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Window on Wake Forest
Jill Tiefenthaler

The Differences Made by Women and Girls

Thanks so much to the Women's Fund leadership — Allison, Jane, Michele, Tari — for this invitation. What an honor it is to stand in front of this group of amazing women. Over my life, I have learned about the awesome power of a group of strong women. I have witnessed collectives of strong women — united with a common mission and a job to do — moving fast and accomplishing great things.

I grew up on a farm in Iowa where my mother and grandmother and the other farm wives in our community could do amazing things when they united — raising money for whatever the need — new park equipment, our little school, renovating our church — by organizing a pancake breakfast or a spaghetti supper, having a bake sale, hosting Sunday night bingo and even putting on a full-blown dinner theatre.

It wasn't glamorous and they didn't receive accolades. They just did what needed to be done.

I then attended a small Catholic women's college that was founded and run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Talk about a formidable group of women. Those nuns ran a very effective institution for educating women and have protected it, to this day, from losing its identity.

In my adult life, I have watched countless groups made up of predominantly women volunteers pursue their aims to better their communities. These were mothers improving their children's schools, graduate students counseling victims of domestic violence, college students helping low-income single mothers get tax credit for their families, and senior citizens quilting to raise money for breast cancer.

Four years ago, one very special small group of women came together to start The Women's Fund of Winston- Salem, and ever since then they've changed the lives of many women and girls in Forsyth County. Last year alone, they — you — raised money to help homeless women overcome barriers to housing and self-sufficiency, provide hands-on science education to fifth-grade girls in economically disadvantaged schools, train guardian ad litem volunteers to represent the interests of children in domestic violence cases, provide services and resources to Latina teen mothers to encourage them to stay in school, and provide an arts-based education and mentoring program to empower girls to develop positive solutions to their problems and challenges.

When we think of how many lives have been touched, how many imaginations have been ignited, how much potential has been tapped, it's simply astounding.

And because I know what a group of determined, resourced, and committed women can accomplish, I want to do my part to make sure this particular opportunity is not diminished. I know that if we, collectively, decide to focus on economic empowerment for women and girls in Forsyth County, we can continue to make a genuine difference in this community.

But why should we focus on this project and not another? Because one thing we know for certain is that putting resources into the hands of women — who continue to face economic disadvantage — is a proven way to advance the education and health of our children, the strength of our families, and the future of our planet. And it starts one community at a time.

Here's what we know about the economic status of women in our country today:

Right now, women are almost 50 percent of the labor market, and we may become the majority at any moment. Listen carefully, it may be happening even as we speak. But on average, women are paid less and work more part-time jobs — and they are disproportionately affected by many issues such as poverty, family responsibilities, lack of health care, and violence.

As the Center for American Progress reports, discrimination is still alive in the workplace. Women are paid less than men, even when they have the same qualifications and work the same hours. Women who work full time earn only 77 percent of what men make. Women are also segregated into low paying occupations — and occupations dominated by women are low paid. "Pink-collar" jobs such as teaching, child care, nursing, cleaning, and waitressing — some of the most important jobs in caring for people in our communities — typically pay less than jobs in industries that are male-dominated. In 2007, nearly half — 43 percent — of the almost 30 million employed women in the United States were clustered in just 20 occupational categories, of which the average annual median earnings were just over $27,000.

And, as a result, women in America are more likely to be poor than men. In fact, the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in the United States than anywhere else in the Western world.

Most adults in poverty are women; 59 percent of adults in poverty are women. Single mothers face very high levels of poverty. Nearly 30 percent of these 13 million families are impoverished, as are their children. Black and Latina women also face particularly high rates of poverty. Over a quarter of all black women and nearly a quarter of Latina women are poor.

Poverty rates also increase for women during their childbearing years and again in old age. The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24 — about 21 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14 percent of men. It's easy to see why. The economic costs associated with pregnancy are more significant for women than for men. Unplanned and mistimed pregnancies in particular can result in the end of an education and keep women from obtaining and sustaining solid employment.

Then, when children are born, women are more likely to make sacrifices to raise them, especially when parents are not living together. Eight in ten custodial parents are women, and custodial mothers are twice as likely to be poor as custodial fathers.

Because women are more likely than men to care for children and elderly or disabled family members, women are more likely to work part time or take time out of the workforce to care for family. Most of us know firsthand how challenging this can be. Twenty-three percent of mothers are out of the workforce compared to just 1 percent of fathers.

There's no respite in old age either. Thirteen percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.

Finally, there's the issue of domestic and sexual violence, which has tremendous negative economic costs for victims and society. I have worked on the economic consequences of domestic violence for over a decade and know that violence against women is a major obstacle to women's economic empowerment. Women who are victims of violence are prevented from improving their economic power through education and job training, are more likely to lose jobs, and earn lower wages.

Given all these factors, it's almost shocking when you realize that currently less than 7 percent of philanthropic dollars are directed to programs that specifically support women and girls.

Considering these facts, are there assets we can leverage?

While women continue to face a steep uphill climb, we also know that women do have growing economic power — and they use it wisely.

Globally, women earn about $13 trillion annually and the Boston Consulting Group estimates that number will increase by $5 trillion to $18 trillion in the next five years. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than expected growth in China and India combined — more than twice as big, according to the Group.

According to surveys in a recent Time Magazine that focused on "the power of the purse" in the U.S., 65 percent of women reported being their family's chief financial planner, and 71 percent called themselves the family accountant. Women now make 75 percent of the buying decisions in American homes. "Together, women control more wealth than ever in history."

How will this growth in women's income, fueled by gains in education, impact families and the marketplace? A number of studies show that a woman's decision-making power over spending increases as her share of household earnings increases. So, as women's incomes continue to grow, so will their influence in how families allocate spending. And the research also indicates that what women purchase is different than what is purchased by households where women have less economic influence. Women are more likely to buy for the household and to buy for the children including food, healthcare, education and clothing.

Families benefit when income increases, regardless of the source. However, the benefits are greater when women earn. Children, especially girls, start school sooner; access to and quality of healthcare increases, and families save more.

A look at how women are handling small microfinance loans in the developing world also shows us how helping women helps everyone. According to the Asia Society, a nonprofit educational institution, microfinance loans serve almost 20 million people living in poverty worldwide, with 74 percent of these clients being women. (By the way, women also have a higher rate of repaying loans than men.)

The combination of microfinance and women is so potent because "women are ambitious, for themselves and for their families. As they lift themselves out of poverty, they carry their families to a better life. Once they get a leg up, women are more likely to spend their earnings on medical care and education for their children. The Society's message is worth repeating here:

"Women who provide for themselves and their families are empowered. They have more choices and influence in bargaining. They have a greater sense of self-worth and increased confidence in their abilities. Women who succeed economically also believe in their right to make decisions about their own lives."

"As women participate in the economy, they also become more involved socially and politically. Within their communities they may advocate for changes that will better their own lives and those of other girls and women. Even the power of example is important. More families will pay for their girls to attend school if they see women putting their education to use."

"Organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and others see education as the key to more opportunities for girls and women across the board. Educated girls tend to delay marriage and motherhood. They are also more likely to seek medical care for themselves and their children. They are more apt to encourage their own children to stay in school longer."

In their recent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, authors and New York Times writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn make a strong case that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. They report that when women have assets or an income, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing. Consequently children are healthier.

So, how can we improve women's economic situations and thereby transform our communities?

Government programs can help to a certain extent, especially during these difficult times with the unemployment rate in October rising to its highest mark in 26 years. A total of 15.7 million people are out of work across the country, and it's still too soon to judge the impact of the administration's $787 billion stimulus package. Certainly, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which has been called "one of the largest anti-poverty tools in the United States", is a good example of how the government can help low-income workers, and it is specifically targeted and advantageous to single mothers who have very high poverty rates as I mentioned earlier.

President Obama appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls last spring with a major goal of improving women's economic security by ensuring that each government agency is working to improve the economic status of women and finding new ways to prevent violence against women.

But we can't rely only on improvements in these programs at the federal or state levels during these very difficult budget times. We need to garner the clout of women in this community to empower other women and girls to make our community a better place. For example, we need to recognize the power of diversity in our community; by engaging women and girls of all races, socio-economic backgrounds, talents, and beliefs, we truly make our community — and one another — stronger.

We have many role models to look to — so many women who just did what they thought needed to be done and in the process improved their communities!

Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai who mobilized women in East Africa to plant more than 20 million trees; Wendy Kopp whose senior thesis at Princeton on eliminating educational inequality birthed Teach for America; and Jeroo Billimoria who founded Childline, which has fielded more than three million calls for assistance from street children in India's largest cities.

But we don't need to look so far, we can all point to strong women making a difference right here in our own communities. At Wake Forest, I look around my university community and am inspired by the work that is happening.

Professor of English Anne Boyle founded an after-school book club where students from Wake Forest and Northwest Middle School convene in small groups to read, discuss, journal, and write poetry. The results from Anne's program — increasing numbers of interested middle school students, rising test scores, and an incredible experience for Wake Forest undergraduates — have inspired others to start similar programs in area schools.

Professor of Anthropology Jeanne Simonelli spends most of her summers in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, helping low-wealth women establish collective businesses to sell their wares.

Over a decade ago, Professor of Law Suzanne Reynolds founded the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center, overseeing law students who volunteer to work with lawyers to represent indigent victims. Over the years, the Center has served hundreds of clients allowing them to face their batterers on an equal playing field. Last year, Suzanne started another program. Working with lawyers at the Children's Law Center, law students serve as guardians ad litem in custody cases where domestic violence is an issue.

Professor of Education Leah McCoy and Chemistry professor Angela King were worried about the shortage of qualified math and science teachers for high-need schools. They decided to make a difference and with financial backing from NSF will begin to make a dent in that shortage by training teachers for these schools.

I am proud of our recent announcement at Wake Forest that the new Institute for Public Engagement will provide better support to these important initiatives and also nurture other new ones. These examples of strong female leadership — their experience and accomplishments — show us the path. But do you know what really gives me hope? This generation of today — young women like Velvet Bryant who honored me with that lovely introduction. Last year, Velvet interned at The Experiment in Self Reliance, Inc. (ESR), right here in Winston-Salem, through Wake Forest's non-profit summer internship program. Velvet's experience in writing a grant to the Women's Fund for an ESR program to help impoverished women increase their financial literacy (which was funded) has inspired her to pursue a master's degree in public affairs with a goal of making a difference in the non-profit sector. These millennials, the generation born between 1978 and 2000, are our future and from my vantage point the future is very bright.

Numerous reports indicate that millennials are the most civic-minded cohort since the generation of the 1930s and 1940s. And certainly this spirit of volunteerism is aided by powerful social networking tools such as Facebook.

"Community service is part of their DNA," says Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year, which places young mentors in urban schools. "It's part of this generation to care about something larger than themselves. It's no longer keeping up with the Joneses. It's helping the Joneses."

According to data from the Center for American Progress, Millennials take race and gender equality as givens, are tolerant of religious and family diversity, have open attitudes about immigration, support gay marriage and show less interest in fighting over divisive social issues of the past. This has important implications for all of us as the Millennials have greater influence in our society. In only 10 years, when this entire generation will have reached the voting age — they will be 103 million strong, with just under 40% of America's eligible voters.

My experience has shown that college students today — the majority (57%) are now women - learn to do as well as think. They do things differently and care about making an impact. They are social entrepreneurs! They don't stop when they encounter barriers, but work around them, using new methods and technology, to achieve their goals.

In conclusion

To sum up my message today, there is much work to do and we are the women who will make a difference in our community. I challenge all of you to recognize the collective power in this room, celebrate all that we are doing and think about what more we can do for our community together. Like those Iowa farm women, let's just do what needs to get done!

Being members of The Women's Fund is a great beginning. If you don't belong to a group, I urge you to reach out to two or five or 10 of your best friends and create one. If you already belong to one, form another! By giving our dollars to an organization that specifically supports women and girls, we are targeting our investments to a group that not only has great need but will also produce a big bang for your buck. Women and girls continue to face economic disadvantage yet we know that their economic empowerment results in big gains for families and communities.

But we need more than your money! To empower women and girls, we also need your time and your talents. Be a leader, a mentor or take other roles to support various groups that are doing good work by giving your insights, ideas and time. Become more familiar with the way the Millennials see and approach the world — be supportive of their idealism and find ways to encourage and celebrate their good work.

Finally, use your influence on boards and in schools, the voting booth, and the community. You may be surprised at how much you can do on behalf of women and girls right here in Forsyth County. It is up to us to convince others to join in making this critical investment in our future.

Your money, time, talents, and influence will make a difference.

I want to leave you with some words from Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women and a self-described "social venture capitalist."

"People are realizing [that] women and girls are not just simply victims, but are really standing up ... to stand by us, the rest of the world, to make change... I just have stopped using that term, 'women's issues.' I really don't know what that is. What issues should 51 percent of the world check out on? Do we not care about peace and security? Do we not care about health and education? I think what we are talking about is the right of every human being, including the 51 percent that hasn't had much voice for the past millennia, to be at the table to make decisions about the changes that we want to see in the world... Women are not just waiting to be filled up with resources — they're ready to put their resources on the table to be able to lead towards a different world."

Thank you for this great opportunity to be with you today. I look forward to the differences we will make together.

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