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Status of Women report can guide nonprofits serving at-risk women, families

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By Jill Warren Lucas

A report commissioned by the N.C. Council for Women on the status of women, and finalized in time for the March observance of National Women’s History Month, paints a mixed portrait of the access North Carolina women have to basic healthcare, workforce training and child care.

However, data from target communities across the state can serve as a guide for North Carolina nonprofits to better focus efforts on specific needs and build beneficial collaborations. The lessons also can be applied to organizations operating in other states.

“States must take the lead in providing basic infrastructure,” says Ariane Hegewisch, study director at Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., which prepared The Status of Women in North Carolina report. “But there is much that nonprofits can do to help people who are falling between the cracks.”

The challenges facing North Carolina women are not that different than those experienced by many women in America, particularly those in communities or jobs that have been heavily affected by the recession. Hegewisch says lack of quality employment typically goes hand in hand with having no health insurance, which translates into dependence on costly emergency room care. Women who have been away from the workplace to raise children may discover that their skill sets are rusty, or even obsolete. And without affordable child care, women are unable to accept jobs that might otherwise pave the way to a more stable future.

Additionally, Hegewisch and her colleagues found that women in rural North Carolina experience poverty and food insecurity at higher rates than their city-dwelling peers. At particular risk is the state’s growing Latino community, some of whom are intimidated to seek services because they cannot communicate fluently in English.

“There are high numbers of women who don’t have high school degrees, or have not gone beyond, which affects their ability to find jobs with good pay and benefits,” Hegewisch says. With so many applicants competing for limited employment opportunities, she adds, “Lack of education keeps people in very low-wage jobs, or they don’t work at all.”

Nonprofits that focus on helping at-risk women achieve success may also improve their own bottom line. With threats of looming budget cuts (see Proposed Budget), agencies seeking new or continued funding will be under increasing pressure to quantify outcomes and prove that services are not duplicative. Those that can will be best positioned to qualify for state allocations.

Hegewisch believes that local business leaders should step up to support local solutions, since positive outcomes help to build a stronger, better prepared workforce. The conversation also must include more men, because “supporting women” often means supporting married men and women with children.

“Very few men were represented in the issues that were addressed in the report,” Hegewisch says. “That might be a role of philanthropy, to broaden out the message. The women’s movement has shaped this as exclusively women’s issues, but the fact is, this is more general and affects everyone.”

Hegewisch cites wage inequity as an example. When comparing the 2010 median annual earnings of North Carolina women who work full time and comparable men, the differences translate into a wage ratio of 83 percent and a gender wage gap of 17 percent. That’s an improvement from 2000, when women earned 78 percent of men’s earnings and the gender wage gap was 22 percent, but it still means that low-income families are likely to struggle with paying down a car loan or sending a child to college.

An initiative undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission may be a model for North Carolina and other state leaders to consider. Hegewisch says the commission established a group comprised of 24 influential chief executives – all men – who are specifically tasked with enhancing opportunities for women within their respective organizations.

“They publicly meet each year to show how much they have progressed,” Hegewisch says. “Imagine how effective that could be if a similar program focused on meeting the community needs identified in this report? When there is that much public accountability, things change.”

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