"Just making it work" is a status most women are all too familiar with, but the return of an old tool shows promise that change may be on the horizon.
On March 15, the newly reinstated Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women held its second meeting and first listening session where attendees shared personal stories that, according to chairwoman Alison Williams (also chief of staff to Gov. Asa Hutchinson), underscore the unsustainable demands on working women.
The commission's mission? To study and report on three factors: the participation of women in the state’s labor force, their involvement in entrepreneurial pursuits/high-demand career paths and the barriers they face when entering the labor force. The governor's team will then use the report's data to reevaluate how best to support working women in Arkansas.
History's Slow Improvements
In February Gov. Asa Hutchinson reconstituted the commission (the state's fifth) nearly 50 years after its last report was issued in 1973. The first commission, created by Gov. Orval Faubus in 1964, focused on the social, political and economic status of women, while Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller established the second commission to focus on state employment laws and differences in legal treatment of men and women.
Dale Bumpers' Governor's Commission on the Status of Women looked for ways to expand the role of women in economic, political and social institutions, and its report was titled "Changing rapidly — Improving slowly." It quantified the pay gap between men and women and reported on the dearth of women in leadership positions, even in the woman-dominated field of education. Read the report here.
Gov. David Pryor's 1995 commission focused on Title IX, a 1972 addition to the federal Civil Rights Act that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education settings, and the never-adopted Equal Rights Amendment. That committee did not file a report.
A Promising Outlook
Monthly meetings of the 2022 commission will be held through November, but what inspired Williams most from the recent session "was the strength and resilience of the women who participated in the discussion … and the challenge those characteristics can also create.
"The women shared so many stories of 'just making it work,' that it could be hard to pull out of them what policies or programs, specifically, would give them the time and space to compete in the workforce. Whether it was caring for family members or making decisions about which partner would give up their salary to be with their children at home during COVID or learning a new language or navigating complex government systems or continuing to educate others about a particular faith or heritage, this group of Arkansans proved themselves to be masterful acrobats, and that is just not a sustainable solution."
The commission's purpose, Williams says, "is not inherently governmental," so she expressed a hope that "the momentum we build over the next nine months will be enough to energize another entity to carry on with at least pieces of what we are doing."
And then the real work starts, because as 1973 chairman Diane D. Kincaid put it: "Much remains to be done."