Building prosperity, one girl at a time

Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of Vermont Works for Women, reluctantly took center stage Tuesday morning. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of Vermont Works for Women, reluctantly took center stage Tuesday morning. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

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.”

Click here to listen to Beaulieu’s speech.

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.”

Annalee Beaulieu, an honors student and senior at Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, says she was "raised on a steady diet of feminism and maple syrup." Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Annalee Beaulieu, an honors student and senior at Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, says she was “raised on a steady diet of feminism and maple syrup.” Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

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.

Participants of all ages were asked to write down one commitment they'll make to "changing the story" for young women in Vermont. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

Participants of all ages were asked to write down one commitment they’ll make to “changing the story” for young women in Vermont. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger.

The recommendations

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:

  1. Incorporate financial literacy as a core competency in state schools from kindergarten through 12th grade within five years.
  2. 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:

  1. Discourage adults from dismissing peer aggression as a “rite of passage.”
  2. Promote adults modeling more supportive relationships for the young people in their lives.
  3. Get education leaders to initiate a “statewide conversation” about the problem and how to stem it.
  4. 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:

  1. Employers partner with schools and nonprofits to expose all middle and high school students to careers in STEM-related fields.
  2. Companies deliberately recruit young women for positions in which females are underrepresented.
  3. 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.'”

Hilary Niles

Comments

  1. I think this is a very worthwhile effort. I would also like to see similar efforts for boys. If you look at the Department of Labor statistics you will find that women are dominating in almost every professional field. On the other hand, many boys and men seem to have lost their path. This is especially true in certain academic settings. I think it is time to pay as much attention to our boys as we do to our girls.

    • Paul Kingsley :

      @Sheila: “If you look at the Department of Labor statistics you will find that women are dominating in almost every professional field.” Please put up a link that supports this claim, I am honestly skeptical.

      • More women than men achieve bachelor’s degrees: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/pdf/women_workforce_slides.pdf.

        For a somewhat inflammatory discussion about “the end of men,” see this landmark article by Hanna Rosin: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/.

        I have checked the most recent numbers and the trend continues.

        For a more balanced discussion, try this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/business/economy/as-men-lose-economic-ground-clues-in-the-family.html

        For the raw numbers, see http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.pdf. Note a very telling statistic: Women occupy 51.5% of managerial and professional positions.

        I believe that sexism has come full circle. Our boys need help.

        • Paul Kingsley :

          “In 2008, women comprised 46.5 percent of the U.S. labor force, and occupied nearly 51 percent of all managerial and professional jobs, yet women holding the titles of chairman, chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO), and executive vice-president (EVP) remained at about seven percent of the population of U.S. executives, according to the non-profit research group, Catalyst. Although women’s representation in lower and middle management positions has improved, the same cannot be said for upper manage- ment. Women have made few strides in breaking through the glass ceiling (the term popularized in the 1980s for invisible barriers that exist for women and other minorities that limit their upward mobility in organizations) when it comes to senior leadership positions.”
          http://www.uky.edu/Centers/iwin/RTOCT12/HooblerWomeninManagement.pdf

          • Yes, Paul, I’m aware of that. The glass ceiling still exists at the upper echelons and that is a problem with numerous facets. But we ignore the difficulties our boys and young men are facing at their (and our) peril.

            How many times have you attended an event that celebrated the fact that boys are great? that boys are capable? that boys can do anything they set their minds to? We need balance.

        • Paul Kingsley :

          But look at what women are earning compared to men, significantly less, see Table 4 for managerial and professional breakdown. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf

          • I agree that women continue to need to work on getting equal pay for equal work. Inequalities by gender exist throughout the work world, some hurting one gender, some the other.

            My point is that while we have been focusing on girls and their self esteem, boys have been fading into the background. In the generation that is growing up right now, we are doing more for the girls in activities such as the one in the article, continuing what I think is now the fiction that girls have it rougher than boys. They don’t. Our boys need equal amounts of the same kind of attention. The pendulum has swung. Let’s be careful that it doesn’t swing too far.

  2. rosemarie jackowski :

    A couple of ideas here seem a bit off to me. The sexist approach and also it seems to encourage more self-absorption of young women.
    It reminds me of a protest in town a while back. Young college women were at the 4 corners with signs. Naturally, I had to see what it was all about. The signs said: “Tell me I’m pretty”. —-Not end war, poverty, racism, injustice….

    That and a few other things inspired this article.
    http://www.countercurrents.org/jackowski130313.htm

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