The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas Fighting for Female Power

The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas is fighting to improve the lives of women in our state, and you don’t want to mess with them.

Imagine this: you are a single parent with no college degree. You’re trying to hold down a minimum wage job while taking care of your kids. You can’t afford childcare, so assuming you’re able to work 40 hours a week making Arkansas’ minimum wage, you only make about $17,000 a year. On such a salary, where do you live? How do you feed and clothe your children? How do you invest in their future? Pay for their health care?

This scenario happens every day, and it overwhelmingly affects women. According to research conducted by the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas (WFA), 41% of single-parent households in Arkansas live in poverty, and 80% of single-parent households are led by women — and those numbers are on the rise. For Anna Beth Gorman, Executive Director of the WFA, these numbers are unacceptable. “Children in Arkansas are living in poverty,” she says. “Who is feeding and taking care of those children? Predominantly single mothers.”

While there are a handful of organizations working tirelessly to feed Arkansas’ hungry children, the WFA is approaching this problem from a different angle. Rather than handing out food, they’d rather teach Arkansas’ women to fish, so to speak, by giving them the knowledge and tools necessary to pull themselves out of poverty. “Wealth isn’t just about equal pay; it’s about ownership,” Gorman says. “If you never had the confidence to start that business, or buy a home, and you assumed your husband or partner would take care of everything, what happens when that worst day comes? What do you have?”

The problem is not confined to single mothers living in poverty. It’s the woman who was married for 35 years who doesn’t know how to handle the finances or run the family business when her husband passes away. It’s a 30-year-old female who goes through a breakup and has to move out of her boyfriend’s house, or a divorcee who finds herself in her mid-forties with nothing in her name. “Right now, Arkansas women working and taking care of our families are behind,” Gorman says. “Pink collar jobs — jobs that have been historically women’s jobs like aides, nurses, teachers and home workers — those are positions that don’t pay well.” To make matters worse, 80% of women in Arkansas don’t have a college degree. “When you hear about the stereotypical ‘dregs of society,’ you’re not thinking about your mother, your grandmother, your neighbors and friends, but that’s who that is.”

The overwhelming majority of Arkansas women are at a disadvantage, both economically and educationally, and as the WFA approaches its 20th year, this is the prevailing message that Gorman hopes to share through the organization’s ever-expanding initiatives.

Credit: Jason Masters

The Making of a Movement

In 1998, Pat Lile was heading up the Arkansas Community Foundation (ACF), closely watching national trends in the philanthropic and non-profit sectors and learning how to turn ideas into reality back at home. “Everywhere I went and everything I read was saying that, for the first time, women were becoming independent agents of our own financial future,” Lile says. “The wave of the future was women as philanthropists.”

Meanwhile, Olivia Farrell, CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group (the parent company of Little Rock Soirée), was growing tired of the lengthy lists of corporate board members in Little Rock that contained little to no women. She wanted to show these corporate boards that there were more than enough qualified women in the state, so she created the Top 100 Women in Arkansas, a supplemental publication of Arkansas Business that highlighted successful women from around the state and honored them at an annual luncheon. It was at the 1998 luncheon that Farrell and Lile realized there was a great interest amongst local women to create projects and initiatives that benefited women and girls. “We clearly weren’t finished with our discussion that day,” Lile says, “so I suggested that we take the ball and run with it.”

The challenge, under the leadership of Lile and the umbrella of the ACF, was to find 100 women willing to commit $1,000 each, and thanks to Farrell’s annual publication, they already had a large database of women to call. The first Power of the Purse luncheon was held a mere three months later, and by the end of the year, they’d raised $100,000. By 2002, the WFA became an independent foundation, hiring its own executive director.

“There’s a potential for great wealth creation in women,” Lile says. “We needed to inspire women to see themselves as vital to the non-profit sector, other than as volunteers, and as independent decision makers of how their money is used in their families. Turning women into funders of the organizations they volunteer with is an important step toward independent decision-making.”

The State of Women in Arkansas

By 2010, the WFA was ready to hone in with laser-like focus on ways to improve the lives of women, but data on the status of women’s education, income and employment was sparse at best. The last comprehensive report on the status of women in Arkansas had been compiled in 1973 and was well overdue an update.

“That says a lot about the attention that’s paid to those issues,” says Dorothy Hall, a former board president and member of the Policy and Research Committee that worked to update the 1973 report. By updating the report, the WFA was able to create public forums highlighting some of the more significant issues women were facing. “The WFA is a fairly small foundation,” she says. “Keeping women’s issues, rights, equal pay and family issues alive and aware, and helping people have a better understanding of that, is the most important thing they can do for our state.”

Hall’s insight on the committee was invaluable, not only because she was a woman and mother, but because she’d worked for years as the primary breadwinner of her household in a male-dominated field. The oldest of five children, Hall took over the operations of her family farm at just 14 years old. After college, she went to work in the cooperative extension agency, which focused on production agriculture. “Within that agency, there were opportunities for advancement, but when you looked at advancement into administration, those jobs were out of reach for women. And their policies were extremely outdated. When I first came to work in 1970, if you were female and became pregnant, you had to quit your job.”

Eventually, Hall would become the first female associate director of the agency. “One of the first things I did in that position was rewrite the outdated policy handbook,” she laughs. “Just looking back at the policies I’ve worked under in my career, I’m a strong advocate for women’s rights. We’ve done a lot to make base salaries competitive and more equitable, but where pay equity affects women is in advancement. If all your supervisors are white men, I think they’re naturally, humanly, going to favor a white man. It’s a reality no matter who is in administrative positions. If there isn’t diversity in those positions, you tend to trend toward that likeness.”

Hall comes from a long line of strong, successful women who were involved in the community, and that family legacy continues; Hall’s daughter Gretchen is the president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You have to have someone to model your behavior after,” she says. “I believe that when women do better, families do better.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Engaging Girls, Creating Opportunities

Many of the WFA’s earliest supporters were working successfully in STEM careers — those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The organization’s founders saw this as an opportunity to tap into the skills and knowledge of their own supporters, which led to the creation of one of their first initiatives: Girls of Promise, a free two-day conference that introduces 8th grade girls to female mentors in the STEM fields. “We want to open these girls’ horizons,” Gorman says. “They’re traveling somewhere and meeting other girls from around the state who are interested in the same things they are. For a girl, seeing is believing. That’s why Arkansas is falling behind; women don’t see where they could be. Girls of Promise is changing that dynamic.”

Last year, Gorman was on the hunt for new faces to recruit to the WFA, women who could lead and mentor with fresh perspectives on women in the workforce. Cue Alison Williams, a young professional who got her chops working for the state of Arkansas in Washington D.C. before moving back to Little Rock when she was hired as Governor Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff.

The two met at the 2016 Power of the Purse Luncheon, and Gorman immediately asked Williams to join the WFA board. “I wanted to meet women who were driven and committed to a purpose, and it was in that Power of the Purse luncheon, it just felt like something I wanted to be a part of,” Williams says.

Williams found that the WFA’s Girls of Promise program dovetailed perfectly with Governor Hutchinson’s computer programming initiative, which made computer coding classes available in every Arkansas classroom. Williams was shocked to see a 600% increase in African American girls who were taking coding classes, with a rise of several hundred percent across all demographics of girls. “We’re getting girls engaged in computer science and STEM education,” Williams says. “I’m less about standards and more about opportunity, and we’re creating opportunities for girls to get involved and grow into those promising, high-paying careers.”

Williams hopes through her new appointment to the WFA board of directors, she’ll be able to shine a light on women in leadership positions in government. “One of the first times Anna Beth and I met, I told her that government has always played such an incredible role in equalizing women in the workforce,” Williams says. “My experience has been that there are always women at the table, always women in positions of leadership. I want to use those examples to show people that this is possible.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Ensuring a Lifetime of Success

Despite success with its Girls of Promise program, for the WFA engaging and educating women goes far beyond getting them interested in STEM careers at a young age. Cici Conger-Portie, a WFA Executive Committee member and Board Development Chair, became a fundraiser for the WFA after moving back to Arkansas from California. As a program manager for Adobe Systems, Conger-Portie saw firsthand the benefits of STEM careers for women when she worked in Silicon Valley, but she knew that success meant more than a woman’s chosen career field. “I absolutely see a difference culturally between Arkansas and California. We don’t have a strong female support system here. You can’t go to work and easily find a mentor.”

The WFA’s newest initiative, Women of Promise, hopes to rectify this and many other problems facing Arkansas women through a series of workshops and programs focused on economic empowerment. “We want to focus on getting girls good jobs, but what we don’t talk about enough is women who aren’t at a successful place in their careers — or they are successful, but they don’t know how to manage that success,” Conger-Portie says. Through the Women of Promise program, the WFA will offer career and financial education, female mentorship opportunities and strategic coaching for women with entrepreneurial aspirations.

“How do we build a woman’s personal worth so that she feels like she can own her own business and make a difference in her life without necessarily having a college or business degree? How can we help them get there?” Conger-Portie asks. “Women of Promise gives them the building blocks to be financially successful and helps them manage that success.”

The Future of a Foundation

With the WFA’s 20th anniversary approaching, Gorman hopes to expand the organization’s reach and influence, and that means dispelling the antiquated notion that empowering women means pushing men out. “This isn’t something we’re going to solve ourselves,” she says. “We need women and men, private and public entities to understand that when half of our population is at an extreme disadvantage, it impacts our whole state. It impacts our economy, our children.”

Gorman is actively working to recruit people from both sides of the aisle who have concerns about hunger, poverty, health, education and the economy in Arkansas. “At a grassroots level, it’s time for us to find things we can agree on. We get a lot of different perspectives at the table, but I’m most concerned with what’s happening to women in Arkansas. We’re not going to solve this in a bubble.”

March is Women’s History Month, and the WFA will have multiple events throughout the month. See the WFA website for details.

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