Community Forum: Equality still elusive for women

This week’s writers are Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of Vermont Works for Women, and Linda Tarr-Whelan, a former ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women and chair of the Task Force on Women and the Vermont Economy.
New England census data leave little doubt that future economic growth hinges upon making the most of our homegrown talent. With the region’s population growth only one-third the national average, New England states have seen a 25 percent decrease in the number of young residents ages 25-34.
In anticipation of projected shortages in key fields, states including Vermont have ramped up initiatives to attract out-of-state talent to state colleges or universities, and have offered incentives to graduates who stay. These initiatives are important elements of any economic development strategy, but miss the point on making the most of the young people who are already here.
Vermont would be wise to take a lead from the widely accepted international development strategy that investing in women and girls is a powerful economic growth and stability tool. Gender matters. Although the realities for women and girls in the United States are not as harsh as for those in developing countries, it is fair to say that squandering female talent here comes at great cost. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Quarterly published an article we wrote calling for action.
Here’s why: Nationally, women head just 22 percent of all working families, but they are nearly 40 percent of all low-income working families. And the trajectory is getting worse: Between 2007 and 2012, the share of low-income working families headed by women increased from 54 to 58 percent. Working women are more likely to live in poverty than working men, and the reasons for the gender gap are well-documented:
•  Limited access to programs that help families balance work and family, including paid sick leave;
•  Federal and state minimum wages that have not kept pace with inflation hit women hard since they are two-thirds of all minimum wage workers; and
•  Occupational segregation, which clusters half of all working women in just 5 percent of available jobs, and is combined with a lack of career exposure for young women (highlighted in last year’s “Enough Said” report by Vermont Works for Women).
Smart economic development strategies require new and deliberate action to tap the full potential of women and girls. Our policy leaders need to assert without hesitation or apology that gender matters. Specific work needs to be done to achieve meaningful gender-disaggregated data to provide an accurate picture of how many women are in and/or preparing for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. Other avenues for improvement include specifically identifying how taxpayer economic development projects will create jobs that benefit both men and women, and assuring that women-owned businesses benefit from state procurement contracts and access to capital.
Paying attention to gender is smart business to expand economic growth. Among champions of gender inclusion are world leaders and pacesetters: the Bill and Melinda Gates and Nike foundations, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. All have led the way in research and programs centered around the strong data that women must play a critical role in fueling economic development. Now we must do the same in Vermont.

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