Voices of Student Parents: “Since most of my classes were only offered at night I struggled to find care for my son”

More than one in five college students are parents, but student parents are often under-recognized on college campuses. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting the experiences of student parents, including the challenges they face, and the resources and supports that help them succeed. Find other IWPR resources on student parents at the Student Parent Success Initiative page on IWPR.org.

 

By Cecilia Contreras-Mendez

Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington

June 2019 graduate of Clark Community College

Majors: Dual bachelor’s degrees in Public Affairs and Social Sciences with minors in Spanish, Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Political Science. I received my associate’s degree in Arts and transferred to my current institution with a Direct Transfer Agreement.

Number of Children and age: I have one child, Raul Jose Barasa Jr., who is 13 ½ years old.

 

Why I enrolled in school

In the beginning of 2008, I was laid off from my full-time job during the housing

recession. Forced to live off unemployment checks of about $850 a month, my rent was more than 80% of my income. I had one option for a better life– seek higher education. Making a choice I thought I’d never make, I decided that community college was my best shot at providing a proper life for my child. Being a single mom, I got lucky with the job I had, and I knew I would never make that much money again without a college degree. In September 2008, I enrolled at the community college as a first-generation college student, single mom, and woman of color.

As a single mother, I didn’t have much choice after losing my job. There was no child support coming in and I knew I had to set an example for my boy. Things needed to change, and I knew I could accomplish my goals. I knew my options and I took a chance, and it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. Losing my job allowed me to return to school and showed me my true potential and my calling in life.

First off, pursuing higher education allows me to set an example for my child and second, it allows me to seek a better life for my family. I grew up in poverty raised by a single immigrant mother with little to no education herself. Education was key for me to break the cycle of poverty. My son’s life was dependent on my actions and my choices, so I had to choose wisely.

“My son’s life was dependent on my actions and my choices, so I had to choose wisely.”

Higher education wasn’t my priority after graduating high school with my 6 month old son, but I knew if I could do it back then, then why not now. Education is an opportunity to better myself and secure a better future for my son and we can only lead by example!

 

Balancing school, parenting, and life

For about 11 years now, I have been going to school on and off, having left and returned to school five different times. On top of being a single mom and going to school full-time, I’ve also had to deal with some medical issues. It was a challenge, but I had to make the sacrifice and hold on. I wasn’t about to give up on my son or my education just because life got hard, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way. I was the only reliable and stable parent my child had and school was our only income.

Being a student and a parent is a roller coaster ride! We had our ups and we had our downs. My son knew we were a team, and something had to give – in my situation, it was my home. Being a parent was a full-time job, being a student was my second full-time job, and doing it all alone while life threw rocks at me was a challenge. My car broke down multiple times leaving me to rely on public transportation in the rain, snow, heat, and all in between. Financial aid just wasn’t enough to fix life’s little emergencies.

Financial aid just wasn’t enough to fix life’s little emergencies.

Every student parent has their own motivation, their own strengths, their own story, and most importantly their own way to parent their child. We all experience life differently but my experience was rough in the beginning when my child was younger. As he grew older it got easier, until I needed to go to night classes. I was shocked that there wasn’t child care at night for my child while I was in school. That really stood out to me and was a challenge because I didn’t feel like the college officials thought about student parents when they scheduled these night classes into their program.

I didn’t feel like the college officials thought about student parents when they scheduled these night classes into their program.

As a student parent, there was little to no help with finding scholarships and determining what major or what degree I should be pursuing. When I first started, I felt alone and confused as I didn’t really have parents to guide me nor did I know any of the school’s resources. They are getting better these days but it’s still quite confusing when you are a student with little to no knowledge of the higher education system.

 

Supports and resources that have helped me balance school and parenting

When my child was younger, the biggest help I got as a single student parent were the Head Start program and child care center on my community college’s campus. Those resources were life savers! Honestly, Washington State’s SNAP food assistance program isn’t geared to help full-time student parents; if we go to school full-time, they still want us to work at least 20 hours a week just to get food benefits. For some it’s possible, but what about the parents with multiple children? How are we supposed to spend time with our kids as we are trying to get educated if we also have to meet these work requirements? We get penalized for trying to go to school. It would be great if we had better options for food assistance or for help with food resources. It is hard to go to school full time and finish fast in order to get our careers rolling when we have strict guidelines about how much we need to work, just because we are trying to feed our kids.

 

The costs and benefits of going to school for me and my family

Education is important to me, you just need to find a balance for life to run smoothly. As I learned to balance life, having a toddler, and juggling school, time-management was my friend.

Financial aid never seemed like enough to last us the whole quarter. In my case, I had to appeal to the Financial Aid Office to continue receiving funds and towards the end I ended up paying for half of my degree out of pocket. That was hard, but a sacrifice I was willing to make for my family’s future.

When I couldn’t afford to pay for my tuition, I made the impossible possible. If I had to sell the couch I sat on, I would in an effort to pay for my tuition. That’s how much my education meant to me. My son saw me make these sacrifices to get educated and the cost was heavy and very difficult at times. I shed lots of tears and prayed many prayers but never gave up! My son has always come first in my life and he makes it worthwhile at the end of the day! My son is my hero, my motivation, my strength, my reason to strive, and the reason I do everything I do! He looks up to me and supports my educational decisions and works just as hard at school too! What kind of mother would I be if I did not teach him how important education is?

When I couldn’t afford to pay for my tuition, I made the impossible possible. If I had to sell the couch I sat on, I would in an effort to pay for my tuition. That’s how much my education meant to me. My son saw me make these sacrifices to get educated and the cost was heavy and very difficult at times

Hopes for after graduation

I want to practice law at a non-profit organization that helps all people. Particularly, I’d like to be working on issues around social inequality, poverty, and immigration. I want to be a voice for those who have been silenced and seek justice. I want to be that lawyer that the people can trust and reach out to. Ideally, I would love to work with justice-involved and impacted youth to help guide them towards a second chance in life. The more people I can help, the more my sacrifice will be worth it.

The more people I can help, the more my sacrifice will be worth it.

One thing that others might be surprised to know

I am a single student parent who is disabled and battling six auto-immune diseases and disorders. I want my leadership skills to define me, not my disability. Just because our bodies are differently abled doesn’t mean that we can’t learn or be educated just like everyone else. Battling against my own body, I have persevered and triumphed over every obstacle I encounter.

Policy change at your institution that could better support student parents’ success

My community college could have offered child care at night. Since most of my classes were only offered at night, I really struggled to find care for my son, and was forced to change my major because of it.

Since most of my classes were only offered at night, I really struggled to find care for my son

On the financial aid side, I was only given 2 or 3 appeals to reinstate my funds after losing my aid due to my medical conditions. This was very difficult, and I was forced to pay out of pocket for more than half of my degree. There should be more opportunities and supports for students like me to be successful.

My community college had excellent staff members that offered free workshops to ensure our success. Staff also had fun events throughout the year that helped take the pressure off of school to give us some fun on campus. These school events gave me hope and gave me something to look forward to in between classes and quarters. Staff members went above and beyond to make sure I received the services I qualified for, like accommodations through disability services and tutoring.

 

Policy change that could better support student parents’ success

At the national level – I would say changes are needed with services like the SNAP food assistance program. If we go to school full-time and have multiple children, we shouldn’t be required or forced to work in addition to already holding one full-time job as single parents. It is very difficult for those who have multiple children and sometimes in the end it is not worth losing time with them. We work half the day and go to school most of the day in an effort to feed and support our children – leaving us to question, when do we get time to see our kids?

At other levels – Having child care at night and in the evening would benefit a lot of students who are parents. After-school and summer programs shouldn’t be cut because some of us depend on those programs for our school-aged children. There needs to be more funding for these programs.

The benefits of investing in student parents

If we had more support for both child care and/or scholarships, we would have more educated student parents, allowing children to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Offering the resources that many student parents seek but can’t find could relieve a lot of stress and give us piece of mind.

In the end, we would invest in our children and have a more well-rounded society surrounding us. When investing in any type of educational programs for parents and/or their children, we are essentially saving money if we, as student parents, guide our children to follow in our footsteps and seek higher education. As student parents teach their children that education is key, we are able to shine light into their soul and once we light that fire, who knows where it will go or what they will achieve.

 

Happy Labor Day from IWPR!

Happy Labor Day from IWPR!

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Dear IWPR Supporters and Colleagues,

Today we celebrate Labor Day. As we enjoy the last days of summer, I would like to take a moment to remember the day’s true meaning—a time to honor the contributions workers have made to strengthen the well-being of our country, the struggle for improved pay and working conditions, and the fight that our value be recognized.

As Chair of the Board for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), I’m proud to be a part of this organization and the important role we play in this on-going effort to improve working conditions and economic security for working families. Women play an essential role in the continued strength and prosperity of this country.

Early this summer, IWPR and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) released The Status of Black Women in the United States. The report provides critical data to identify the barriers that Black women face in the workplace and to suggest investments, programs, and public policies that can lead to positive changes for Black women and their families. At the June event, “From Persistence to Power: Facts, Truth, & Equality for Women,” IWPR collaborated with Spelman College and the Wellesley Centers for Women to discuss many of the key-findings for the report. You can watch the entire event online. To read the key-findings and for more in-depth information, you can find the full report and the Executive Summary on IWPR’s website.

IWPR’s work to promote equal pay for women is important to ending poverty and improving income security for families. IWPR researchers estimate that it will take until 2059 for women to finally reach equal pay (2056 for White women, 2124 for Black women, and 2248 for Hispanic women). Black women participate in the labor force at higher rates than White, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American women, with 62.2 percent of Black women in the workforce. With the support of unions, Black women earn 32 percent more than their nonunionized counterparts.

Closing the gender wage gap would increase women’s earnings and add billions of dollars in wage and salary income to each state’s economy and $512.6 billion to the national economy. In The Economic Impact of Equal Pay by State, IWPR takes an in-depth look at the best and worst states for women workers. In the briefing paper, The Impact of Equal Pay on Poverty and the Economy, the increasingly important impact of pay equality is examined. Approximately 25.8 million children in the United States would benefit from the increased earnings of their mothers with equal pay.

The value women workers bring to the economy and the positive changes they make to our country inspire IWPR to continue to produce the reliable research that informs and promotes effective policy. At this time in our country, facts have come under attack in many ways and are challenged like never before. The news media rely on IWPR to provide them with the information necessary to tell the stories and struggles of women across the country. With your support, we can continue to fight back against misinformation and allow the media, policymakers, activists, and supporters like you to see the research for themselves.

I encourage you to take a moment today to contemplate the past, present, and future of working women in this country and how to best support their continuing achievements and struggles. As the Chair of the Board of IWPR, I ask for your support. Please make a donation to the Institute today in honor of a hard-working woman in your life.

 

 

Lorretta Johnson, Chair, IWPR Board of Directors
Secretary-Treasurer, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO

 

 

IWPR stands with Pride!

IWPR stands with PRIDE!

Pride month is celebrated across the United States every June. It is a time when we honor the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals have had on the country.

On June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court of the United States recognized the right of same-sex partners to legally marry, the ruling not only meant increased access to benefits for same-sex couples and their children, it brought with it the hope of future gains through legal precedent for equal treatment under the law.

IWPR data show that we need for faster progress to ensure that LGBTQ+ individuals enjoy equal rights and opportunities in employment and earnings, and access to basic benefits to promote health and safety.

Some research done by IWPR regarding these inequalities faced by LGBTQ+ individuals includes:

Status of Women in the States
As of 2014, 29 states – mostly Midwestern, Mountain, and Southern states – still lacked statewide protections against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

  • Despite their strong participation in the labor force, many women living with a same-sex partner experience economic insecurity
  • About 1 in 3 (34 percent) of LGBTQ+ women did not have enough money for food between 2011 and 2012, compared with 20 percent of non-LGBTQ+ women
  • Lesbian and bisexual women aged 18 and older are more likely than heterosexual women to report having psychological distress – LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation and attempts

Status of Women in the South
In addition to employment discrimination, LGBTQ+ people still face legal barriers to equality as many states do not protect LGBTQ+ people from being evicted or denied a home loan and denied health coverage on the basis of their identities

  • Some states are attempting to pass laws specifically prohibiting second-parent adoption for same-sex couples
  • Women aged 25 and older living with a same-sex partner in the South are much more likely than women overall to have a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Southern women in same-sex households have higher rates of labor force participation relative to heterosexual women who are married to men or single

Status of Black Women in the United States

  • Research suggests that Black LGBTQ+ individuals, especially those who are victims of violence, experience heightened discrimination from law enforcement
  • Once in prison, LGBTQ+ women of color report high levels of discrimination and assault within prisons. Forty percent of girls in juvenile detention describe themselves as lesbian, bisexual, gender questioning/gender non-conforming, or transgender

Facts matter. That is why the Institute for Women’s Policy Research works to produce high quality research on women and families around the country and around the world, we give you the facts.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research conducts and communicates research to inspire public dialogue, shape policy, and improve the lives and opportunities of women of diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences.

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To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

When Student Loans are the Only Way to Pay for Child Care

A Student Parent’s Story of Balancing School, Parenthood, and Debt

by Andrea Fitch

Andrea Fitch
Andrea Fitch

I. Deciding to Go Back to School: “We needed to be a dual income family.”

When I first learned I was going to be a parent, I was overwhelmed with a combination of joy and nerves. I was ecstatic to take on the journey of parenthood, but I had not realized the high cost of essentials, such as diapers, formula, strollers, and, especially, child care. I wondered how it would all work out.

I was fortunate to have my husband and father of my children along with me throughout my journey of parenthood. But even with a partner, it was difficult to meet our children’s basic needs. My husband worked a seasonal job in the landscape industry, and being a stay-at-home mother was never an option for me. We needed to be a dual income family. But with both of us working full-time, that also meant we needed to secure full-time child care.

After four years of struggling to pay for basic needs and child care, it became clear that high school degrees and the limited career fields they offered would not be enough. We knew we needed better paying jobs and that the way to achieve this goal was through higher education. With the support of my husband, I began a new journey: obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

II. Going to School Full-Time Still Requires Full-Time Child Care: “My only option was to take out more student loans.”

I reduced my work hours from 40 to 32 per week and started school part-time at a community college. Doing so allowed me to keep our health insurance and maintain our child care spots. But after one year, I was offered a significantly large scholarship that would extend throughout my graduation on the terms that I attend college full-time.

Quitting my job to attend college full-time meant that our monthly income would be dramatically reduced—but we still had the same expenses, including child care. Someone had to watch the kids while I was at school! I supplemented resources using public services such as Medicaid and SNAP. At the time—in 2010, when state economies faced many budget cuts—the Colorado Childcare Assistance Program (CCAP) was on a freeze and child care resources were not available. There just wasn’t enough money for all families in Colorado that needed the assistance. I needed to find an alternative way to pay for child care, which at the time averaged about $800 per month through a home care provider.

Although the college I attended had a child care facility on campus, there was a long waiting list and most of the spots were taken by faculty and staff at the university. Furthermore, the cost of the on-campus child care facility, which would have been the most convenient option, was more than our family could afford. My husband’s paychecks went to rent, cars, gas, and other needs public assistance services couldn’t provide. My only option was to take out more in school loans to pay for child care.

The logistics of sorting out child care arrangements were time-consuming and often stressful, but eventually, I found reliable, affordable child care for the kids while I was at school or studying. I was also grateful the kids were not in harm and loved the people they spent time with when I couldn’t be around. I had earned a 4.0 GPA my junior year and made the Dean’s list. Everything seemed to be working out as I progressed through my journey to a degree. This felt like a huge accomplishment for someone who thought a college degree was impossible.

But beyond all this joy lurked a new reality: paying back all the student loan money I borrowed. For two years, I took out additional money from my school loans to pay for child care—and the money was adding up.

III. Dealing with Debt: “Half of my school loan debt was due to child care costs alone.”

By my senior year, I had earned 5 scholarships and various grants, which was enough to fully fund my senior year of college. I was relieved that I didn’t have to take out extra loan money to pay for school fees, but these scholarships and grants did not cover child care. To get through my senior year and graduate, I had to take out more student loans just for child care.

After graduation, I was glad to have achieved a goal that would benefit not only me as an individual, but also benefit my family and our future. A few months later, however, the reality of my student debt began to sink in. My total school loan debt was near $30,000, a rather small amount compared to other graduates, but I still hoped it would be less due to the size of the scholarships and grants I had received. Then I realized that half of my school loan debt was due to child care costs alone. As I stared at the numbers my only thought was, “My school loan debt would be so much less if I didn’t need childcare.” I often wonder how much more freeing it would be for the financial future of my family if I didn’t have that extra debt. The quicker I pay off my student loan debt, the sooner I will be able to better provide for my family.

Although there were several roadblocks along the way, I achieved my goal and am better able to provide for my family because of my education.  But even with a better paying job, I am still overwhelmed when I think about paying off my student loan debt. Loans were essential in paying for school and basic needs when I couldn’t, but it’s a debt that I must pay every month.

Andrea Fitch is a teacher in Colorado.


SPSI

Learn more about IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, and read the new report, College Affordability for Low-Income Adults: Improving Returns on Investment for Families and Society.

 

As You Celebrate the 4th, Remember Why America’s Working Families Need Unions to Stay Strong

by Brigid O’Farrell

As you celebrate with your loved ones over the holiday, remember how unions have helped American families secure prosperity and opportunity, and why we should consider unions a basic form of democracy.

The decline of the American labor movement, now representing just 12 percent of the workforce, and the corresponding increase in inequality hurts working families. Whether a home health aide, teacher, electrician, or autoworker, you are less likely to have a voice at work. This means lower wages, fewer benefits, and less ability to care for your family. It also means less democracy in our country.

The union advantage for working families starts with higher wages. On average, union women earn 13 percent more per hour than women not in unions and this is especially true for low-wage jobs women hold. The union advantage for office cleaners, for example, is 28 percent. Collective bargaining also reduces the gender wage gap between women and men by half.

Higher wages are critical to the well being of working families, but not enough. The union advantage also includes better access to higher paying jobs, often through apprenticeship training, as well as access to paid sick days, short-term disability, family leave, better schedules, and child care.

Just last week, President Obama told his White House Summit on Working Families, that, “Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage—these are not frills, they are basic needs… part of our bottom line as a society.” Labor was in the house: Over 250 union members and allies made their voices heard. Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, representing 57 unions and over 13 million members, and Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2.1 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) highlighted union support for family friendly public policies and collective bargaining as a tried and true method for securing not only decent wages and safe working conditions, but for negotiating flexible schedules and paid leaves. For example:

Kay Thompson is the mother of four daughters who has worked at Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square in New York City for over 20 years. She is a proud member of Local 1-S, Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union/UFCW. She told the audience that she was able to provide for her family with a flexible yet predictable schedule because of her union contract.

Connie Ashbrook, union elevator constructor and executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., focused on the 50 percent of jobs that require science, technology, engineering or math skills (STEM), but don’t require a college degree. Women are capable and interested in skilled trade jobs, but still hold less than 3 percent of these occupations. Outreach, training and enforcing employment discrimination laws are policies that help her work with unions and contractors to increase the number of women in the trades.

Union members also gathered at the AFL-CIO headquarters the day before to share their stories at Working Families Speak Up!

Dina Yarmus is a hotel and restaurant worker who defended her healthcare plan through UNITEHERE Local 274 in Philadelphia. Joanne Hager is a construction laborer from Minneapolis and trainer for LiUNA Local 563. Being a tradeswoman transformed her life—a living wage, a pension plan, a union job. Connie Leak, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and UAW member, told other workers that this wasn’t just about boots on the ground, but about “heels, flats, and sneakers heading to the streets” to talk about working family issues and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, and public policy.

Working family polices are often a mix of public and private actions. California provides an example of how unions helped to secure a family friendly state policy that women and men now use to sustain their families, maintain their economic stability, and keep their jobs.

The United States is one of just three countries in the world without a paid family leave policy. California was the first state to take action to address this problem, now joined by New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Under the California Paid Family Leave Act employees pay into the insurance system regardless of the size of their employer and have access to six weeks of paid leave to care for new children or ill family members. Employers do not pay into the system, but have to accommodate the time off. The Labor Project for Working Families helped make paid leave in California a reality. They receive leadership and financial support from many unions and worked for years to help pass this bill.

In Unfinished Business, Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy, professors Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum document labor’s role and their finding that there are almost no negative effects on business. Management executives talk about how good the program is for their companies. Many employees, however, are unaware that they pay into the fund and have access to the benefits. This is true in the building and construction industry where any kind of paid leave has not generally been available.

Krista Brooks and Johnathan Brooks, both apprentice electricians with IBEW Local 617 in San Mateo, CA, illustrate how having good apprenticeship jobs and a paid family leave policy are very important to families. Krista, one of the 2.6 percent of women in the skilled trades, just graduated from her apprenticeship program and is completing her work hours to reach journey-level status. Johnathan is a second year apprentice. Both parents were able to spend quality time with their newborn without sacrificing their much needed paychecks or their jobs.

The couple heard about paid family leave from other union members. Krista was able to take disability leave for part of her pregnancy and use paid family leave when her daughter was born. Johnathan was then able to take paid family leave in two phases. First he had two weeks right when the baby was born. A few weeks later when Krista went back to work he was able to take more time to bond with the new baby. The apprentices, their local union, and the contractors worked together maintaining insurance coverage and having jobs when the parents returned. They didn’t have their full salaries and things were tight, but paid family leave made a big difference.

While the number of women in the workforce has reached an historic proportion and more men are opting to stay home with children, the problems are not new. In 1963 President Kennedy released American Women, the report of his President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Fifty years ago the report noted that 70 other western industrialized countries offered paid maternity leave and called for the U.S. to do the same. They documented the urgent need for quality, affordable child care. The commission cited the concentration of women in low-wage jobs as the primary cause of the wage difference between women and men. They called for improved vocational education, counseling for non-traditional jobs, and an end employment discrimination against women.

The Commission stressed that the value of unions and collective bargaining had already been well established and secured through the National Labor Relations Act. They called for states to do the same. Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the President’s Commission, wrote that “There are only two ways to bring about protection of the workers…legislation and unionization.” She later told the United Nations Human Rights Commission that “the right to form and join trades unions [is] an essential element of freedom.” For her, unions represented democracy in the workplace, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, and were a model for democracy in the country and around the world.

Maybe it’s time for a summit on the importance of unions and collective bargaining for working families and for our democracy. But in Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, “We can’t just talk. We have got to act.”

This post originally appeared on AlterNet. Brigid O’Farrell’s most recent book is She Was One of Us:  Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker.  With Betty Freidan she edited Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family. See www.bofarrell.net.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Guest Blog Post: Mentoring Program Inspires Girls to Explore Careers in STEM

Nadine Ann Skinner is a Program Manager at Girls Inc. of Alameda County®

By Nadine Ann Skinner

In March, IWPR released a report showing that the number of women pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields at community colleges was declining, despite growing opportunities for gainful employment in these fields. Encouraging women to pursue STEM careers can start by inspiring girls and young women to explore these fields. Nadine Ann Skinner is a Program Manager at Girls Incorporated of Alameda County® (Girls Inc.) and contributed this guest post on mentoring programs for girls with her organization.

Last week I had the opportunity to take a group of teenage girls to Genentech to meet some of the women who worked there. Walking in, the normally boisterous girls were quiet, subdued by the large campus and the number of mentors waiting to speak with them. As the girls joined activities led by the mentors, I spoke with the two women engineers who had invited us. “Why did you decide to become engineers?” I asked. The two women thought for a moment, and then they both answered that their fathers were engineers and that inspired them to become engineers.

The girls in the program I work for are from Oakland and San Leandro, California. Most of the girls will be the first member of their family to go to college. They live in neighborhoods plagued by violence and attend underperforming schools. Who is there to inspire them to become engineers or scientists?

Even with the great gains women have made in employment women are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In elementary school, girls and boys express similar interests in math and science. But by college, fewer women pursue STEM majors and by college graduation, “men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees.” In STEM graduate programs and careers, women are even more underrepresented.

Underrepresentation in the STEM workforce is a particular challenge for minority ethnic groups. Underrepresented minority groups comprised 28.5 percent of the population in 2006, but only comprised 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations. In addition, minority women only represent 11 percent of women in the entire STEM workforce. Editor’s note: IWPR’s research analysis found that a very small proportion of associate’s degrees in STEM fields are awarded to women of color, including African American women (3.3 percent); Hispanic women (2.2 percent); and Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander women (1.3 percent).

Part of the reason girls are not pursuing STEM careers is the continuing perception that girls and women are not as good at math and science. Mentoring has proven to be an effective tool to encourage girls and young women to succeed in STEM in school by combating the stereotype about girls’ ability to succeed in math and science. Mentoring and exposing girls to role models, women who prove to girls that they can be successful in STEM, can inspire girls to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

At the end of our visit to Genentech, the girls participated in a speed mentoring session, where they had a chance to interview women in a variety of STEM careers. The room was loud, filled with laughter and smiles, as the girls asked the mentors about their careers.

Eventually it was time to leave. As we walked to the van the girls were talking about the women that they met. “I want to be a toxicologist,” said one girl. “I want to be a geneticist,” said another girl. “Do you think that might let me have an internship at Genentech?” asked a third. I smiled, knowing that whatever career these girls ultimately choose, meeting these amazing role models ignited the girls’ interest in STEM careers.

Nadine Ann Skinner is a Program Manager at Girls Incorporated of Alameda County® (Girls Inc.). Girls Inc’s mission is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold. For over 52 years, Girls Inc. has responded to the specific needs of girls in the most underserved communities of San Francisco’s East Bay through a continuum of academic enrichment programs and counseling services in over 48 elementary, middle and high schools in Alameda County and two service centers in Oakland and San Leandro. Programs challenge girls to explore their potential, develop life skills, ensure college and career success, and expand their sense of what is possible. With an innovative educational approach incorporating local needs into research-based curricula, Girls Inc. has established itself as one of the Bay Area’s leading providers of supplemental education, reaching nearly 7,500 girls and their families annually.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org