South Carolina is looking all over for workers.

It has looked to the military, where it's eager to give veterans tax breaks if they come work here. It has looked to prisons, where it's offering some ex-offenders a clean slate if it helps them land jobs. It's looking to drug users, who it wants to get sober — and get back to work.

But it has largely overlooked a huge group of potential workers. It’s a group that's heavily underrepresented in workplaces across the state, one that advocates say could fill thousands of job openings if they didn't face as many hurdles:


South Carolina has one of the country's lowest rates of women who work. Even in the prime of their working years, roughly a third of women don't have jobs. Only six states have lower rates, according to a Post and Courier analysis of federal labor data: Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama and New Mexico.

Men in South Carolina don't do particularly well, either — only 83 percent of them have jobs in their prime working years — but the disparity is striking all the same. The gender gap is the ninth-largest in the nation.

In a state hungry for workers, that smacks of opportunity.

Women's advocacy groups say there's a compelling business case for removing the barriers that keep women from working — things like rigid schedules, expensive child care or stingy leave policies. Even Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, has said that a more balanced workforce could unlock massive economic growth across the country.

The potential is especially striking in South Carolina.

If women here worked at the same rate as women nationwide, the state could add another 38,000 jobs — more than the economy added in the past year.

And if South Carolina closed the gender gap fully, it would unlock the potential for almost 150,000 jobs. That would be like if the state got another BMW factory and another Boeing plant — nine times over.


There's no single cause driving the state's gender gap. Like the rest of the country, there are lots of factors that determine whether someone works or sits on the sidelines.

The Palmetto State struggles with many of them.

Women do most of South Carolina's low-paying work — they account for about two-thirds of all minimum-wage jobs — and if you earn the minimum wage, childcare here will eat up almost half of your paycheck. That makes working itself an expensive proposition.

South Carolina doesn't require paid maternal leave. And it doesn't require paid sick leave, so caring for a sick child can mean the difference between having a job and losing one. Most states have limited protections, but unlike most states, South Carolina suffers high rates of heart disease and diabetes, some of the highest in the country for women.

Which is to say, workers who are more likely to fall sick — or care for someone who is — have few options if they do.

In Chandra Childers' assessment, those are barriers that keep women out of the workforce from coast to coast. But they're especially pronounced in the South. And South Carolina, she says, is getting worse results than its neighbors.

"If you are earning wages that would leave your family in poverty anyway — and on top of that you've got to pay for childcare now, you've got to pay for transportation, you may have to buy a uniform — it doesn't make entering the labor force worth it," said Childers, senior research scientist at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank.

Ask Yvette Gail, who remembered all the ways she juggled family and work while she waited to apply for a job last month. Like how she'd wanted to make sure her kids got on the school bus in Summerville at 7:15 each morning — but would get written up if she couldn't get to work downtown by 8.

When they were younger, she paid hundreds of dollars a week for a daycare. When she took a night job, she had to hire a babysitter. By the time she added in the cost of commuting to a home she could get a deal on, 25 miles up and down Interstate 26, she felt like the cost of having a job was wiping out most of her paycheck.

Years ago, Gail worked three jobs to make ends meet for a fraught two-week stretch: A day job in a medical office, a part-time gig in a call center, and a night shift at a gas station. She gave up after the work wore her down.

And here she was looking for work again. She'd left her last job — as an accountant in an office dominated by men — because she felt like she didn’t have a voice. Even in better offices, she didn't feel like her bosses had been flexible enough, understanding of everything she was juggling.

"We have it really hard," said Gail, 35. "No one really cares about all of the other things we have to do outside of work."

Legal protection

There has been little interest in the state Legislature for adding new protections for workers.

Bills that would require paid sick leave have languished in committee. So have proposals to increase the minimum wage. South Carolina, in fact, is one of five states that has no minimum wage law on the books — even one that mirrors the federal requirement.

In recent years, lawmakers have restricted cities and towns from setting rules of their own. They blocked them from setting a minimum wage first, and last year voted to block them from mandating other benefits.

State Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, and chairman of the powerful Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, said at the time that requiring benefits had the effect of "artificially raising the minimum wage because it’s costing the employer more to employ that employee." The bill passed by a wide margin.

That essentially leaves the issue to federal officials in Washington, who have become interested in bringing more people into the workforce — but haven't focused on women in particular.

In North Charleston last month, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said the nation needed to increase labor force participation, which he called a "complex question." The answers, he suggested, could lie in improving prisoner re-entry, reducing opioid painkiller abuse and limiting occupational licenses that keep newcomers out of many professions.

Business case

Continental AG has seen the participation gap up close.

It runs in an industry dominated men, making tires and car parts. And over the past several years, it has deepened its reach into South Carolina, where the gap has been persistent.

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It started making tires in the Midlands a few years ago, and it has been selling them from Fort Mill since shortly after the Great Recession.

South Carolina's unemployment rate is now about as low as it has been in four decades. But even in the early days of the recovery, Continental AG's management realized it had an opportunity: Flip the culture, and it might be able to tap a new pool of talent.

So it tried. It created a networking group for the women on its staff, and it listened when they started to suggest new ideas.

They wanted extended maternity leave, and paid time for new fathers. They wanted flexible work schedules, and the ability to work from home a few days a month. They wanted new parents to have the option to take a part-time job or a sabbatical without quitting altogether.

They got their wishes. The company has added those benefits over the past few years.

The changes mostly affected white-collar workers — you can't telecommute to the shop floor — but some have percolated through to the company's new factory in Sumter. The company says a quarter of its workers there are women, which is nearly double the average for tire plants.

Similar strategies have worked at Blackbaud, Inc., the Charleston software firm that is now vying to become the state's largest publicly traded company. It started changing benefits plans when its management turned over a few years ago, and like Continental, it pushed for flexibility, with benefits like longer maternity leave and paid time off for new fathers.

It also put together working groups for women and annual meetings of female managers, and it started a program for women and minorities to get more face time with top executives.

Peggy Anderson, its vice president for talent acquisition, said the changes appear to have moved the needle: In an industry that's typically two-thirds men, Blackbaud is pushing toward a 50-50 split. The ratio has evened out since the changes took effect.

Still, she says, the new benefits don't only affect women. Men also gain when their bosses become more flexible.

That's a theme that runs throughout the history of American worker protections, according to Yellen, the former Fed chair. Before she left her post last year, she argued that the U.S. had an issue with women's workforce participation — that "structural problems" might be shaping the labor pool, not just personal decisions to stay at home with their families.

Fixing those kinds of problems in the past benefited everyone, she said. And, she argued, fixing them now could, too.

Women had inspired labor protections that are now universal, she said — things like the minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek. Those came about as women entered the workforce in the early 20th century.

It helped grow the economy, too. Researchers have found that women's participation alone boosted the pace of the nation's economic growth year after year for decades.

It could again. Even without reaching full equality, just working to balance out the workforce could conceivably add more than $2 trillion to the U.S. economy's output by 2025, the consultancy McKinsey & Co. wrote in 2016.

If it did, South Carolina would take a disproportionate slice of the gains, about $31 billion, which would top the state's growth over the past five years. Their analysis found that few states would benefit more.

David Wren of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team, a native of Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His career at the newspaper started on the business desk in 2016.