Raise Women's Wages To Boost The Economy, OECD Report Says

OECD report on gender gapInside the Beltway, the debate continues to rage over the smartest way to spur growth. Tax cuts? Tax hikes? Investing in infrastructure? Better regulations? Print more money?

But none of these are the answer, according to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 34 developed countries (the U.S. included) that works to find solutions to shared problems. The OECD says that the real answer has been hiding in our living rooms, strolling our sidewalks, buying our groceries and bearing our children.

For developed countries, the investment with the greatest return is women.

History Proves It

Half of the economic growth in OECD countries in the past 50 years has come from people getting better educations, according to the report, and it's women who have been the biggest winners on this front; last year, the U.S. Census counted a million more female than male college graduates, when the reverse was true just 11 years before.

More:Women In Tech: Why Is There Still No Female Steve Jobs?

But Far Fewer Women Use Their Degrees To Get Jobs

In 2011, 58 million men were year-round, full-time employees in the U.S., according to a Census Bureau report on income and poverty, compared to 43.7 million women.

That's 14.3 million fewer full-time working women, almost the entire working age population of Australia, who could be laboring more in the market to create wealth, innovation and jobs.

If this gender gap in labor force participation could be whittled down by half, the report calculates that the average OECD country would see a 0.3 percentage point increase in annual GDP per-capita growth. Since the United States' GDP per capita growth averaged just 1.1 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to the World Bank, that extra 0.3 percent is no pittance at all.

So Why Aren't More Women In The Workforce?

You know the answer. Women are busy doing a lot of unpaid work: caring for children and keeping house. For many parents, child care drains so much of a person's salary that it makes more sense for one of them (usually the mom) to duck out of the workforce for a while. In Massachusetts, for example, a report from the nonprofit advocacy group, Child Care Aware of America, calculated that the annual cost of full-time infant care at a center as $15,000.

More:The Real Reason Why Women Still Earn Less Than Men?

The Solution: More Affordable Child Care And Paid Maternity Leave

The OECD report proposes that governments do more to make child care more affordable and also write paid parental leave into law, so that new mothers can't be fired if they want a few weeks off to spend with their newborn.

Right now, the U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn't guarantee new mothers some paid maternity leave. In fact, the U.S., Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the only countries in the world that don't grant new mothers paid maternity leave.

But What About Discrimination?

There's no question that stereotypes and discrimination help keep women oddly absent from halls of power, and their wallets frustratingly lighter. Even holding the same degree, working the same job, for the same hours, a recent female college graduate will earn a few thousand dollars less than her male peer per year, according to a recent report from the American Association for University Women.

With all the frenzied discussion over growth and debt and jobs, "women's issues" are often sidelined, indulged for a few minutes before elections to excite the female vote. But as the OECD report shows, the best way to solve problems of growth and debt and jobs is to recognize that the role of women is the fundamental issue underlying them all.

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