High school senior Annalee Beaulieu told quite a story to Gov. Peter Shumlin and a roomful of policy makers, business leaders, activists and young women Tuesday morning at the Statehouse.
“One of the problems I see in our society today is that there is a prevailing notion among many that equality between men and women has been reached,” Beaulieu said.
“Well, it’s far from over,” Beaulieu declared. “And it won’t be over until every little girl is told she has leadership skills, not that she’s bossy or mean.”
Beaulieu’s audience alternately chuckled, grew silent and cheered the young woman from Jericho. Hers was just the story they had come to hear.
The Task Force on Young Women and the Vermont Economy held a news conference Tuesday morning to announce the culmination of six months of work, thought and discussion. The initiative was prompted by a May 2013 report called Enough Said, by the group Vermont Works for Women, which found that young women in Vermont do not feel they are well enough informed or supported “to shoulder the financial responsibilities of adulthood.”
A 29-member task force studded with heavy-hitting names from Vermont’s business, policy and nonprofit communities responded. They issued nine unanimous recommendations for ways Vermont institutions and individuals can help improve financial literacy, promote supportive relationships for girls and expand young women’s exposure to careers and role models.
Ten businesses and organizations — including the state colleges, the Agency of Education and the state Treasurer’s office — also have committed to action steps ranging from curriculum development to financial programs to a reading series.
Instead of accepting a familiar story of Vermont girls who ultimately default into traditional gender roles, speakers said they want to create a new paradigm for young women. It will be one of deliberate and informed choices about the parts girls can grow up to play in Vermont’s society — particularly in the state’s economy.
Vermont’s economic future is bright, Shumlin said, “but only if everybody has equality and high-paying jobs. … And that means that we have to get rid of the current disparity between wages for women and wages for men.”
Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of Vermont Works for Women, said there’s no question that women have made enormous strides over the past 50 years. And there’s no question that boys need attention and help, too, she added.
“The question is whether we are doing our level best to nurture and develop the very best in our young people so that they can succeed at work and in our communities and make their full contribution to Vermont’s future,” Bluemle said. “The answer to that question is, ‘No.’”
Bluemle suggested a cultural shift is required to change the stories her organization heard from young women aged 15 to 25 in the listening sessions and written surveys that informed the group’s May report.
The task force recommendations are just a start, Bluemle said. And most of them are cheap, she pointed out to Shumlin, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
They start with financial literacy. Despite Vermont’s high graduation rate, the state received only a “D” grade for efforts to work financial literacy into high school curricula, according to a report this year from Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy.
Mike Smith, who served as Secretary of Administration and Human Services under Gov. Jim Douglas, said that experience had shown him that lack of financial literacy and responsibility was one of the primary drivers leading to incarceration among women. Inversely, financial skills are an essential contributor to success.
Recommended actions to help improve young women’s odds are:
- Incorporate financial literacy as a core competency in state schools from kindergarten through 12th grade within five years.
- Encourage out-of-school finance and investment training from businesses, financial institutions and nonprofits.
Support from adults and peers — or rather, lack thereof — also surfaced as a major theme among young women.
Johnson State College President Barbara Murphy said that reports of “peer aggression” among girls — essentially, girl-on-girl bullying — came as a shock to her because the notion seemed so outdated. It was only the rampant rate of peer aggression girls had reported that convinced her the problem persisted, she said.
“I realized I had bought into (the myth) that eighth-grade girls are just mean,” Murphy said in an interview after the press conference. As she contemplated the consequence of peer aggression, especially for girls who aren’t supported at home, Murphy said, she pieced together the ultimate economic impact of isolation.
To help change that trend, the task force recommended:
- Discourage adults from dismissing peer aggression as a “rite of passage.”
- Promote adults modeling more supportive relationships for the young people in their lives.
- Get education leaders to initiate a “statewide conversation” about the problem and how to stem it.
- Train school personnel to recognize and effectively address peer aggression.
One of the symptoms of unsupportive environments may be that women are losing ground in some of the science, technology and math fields where girls previously had been making up ground.
Many employers have told the governor they are having a hard time filling skilled positions, Shumlin said.
Bluemle said girls “need to be able to see themselves somehow” in technical or leadership roles. To that end, the task force recommended:
- Employers partner with schools and nonprofits to expose all middle and high school students to careers in STEM-related fields.
- Companies deliberately recruit young women for positions in which females are underrepresented.
- Businesses commit to mentoring women into leadership positions in their fields.
All of these suggestions are harder to implement for young girls living in poverty, organizers acknowledged. They said they’re committed to working across class lines to improve opportunities for women around the state, and that many organizations involved already include economically challenged demographics in their missions.
Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, said more room for conversation and understanding involves women of color in Vermont — a state whose population is more than 95 percent white.
“Race and ethnicity is often an afterthought,” Bluemle concurred, and to change the story for all girls will involve deliberation and respect.
Linda Tarr-Whelan, who chaired the task force, said that as girls’ stories progress in Vermont, so will the stories of boys, men and families.
“It’s always about choice,” Tarr-Whelan said, whether it be a choice career or a choice between work and family.
“I wish everybody could have everything, but it’s not women’s jobs to have everything,” she said. “It’s women and men having the opportunity to be with family as well as on-the-job.”
In her speech, Beaulieu said she hopes the recommendations help Vermont girls gain access to self-expression with both freedom and direction. And she kept the conversation grounded in the reality of what’s helpful to young women today.
“We need comprehensive information from companies, teachers and legislators on what we can do with our lives,” she said. “Not a blanket, ‘Anything you want to.’”