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Ivanka’s shallow narrative of women’s empowerment at the W20 summit

This is not how women’s empowerment works.

Ivanka Trump, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from left, attend a panel at the W20 Summit in Berlin Tuesday, April 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
Ivanka Trump, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from left, attend a panel at the W20 Summit in Berlin Tuesday, April 25, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

At Tuesday’s Women20 Summit, Ivanka Trump sat alongside some of the most powerful women in the world, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde. But unlike those she joined on the panel, she had little to offer for women’s empowerment but platitudes.

Ivanka was personally invited to the G20 summit for women’s economic empowerment by Chancellor Merkel after their meeting at the White House in March, and it is her first trip abroad in an official capacity for the administration as Advisor to the President. She was meant to represent the voice of women’s empowerment for the Trump administration. When asked about what the role of First Daughter actually meant, since it was not familiar to the largely German audience, she said she didn’t know either and was learning.

The most exciting moment of the panel came during the first set of questions, when moderator Miriam Meckel pressed Ivanka on whether she was attending to advance the interests of her country or her business. The audience hissed as she claimed her father was a tremendous supporter of families and supported empowering women, pointing to his treatment of women in the private sector within his own organization rather than any real policies.

Before arriving at the summit, Ivanka wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times on Monday alongside the President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. In their op-ed, they discuss the importance of greater inclusion of women in formal economies (paid employment, access to financial services like banks, etc.) as well as boosting women’s entrepreneurship. But despite the polished op-ed, which praised the World Bank and simultaneously ignored that her father’s proposed budget cuts millions of dollars for the institution, the discussion on Wednesday lacked a serious understanding of power itself.

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Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland was one of the few at the summit who discussed the difficulty of addressing social norms that lead to women’s lack of power changing family dynamics. Freeland touched on a deeper understanding of structures of power that constrain women’s economic opportunities.

But Ivanka pushed the narrative of the Trump administration: a narrative of individualized empowerment, which does not require deconstructing any of the underlying conditions that have led to the economic inequality faced by women today. If any woman can succeed if she only tries hard enough, the administration can justify maintaining the structures and norms that are persistently holding women back. The administration can say it is fighting for women’s rights through tokens like sending an ill-equipped Advisor to the President to sit on a panel, while simultaneously dismantling the social safety net that women and families need for their economic security.

Trump’s proposed budget threatens to cut programs that would help women get off the ground in starting their own businesses in the first place. The proposed elimination of the Program for Investment in Micro-entrepreneurs (PRIME), at the Small Business Administration, for example, directly impacts the entrepreneurship Ivanka repeatedly stressed at the summit. Since women’s businesses tend to be smaller due to the industries they work in and the smaller levels of capital they start out with, they are among the microentrepreneurs who would be the very targets of scaling up through the PRIME program. PRIME provides grants for organizations that provide funding and services to help these nascent entrepreneurs get more capital and accelerate their businesses.

The administration also continues its attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was developed by the Dodd-Frank Act. Section 1071 of Dodd-Frank requires banks to collect demographic data on small business lending to understand the discrimination that affects women and racial and ethnic minorities in financial services. Consumer protection is also generally important to people starting and maintaining small businesses who often rely on consumer lending to start up their businesses and maintain cash flow. In his attacks on the CFPB, Trump has made it clear that discrimination against women in financial services simply isn’t a priority.

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Broader attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood are perhaps the most concerning of all, as they would reduce women’s ability to plan for their families and careers, which is necessary in being able to take the risk of starting a business or invest in one’s career.

Ivanka Trump also spoke of the need for paid leave and affordable quality childcare as crucial for women’s economic empowerment, but then described these as “family issues.” This attitude, and this careful type of rhetoric, helps justify proposals that would mostly help families like Ivanka’s and provide negligible benefit to Trump’s working class supporters.

Recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that families in Ivanka’s former zip code in New York City would receive a tax benefit over a thousand times greater than in the Midwestern and Appalachian areas the swung strongly toward Trump in the recent election. Republican proposals that have been floating around as ways to provide paid leave, like comp time, would likewise benefit working class families less, who are already struggling to make ends meet without the ability to work extra time to bank hours that they may or may not be able to use to cover caretaking needs in the future.

Ivanka’s claims that women’s empowerment is good for economic growth and sustainability is true. But in practice, the Trump administration is only giving women tokens of support, while those that have the economic stability that Ivanka’s family enjoys see most of the benefits.

Kate Bahn is an Economist at the Center for American Progress. Her work has focused on labor markets, retirement, the role of gender in the economy, inequality, and teacher labor markets.

ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.