May 5, 2017

Group hopes reports spur women to leadership roles

At the Vermont State House on April 4, in conjunction with Equal Pay Day, a group called Change The Story Vermont released its fourth and final status report, “Vermont Women in Leadership.”

The four reports — “Women, Work and Wages in Vermont,” “Where Vermont Women Work … and Why it Matters,” “Women’s Business Ownership and the Vermont Economy” (all from 2016), and this year’s report — are multifaceted tools in recognizing women’s economic status.

Of the four, “Vermont Women in Leadership” is the most important, according to Tiffany Bluemle, director at Change the Story. The report provides an aspirational feature to young girls and women that sheds light on the socioeconomic index or gender parity in leadership positions within the state.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Cary Brown, executive director at Vermont Commission on Women. “Girls and women are less likely to think leadership positions are available to them without hands-on experience. If young girls and women recognize and/or see women in leadership positions they are more likely to participate in this path of leadership as well. In turn, in time these changes will effect the entire Vermont economy for future economic growth.”

The report suggests Vermont leads the nation in some areas of women holding leadership positions in the Legislature, while falling behind in others.

Women make up 39.4 percent of those serving in Vermont’s General Assembly, 60 percent of the state’s Supreme Court justices, 43 percent of executive cabinet members and 50 percent of its public university and college presidents, according to the report.

“If there weren’t significant differences between men and women in leadership roles, we wouldn’t need to spell it out. However, there are,” Bluemle said. “Prior to the reports, it was really difficult to find data that (were) specific to women’s economic status here in Vermont. Our mission is to fast-track women’s economic opportunity — to further our focal points, our points of leverage to make a significant difference for women and for girls. These reports paints the picture in a broader context of what constitutes economic efficiency and sustainability for our economy. In our research we are presenting that gender diversity makes a difference in the workforce. There are a lot of people who are surprised by our data.”

Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella Resource Solutions in Rutland, said he has made changes to his business model to better support female employees after seeing the reports.

“No company, no community can afford to discount or dismiss any group of people — it would be self-defeating to say we’re going to dismiss the talents and abilities of any group. Gender is a very powerful filter, consciously we need to make sure in any business or organization that we are thinking about what we are doing,” said Fusco. “… After speaking with Tiffany Bluemle and after examining the reports I went on a personal exploration. We need to solve these complex problems together, with as many brains, insights, and perspectives as possible; pay gaps, pay inequality, these are issues that need to be looked at. Unlocking human potential whether in a business, organization or within our communities here in Vermont — that’s what would set us aside, being known for our potential – that’s what makes a place economically competitive.”

Vermont and Mississippi are the only two states that have never sent a woman to Congress. While women’s participation in Vermont’s General Assembly is the second highest in the country, the pace of change has reached a plateau since 1993. In 24 years, women’s share of legislative seats has increased by four percentage points, according to the report.

“Additionally, the national political climate has cast a new light on gender and has opened people’s eyes that we are not finished with this work on equality within the workforce,” Bluemle said. “We will further our progress and finish this work when it’s recognized that it does in fact affect all. We need new attention to persistent issues. We can address the issues if we’re deliberate about it.”

In addition to leadership roles within government, the report highlights protective services, corporations, hospitals, education and nonprofit sectors relative to men holding leadership positions.

“Before you can change the story, you have to tell the story by describing it in purely economic terms on where women stand in Vermont,” said Meg Smith, director at Vermont Women’s Fund.

“Looking at Vermont through a gender lens is critical to understanding the Vermont economy in making improvements,” she said. “Things are changing within our culture, we need to raise our standards if we want to raise a happy and healthy workforce that includes more women and look at it through economic diversity.”

The summarization of all four reports is: “We believe that the stability of Vermont’s economic potential resides in that women are an underdeveloped resource; developing a sound economic policy will benefit the economic growth of Vermont,” said Amy Caldwell, director of community relations at Vermont Works for Women.

Change The Story is sustained by three organizations: Vermont Commission on Women, Vermont Women’s Fund, and Vermont Works for Women.

The organizations are all at the same roundtable tackling gender issues within the workforce with the same main goal in mind — trying to place more women in leadership positions that are sustainable to both their economic growth as well as the state’s.

“We hold a powerful campaign; it’s a collaboration of three strong entities as we encapsulate it through philanthropy, policy, program leverage, and social resources to drive social change,” Smith said.

Read the four reports at changethestoryvt.org/reports.

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