labels, emphasized that the gender gap in labor force participation was already a significant drag on the economy before the pandemic hit, resulting in unrealized trillions of economic potential. Now, she says, the situation has become even more dramatic due to the mass exodus of women from the workforce.

The closure of public education, the only reliable source of universal child care in the U.S., was the final straw for working women who already lack the infrastructure to stay in the workforce. She compared the U.S.'s actions to those of other countries who kept schools open, noting that they "understood that that was the most critical to protect and continue supporting children."

In addition to the lack of access to quality childcare, Leader identified several factors contributing to the gender gap in workforce participation. Technology can compound gender disparities, as women are often excluded from AI and machine learning opportunities and face significant barriers in accessing venture capital.

She says that companies don't always reflect the diversity of their customers and, therefore don't know how to serve them best. In response to these inequities, Leader and her organization, All In Together, advocate for an ambitious policy agenda that includes passing the family leave paid leave portion of the budget and reconciliation bill. The proposed agency would fund 12 weeks of paid leave for both men and women with a small payroll tax, improving the financial stability of working families.

Despite the apparent challenges, Leader remains optimistic about the potential for meaningful change. She encourages citizens to commit to creating a safe and equitable future for all and taking advantage of their agency and potential for the good of the country.

Moreover, she believes CEOs have a moral responsibility to create a culture change within their industries. "We need people to see. Look to the bigger point about your friends who run for office in your state," Leader said. "You wanted them there because you wanted good people with good values committed to public service. And that's key. Public service, not self-service. Not self-interest. They are not doing it because they want power and attention but because they're committed to improving their community and, God willing, the country. Those are the people you want. And we need those good people. And as long as the good people think it's not worth it, we will self-fulfill that prophecy. That's how we wind up with a lot of really nutty, fringe people who are up for themselves and not out for the good of the country in high office because they're the ones that are willing to do it."

Given the magnitude of the challenges posed by the pandemic, some may feel overwhelmed, but Leader encourages citizens to commit to creating a better future for all. "We always want to remind ourselves, what did you do now to make the world one day more just? That's the goal. One day at a time, one step at a time, and that kind of progress will get us to a place of greater resilience and equity," Leader said.

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