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Being a Student Parent: My Experience and How Policy Is Improving for Student Parents Today

By Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon

As part of my work as a summer intern at IWPR I have had the privilege of working with the Student Parent Success Initiative (SPSI). The SPSI report, Improving Child Care Access to Promote Postsecondary Success Among Low-Income Parents (2011), reflects my personal obstacles to higher education. Lack of access to childcare was the sole reason I did not attend college earlier and it is the reason many student parents struggle to complete their education. I am an IWPR intern, a single mom, and a graduate student at the age of 42 because I could not do these things when my children were young. I am sharing my story here as a thanks to the SPSI team at IWPR for research that improves the lives of student parents. I hope this serves to add some personal context to the SPSI research.

Like many people, when I graduated high school I was unsure of the career I wanted to pursue. I decided some life and work experience would help me choose. For a year, I worked for a citizen lobby organization where I felt like the work I was doing was important and made a real difference. The job paid well (for a recent high school graduate) but there were no benefits as I was considered an independent contractor. Shortly after leaving that job, while working a part-time temp job, I discovered I was pregnant. I was 19 years old, had no secure, permanent job, and no health insurance. If I could find a job while pregnant, at that time, any health insurance company could consider my pregnancy a pre-existing condition and deny coverage. In 1996, the Health Insurance and Portability Act made it illegal to treat pregnancy as a pre-existing condition. At the time of pregnancy, Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the AFDC program that was ended in 1996) were my only real options to provide for my child and pay for the costs of his birth and my prenatal care. I reluctantly accepted the assistance but planned to move on as soon as possible.

After the birth of my child I intended to get my college degree. I qualified for grants to pay tuition but I would need assistance paying for childcare. I was told that childcare assistance was available if I was working but not while in school. If I got a job to pay for childcare for the hours I was in class I would lose most of my state benefits since I would now have an income. The state would assume I could use this income to pay for food and living expenses so they would cut my aid and I would not have money to pay for childcare. I felt trapped; there was no way for me to get the education I needed to improve my life and that of my child. Mine is a story shared by many mothers. Those on assistance are often discouraged from pursuing education over employment. This prompted Diana Spatz to found LIFETIME, an organization allied with SPSI that helps student parents successfully achieve higher education.  You can read more about her story on the organization’s website.

The birth of my first child was over 20 years ago and I am currently taking classes towards my Ph.D. It took much longer than it should have to get here. I had to wait to begin until my son was in school, attend part-time, and rely on the help of student loans. At the completion of my doctorate degree I will be facing the repayment of those loans.  The SPSI project at IWPR has recently shed light on the debt burden of single student parents like myself in their fact sheet, Single Student Parents Face Financial Difficulties, Debt, Without Adequate Aid (May 2012). Among the research findings, single parents are much more likely to need financial aid to enroll in postsecondary education and are more likely than traditional students to say that financial difficulties are likely to result in their withdrawing from college. If they do it make it through, they often face staggering lingering debt: Single student parents have between 20 and 30 percent more student debt one year after graduation than other students. The figures are startling and I am glad that IWPR is making visible my lived experience.

In addition, IWPR recently released a fact sheet The Pregnancy Assistance Fund as a Support for Student Parents in Postsecondary Education (July 2012) that details two programs funded by the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF) to offer support to pregnant and parenting students. I could not be happier that programs are finally being created to help women in these circumstances. PAF is also part of legislation under the Affordable Care Act. We have a long way to go but this is encouraging progress.

It is my hope that this information will make an impact on policies and programs at the national, state and local levels and help other parents attend college. I am grateful for the opportunity to work for such a wonderful organization dedicated to improving women’s lives and to assist on a project to help students like myself. Thank you IWPR and the SPSI team!

Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Celebrating Title IX: On Track for Equality, Beyond the Sports Field

By Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon

This week marks forty years since the passage of Title IX, an amendment that forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in public education or in any educational program or activity receiving federal funding. Also known as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, Title IX has a long history of being associated with women’s access to sports programs but the law has much wider, perhaps less visible, applications for gender equity in education.

At a congressional briefing on Wednesday, June 20, the National Coalition for Women & Girls in Education (NCWGE), of which IWPR is a proud member,  presented their newly released report Title IX: Working to Ensure Gender Equity in Education with findings on how Title IX is impacting areas such as access to education for pregnant and parenting students, sexual harassment in schools and colleges, single-sex education, and education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and career and technical education. Congresswoman Gwen Moore addressed the significant milestone of the fortieth anniversary, but also cautioned that there is still much work to be done to achieve equality in educational programs. Even with successful women as role models some young girls still hold very limited ideas about what careers are right for them. “This ought to be a point at which we can break through,” said Moore of the fortieth anniversary.

According to the panelists at the briefing, the biggest hurdle to advancing equality in education is low awareness of what Title IX entails, such as lesser-known requirements aimed at improving access to education for pregnant or parenting students. Even though Title IX clearly makes this illegal, some schools still use pregnancy or motherhood as a reason for excluding girls from school.

A lack of awareness about Title IX requirements affects how sexual harassment and same-sex education programs are addressed in schools. Catherine Hill, Director of Research at AAUW, framed the sexual harassment problem as a need to make administrators understand that the law requires simply providing the same protections from harassment to students as to faculty and staff. “We want schools to not just react but to prevent sexual harassment,” said Hill.

Galen Sherwin of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke about the growing trend of sex-segregated educational initiatives. Limited research has been done in this area yet—because anecdotal evidence suggests they work—educators are implementing these programs in direct violation of Title IX requirements. These types of programs sometimes teach girls by using examples involving makeup and wedding dresses, while teaching boys with themes from sports and hunting. According to Sherwin, most often these programs are small-scale and go unnoticed by school district authorities. When an individual program is discovered, actions are taken but such a reactive response is unlikely stop such practices nationally.

Panelist Betty Shanahan, Executive Director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, emphasized the need to open up STEM fields to women and people of color and “leverage our nation’s strength—our diversity.” Shanahan said, since women who leave engineering programs tend to have higher GPAs than the men who choose to stay in these programs, “we don’t need to fix the women, we need to fix the environments.” A recent IWPR briefing paper, cited in the report, uncovered an alarming trend of a decline of women studying STEM fields at community colleges within the last decade.

The panel participants agreed that Title IX was crucially important legislation and, in the past forty years, women have made great strides in education. The biggest take away from the briefing was that most people are not even aware of what Title IX covers. Panelists emphasized the need to both encourage and insist on compliance in a carrot and stick approach. Suggestions for improving compliance with Title IX included requiring the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to conduct compliance reviews and encouraging school districts to conduct their own self-evaluations.

Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon is Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Community College Partnerships Promote Education and Career Development

by Jane Henrici, Ph.D.

Adults with children can face complications if they want to pursue education or career development and, while community colleges often try to make things as convenient as possible for adults, college resources may not be enough. Partnerships between community colleges and other schools, local nonprofits, private businesses, and government agencies can make a difference. Many creative ways of pulling these partnerships together have been found in different parts of the United States. One of these, highlighted by IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative (SPSI) in a new fact sheet, is Carreras en Salud: Carreras is a program of the nonprofit organization Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago, in partnership with Chicago’s Association House, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the city college of Wilbur Wright. This particular partnership helps low-income adults, most of them Latinas with children, successfully obtain education, training, and certification in health care fields. The affiliated organizations help student parents through different curricula and services: for example, parents taking bridge courses at Instituto del Progreso, such as English-as-a-Second-Language, receive child care. IWPR is also examining the need to improve work conditions and opportunities for in-home care workers who are immigrant women (please see our earlier blog post) and a program such as Carreras shows great promise for improving the quality of jobs in care work. Partnerships among community colleges that help student parents to complete education and career development pathways, whether in health care or other occupations, can help maximize existing resources through community coordination.

Jane Henrici, Ph.D., is a Study Director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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.

Facing the Wage Gap as a Female College Grad

IWPR Research Intern Vanessa Harbin

by Vanessa Harbin

As someone who considers herself to be pretty plugged in to gender issues, I have often heard the statistic about the ratio of women’s and men’s earnings, and figured I knew most of the story. The past few months I have been going merrily along pursuing job leads in preparation for graduation from my master’s program next month, without even considering how I personally might be affected by the wage gap. Surely, as a young woman with a graduate degree, my salary will be right up there with my male peers, right? Since I haven’t seen much difference in the jobs being pursued by and offered to my female and male classmates, isn’t it a given that we’ll be getting paid equally?

Then I began helping with the research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) looking at trends in women’s earnings and labor force participation over the past few decades. First, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 1984 that college-educated women earned as much as men with a high school diploma, and it took another seven years until they earned as much as men with some college education or an associate’s degree. Then, I saw the wage gap between men and women with at least a college degree—it’s the biggest gap between men and women at any level of education. And even though the gap for all workers in my age group (age 25 to 44) is the lowest in 30 years, it’s still almost 14 percent (according to IWPR’s micro data analysis of the Current Population Survey). Even when women get into highly-paid and fast growing sectors like science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) fields, they are paid 14 percent less than men—a much narrower gender gap than many other professions, but a gap nonetheless.

Yet, I know that I’m extremely lucky to be where I am. Women with low education and skill levels can not only expect to earn less than their male counterparts, but often struggle to make a livable salary. Men with poor literacy skills have substantially higher earnings than women with the same abilities. And even with higher literacy levels, women still face a wage gap.

Learning the statistics has shown me that the wage gap does indeed exist and impacts women’s earnings—even highly educated women.  It is important to be aware that the playing field might not be even and to inform policymakers about this persistent discrepancy in earnings. IWPR will be releasing an analysis of the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on the wage gap with occupations.  Our research on pay equity will be discussed at an Equal Pay Day congressional briefing April 17 organized by the Fair Pay Coalition. If you can’t make the briefing, you can still stay informed on this issue by visiting our website.

Vanessa Harbin is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is currently completing her master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University.

STEM Report Points to a Means of Economic Security for Low-Income Women

By Margaret Kran-Annexstein

Job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are some of the fastest-growing industries in the country yet women’s presence in STEM education at the community college level is dropping. Between 2000–2001 and 2008–2009, the number of women earning associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased by 25.7 percent. Meanwhile, jobs in STEM fields are expected to nearly double by 2018.

A new IWPR report, Increasing Opportunities for Low-Income Women and Student Parents in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math at Community Colleges, proposes solutions for bridging this training and jobs gap for women. The report addresses obstacles faced by women in STEM fields, and how educational institutions and organizations can help women to overcome these challenges.

It is important to encourage all women, but particularly low-income women and student parents, to pursue STEM fields. STEM degrees can be a link to better economic security because they lead to jobs in fields with better pay and narrower wage gaps—a 14 percent wage gap exists in STEM jobs versus 21 percent in non-STEM jobs.

From the report:

Women at the community college level are more likely than men to enroll in educational fields and training for jobs in traditionally female occupations—such as child care workers, health aids, or administrative assistants—with low starting pay, flat wage trajectories, and poor benefits (Hegewisch et al. 2010; Negrey et al. 2001). By contrast, women who train for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields—fields typically dominated by men—see strong economic returns.

I always liked math and science in elementary and high school. However, somewhere along the way, I abandoned STEM education, just like many other women and girls. In this difficult economy, why do so many women steer away from fields that offer so many job opportunities? During the release event for the STEM report, Roberto Rodriguez, a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that women and girls drop out or avoid STEM education because of a “lack of role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility that exists in STEM fields.”

Sara Manzano-Díaz, who also spoke at the report release event, focuses a lot of her attention on the encouragement of young girls in her role as director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. She sees that “education is the great equalizer” and by becoming role models and mentors for girls, we can encourage them to pursue STEM degrees and pave their way to fulfilling careers.

The report outlines steps that community colleges could be taking in order to recruit and retain women, especially mothers who face more challenges in completing their degrees and need flexibility in their study schedules. Increasing the number of student parents studying STEM fields can have lasting effects—not only on the quality of life of a graduate once they leave school, but also on their children. According to her research, author of the report Cynthia Costello found that children whose mothers pursue postsecondary education are more likely to receive college degrees themselves.

Women have made such huge leaps in education equality and this makes their minority presence in STEM fields of study all the more shocking.

The reality that women are highly underrepresented in STEM fields is distressing because those fields are in need of skilled workers in a shifting economy. It is also a missed opportunity to incorporate diverse perspectives in a growing industry.

“We need… more girls who believe they can grow up to invent and to discover,” said Rodriguez at the release event. “Invention and discovery in engineering and science is creative act. It benefits from a multitude of viewpoint…So without diversity we are paying inherently an opportunity cost here because that’s a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, ultimately in constraints that are not understood.”

Margaret Kran-Annexstein is a Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Literacy, Women, and the Workforce Investment Act

This blog was originally posted on the Workforce Innovation Team blog. In honor of March being Women’s History Month 2012, the Workforce Innovation Team has reached out to their partners who specialize in women’s needs and promoting positive public policy. 

By Jane Henrici

The Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released in February our fact sheet showing our gendered analysis of the most recent (2003) National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) data. We find that low levels of literacy tend to hurt women’s earning levels more than those of men: “…women need higher levels of literacy than men to earn wages that are comparable with men’s.”

To address this issue, IWPR recommends that educational policies and programs take gender into account and consider adult education and literacy classes as of particular help to women, especially those with dependent children. IWPR research on women’s educational levels, workforce participation, and immigration integration, also finds a need for improved and targeted remedial and bridge opportunities, English language classes, and job training that will help women get better jobs and careers—including those at the highest levels of wages, in STEM fields. Like others with whom IWPR is partnered, particularly in our research on student parents as part of IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, we see reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) as an opportunity for learning and training that responds to the needs across the different states to help prepare women workers for employment demands.

To get out of poverty, women must be able to earn enough to take care of themselves and their families and, to do that, women need to have the skills to begin careers and then move up in fields where jobs are growing, including those in the health and care work occupations. At a minimum, women are going to need to be able to read and, increasingly, they are going to need a postsecondary education and possibly a postsecondary degree. A number of public as well as private efforts, including WIA programming, can help women to get started.

Do you think WIA programming is key to addressing the inequality gap that women still face in today’s workforce?

Jane Henrici is a Study Director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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