This article by John Lippman was first published in the Valley News on Oct. 2.
RANDOLPH — When it comes to women struggling to reach economic parity with men in society, the country’s top financial steward said she learned early in her career about the struggles women small business owners such as those in Vermont face in balancing work and family. That helped to shape her own views as an internationally renowned economist.
“These issues are a special focus to me because I’ve lived a few of them,” Janet Yellen, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and former chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, told a full auditorium of women from across the state at Vermont Technical College in Randolph on Saturday.
Yellen’s career began “almost exactly 41 years ago (when) I was getting ready to re-enter the workforce after the birth of my son.”
Yellen, retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, his wife, Marcelle Leahy, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch attended the opening of the 25th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference, an all-day event of workshops and networking to support women entrepreneurs and provide resources and ideas to grow their businesses.
The annual forum — the first in-person gathering since 2019 after occurring remotely for the past two years because of the pandemic — has been a personal priority of the Leahys since 1997.
Leahy walked with a cane after spending a month in the hospital this past summer because of a fall and but declared he expected to be “cross country skiing by Christmastime.”
He noted in introducing Yellen that women earn 73.8% of what men earn nationally, although in Vermont it is 89%, making its wage gap “the smallest in the nation.”
“Let’s keep fighting until there is no gap,” the senator said to applause.
The concerns of an academic scholar who became the first woman to hold the two top government jobs influencing the economy may seem distant from the challenges experienced by women small business owners in Vermont, but Yellen drew a link between the two.
Yellen said she was immensely fortunate because both she and her husband, rising academics at Berkeley at the time, earned good incomes,
“Still, we found balancing two careers with parenting challenging, and we needed some child care,” she said.
So Yellen said she placed a classified ad in the local newspaper seeking help.
“We paid even more than the market rate to make sure that we could get the right person for what we considered a very important job. But as all of us know, that’s a luxury most people across this country do not have,” Yellen said, describing it as part of “broader childcare system that does not work for anyone — for the kids, for the families or for the caregivers themselves.”
“That became completely clear to me and my husband, and it’s clear for so many parents and families,” she said.
Yellen said expanding economic opportunities for women is “not just the right thing to do, it’s good economics” and said that increasing the women’s workforce participation rate — which doubled during the second half of the 20th century but has stagnated since 2000 — to a level equal with men would add 5% to the country’s GDP.
“Within a generation, we have lost one of our major drivers creating inclusive economic growth,” Yellen noted.
And that was before the pandemic disproportionately affected the families of non-college educated women who had to opt out of the workforce to stay home and care for their kids.
This is why “government interventions like subsidized childcare can be effective in reducing the pressures on women in ensuring equal pay for equal work” because such a policy would “boost the economy and reduce poverty for single-parent families,” Yellen said.
On a crisp fall morning set amidst trees gaining autumnal hues on the VTC campus, the WEOC attracts women who own and run small businesses as well as those curious of launching their own business and looking for wisdom from others who have already tread that path.
Workshops ranged from “How to be a Certified Woman-Owned Business and Selling to the Federal Government” to “Non-traditional STEM Careers for Women” and “BiPOC Professionals and Business Owners Listening Session.”
Although the state does not generate any statistics on the number of businesses owned by women in Vermont, Meg Smith, director of the Vermont Woman’s Fund, said her organization, using census data, estimated about 23,000, or 28%, of the state’s 81,000 business licenses issued by the Secretary of State’s office are registered to women.
The biggest challenge facing women in Vermont who want to start their own business is access to capital, according to Smith, who said of 2,500 women business owners her group surveyed, only 10% “got a loan from a bank or a credit union” while 44% said they “built their businesses slowly over time with loans from personal savings or loans from family and friends.”
“If half those women had been able to access capital, think of how much faster they would have grown their business,” Smith said.
Want to stay on top of the latest business news? Sign up here to get a weekly email on all of VTDigger's reporting on local companies and economic trends. And check out our new Business section here.