Creating Economic Opportunity for Girls by Taking a Gender Lens to Programs & Policies

SEATTLE  — A big round clock is ticking on the screen as Girl Effect, the Nike Foundation’s video sensation, begins to play in the conference hall.

An 11-year old girl, in the shape of a stick-figure, is growing up, and two very different outcomes for her emerge: One where she has the ability to contribute to her family and community, the other where she does not. Simply and compellingly stated, the video shows that by investing in a girl’s education, safety, health and leadership development, we can transform society and address the world’s most pressing development problems.

Watching with me are a group of politically and economically powerful women, who have joined with girls from Washington state at this State of the Girls discuss how to more purposefully design policies and programs that create economic opportunity for all girls.

Unlike Girl Effect’s broad, inspirational message, there is no basic equation for solving what confounds us here, and likely other places: While girls are excelling in education and consistently improving their math and science performance, these gains are not translating to the labor market. In fact, 72 percent of women who work outside the home here are working in industries that pay below the state average. For girls of color, plausible reasons for this include their lower enrollment and completion rates in two- and four-year post-secondary education. Even when they do gain post-secondary training, many of the jobs they pursue don’t keep up with our region’s high cost of living.

There are several gender-specific approaches with the potential to improve girls’ economic opportunity. One is to work with influential, local science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals to identify the infrastructure needed to ensure more girls gain access to high-paying STEM jobs, one of Washington’s hottest employment sectors. Understanding how women secure careers in unionized fields, where wages are higher, is another strategy to explore, as are local efforts to raise wages in food and retail services, where women make up the majority of workers. Our region also is one of the top spots in the nation for female entrepreneurs, and we need to understand why this is so and how to encourage more girls along this path.

Fresh ideas for gender-specific approaches show promise. New Mexico’s state Legislature passed House Memorial 53 (HM 53) to study and develop recommendations to prevent teen dating violence. They ultimately developed system-wide strategies for educating parents, raising public awareness, and building on existing resources to create an evidence-based prevention strategy.

At the federal level, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) introduced legislation to create gender-specific programs within the juvenile justice system to address the unique challenges facing young girls who are struggling in a system designed for incarcerated men.  These girls are arguably among our most vulnerable populations. Though not directly related, these policies could ultimately create better economic opportunities for girls.

Advocating for effective gender-specific programs in the Out-of-School Time (OST) context is the on-the-ground place to start. Gender-specific programs are important because they can help to address the root causes of why girls struggle academically, socially and emotionally.

These include internalized gender and race stereotypes and the low expectations that can cause so many economic opportunities to disappear along with a girl’s adolescence. OST programs that do this are valuable because they often focus on career-readiness skills as well as are attuned to social and cultural contexts. This is particularly important for those girls who lack income and racial advantages in society.

As long as the clock is ticking on girls’ lives, there will be a need for gender-specific policies and programs to ensure that all girls have access to the economic opportunity they need to become transformative agents of change for their families and their communities.