September 23, 2017

Guest Column: Vermont women still catching up

By Stephanie Yu

We’re number one. That’s what a recent survey of the best states for working mothers concluded. That’s good news. Vermont ranks high in the three areas the survey rated: child care, work-life balance and professional opportunities.

But being the best in the country says as much about the rest of the country as it does about Vermont, which has some real challenges that disproportionately affect women.

Change the Story Vermont released a series of reports over the last year and a half on the state of women in Vermont, covering work and wages, where women work, business ownership and leadership.

These reports show that in many ways Vermont women are stuck — stuck in the same professions as 40 years ago; stuck with higher rates of poverty, both for single mothers with young children and for the elderly; stuck with wages persistently below men’s; stuck with limited opportunities for leadership and lower rates of business ownership.

While Vermont’s legislature is nearly 40 percent women, that number has barely budged in 24 years. Though Vermont’s wage gap is one of the smallest in the country, women still make 84 cents for every dollar a man makes. Female high school students are just as likely to take advanced placement courses as male, but then they don’t major in the sciences in college or enter those professions in large numbers.

And then, of course, there’s this: Single mothers with young children have a poverty rate more than four times the statewide rate and they earn almost $20,000 less per year than single fathers with young children. But the truth is, single parents struggle regardless of gender: More than two-thirds can’t meet basic needs for themselves and their children.

What can Vermont do for these families? Raising the minimum wage would help. Ensuring paid family and medical leave so that women, who are much more likely to be caregivers, don’t have to choose between their jobs and their other responsibilities would help. Investing in quality, affordable child care so that everyone has access to it would help. Investing in educational opportunities so that higher education is accessible would help.

And how about changing the conversation so that these are treated as necessities, critical to a healthy, vibrant society and not just “women’s issues?” Maybe then we wouldn’t need the working mothers survey at all – or maybe the survey could be about ranking states based on how well they work for everyone, women included.

Stephanie Yu is a policy analyst at Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier-based non-profit public policy advocacy group.

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