Group urges change to aid young women in workforce

NEW HAVEN — Women have made some strides during the past 50 years in matching their male counterparts’ pay and advancement in the workplace.
But a statewide advocacy organization is maintaining that Vermont women’s quest for economic independence and job opportunities is an ongoing saga, and it’s time to change the story.
“Change the Story” is actually the title of Vermont Works for Women’s latest project aimed at getting young women off to a better start securing jobs that will offer them and their families a livable wage. That project comes on the heels of “Enough Said,” a report the VWW published last year that painted a fairly dismal picture of how young women feel about their economic futures.
Vermont Works for Womenwas founded in 1987 as Northern New England Tradeswomen “to help women enter, advance and remain in the skilled trades,” according to the organization’s website. The organization in its present form offers an array of innovative training and education programs to help women and girls consider their potential and develop skills to further their long-term economic independence.
The VWW has prided itself through the years in helping women and girls pursue both traditional and nontraditional careers that pay a livable wage.
Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of the VWW, was the primary author of the “Enough Said” report that VWW presented to the Legislature last December. That report sprang from a series of statewide “listening sessions” that VWW officials had conducted with young women ages 15 to 25, a demographic for which the group was seeking to establish some programming thanks to a grant from the Vermont Women’s Fund.
Listening session participants were asked a number of questions about how they made choices; what kind of issues they had encountered at school and/or work; and their professional hopes and expectations.
“I got all this data back, and we were preparing for (VWW’s) 25th anniversary, and I was really depressed by what I read,” Bluemle recalled. “From the sound of it, we hadn’t moved the needle very much (in helping women).”
Among other things, the young women reported having few allies and role models, limited exposure to career options, lack of personal finance skills, and ongoing peer aggression.
Bluemle and her VWW colleagues discussed what could be done with the information gleaned from the listening sessions.
“Certainly, we believed (the information) could inform our programming, but was there value in sharing it with a broader audience, and if so, what did we need to do to put the information in more context?” Bluemle said.
VWW officials wanted to make sure the data they obtained wasn’t an aberration, so they compared it to national research covering the same age group and gender. The findings rang true. Bluemle and her colleagues pursued the report, including recommendations on how to address some of the problems they uncovered.
“I thought we were done,” Bluemle said with a chuckle. “I thought we would just issue the report, try to get people to read it, and then we would go on to do our program.”
But it wouldn’t end at that.
“Somebody said, ‘You know, you have to form a task force,’” Bluemle recalled of the call for further study and action.
That “somebody” was Linda Tarr-Wheelan, who chaired the task force, who believed strongly the findings in the “Enough Said” report should gain exposure to a wider audience, including people in positions to do something about the problems that young Vermont women are encountering. In this manner, Tarr-Wheelan hoped to secure commitments from some of these people — the heads of nonprofits, businesses and state agencies — to commit to actions that might help young women become more economically independent.
“That seemed logical — we need more allies,” Bluemle said. “There aren’t many organizations that are working on these issues. We can’t do it alone.”
So the VWW and its task force began reaching out to fellow stakeholders. Employers are being encouraged not to just leave the door open in hopes that female prospects would walk in, but to actively recruit women. Schools are being urged to provide financial literacy programming into their curricula — and Bluemle credited Vergennes Union High School for being a leader on that score.
“We have got to make use of every drop of talent in this state,” Bluemle said, echoing sentiments offered by Gov. Peter Shumlin in reaction to the report. “If we are not making full use of any segment of the population, we’re never going to be as strong as we could be. We are missing out on a lot of engineers, lots of doctors, lots of scientists and software designers.”
The VWW task force recommended a series of steps to help young women. They included:
• Providing personal finance training for women, both at school and through the workplace.
• Asking adults to address peer aggression when it arises, and not dismiss it as a “rite of passage.”
• Depending on adults to model and promote the kind of relationships they want for young women in the schools, workplaces and the communities.
• Asking employers to partner with schools and nonprofits to expose middle and high school students to career opportunities.
• Relying on businesses to more actively recruit women, and mentoring these new hires to nurture their success and longevity.
The VWW also followed up with a “Change the Story” project, coordinated by Lucy Comstock-Gay of New Haven. That story lists 15 things people throughout society can do to help young women play their full role in Vermont’s economic success. Those recommendations include:
• Teaching things we all need to know — how to balance a checkbook, what to consider before getting a credit card, and how to create a personal budget.
• Inviting a girl to help change a tire, fix a leaking pipe, or update a program on your computer.
• Encouraging young women to apply for jobs for which you think they’re qualified but they’re likely to dismiss as “beyond their experience.”
• Finding other ways to give compliments that focus on attributes related to character and personal strength, rather than someone’s “good hair day” or “great outfit.”
• Giving young women meaningful opportunities to lead, and gain a voice in decision-making by inviting them to serve on advisory committees and boards of directors.
• Offering direct practical support to a young woman interviewing for jobs, by purchasing her work attire or tools for the job, offering to conduct a mock interview, reviewing a résumé and cover letter, or babysitting while she attends an interview.
• Letting your workplace colleagues know that downplaying a young woman’s role within the company is disrespectful and unacceptable.
Comstock-Gay is hopeful that Vermonters will indeed work together to change the story for young Vermont women, something she noted is in the best interest of the entire state.
“One of the things that the writing of the report and creation of the task force really reinforced for us, as an organization, was this notion that opening the door for women is not just a social justice issue; it’s not just fair and right for women; it’s essential for the health and strength of our economy, so we all benefit,” Comstock-Gay said. “We all benefit from the power of all of our citizens.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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