Two new studies look at that question – the Status of Women in North Carolina report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the North Carolina Council for Women, and the Status of Girls in North Carolina report from Meredith College.
There is good news. “Women are doing much better than they had been,” said Beth Briggs, executive director of the NC Council for Women. “They’re more educated, they’re in more management positions. Women are doing really well in this state, much better than they’ve ever done before, and we celebrate that.”
But there’s also plenty of cause for concern. These reports also uncover discrimination, restricted opportunity, and other factors that are holding women back.
Racial Disparities among Women
Although these two reports are about women and girls, the authors found race plays a significant factor in many of the issues facing females.
“What we’re used to talking about is girls versus boys, men versus women. But increasingly, that does a disservice to some women,” said Dr. Amie Hess, assistant professor of sociology at Meredith College. “Girls, in terms of education, are doing quite well compared to boys. But then when you look among girls, we see these persistent inequalities.”
While the data show many of these inequalities fall along racial lines, Hess said race is really a stand-in for economic status, which has a tremendous impact on the quality of education girls in North Carolina receive.
“Our school funding formula, in most districts, is based on our local area property taxes,” Hess explained. “So if you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in an under-resourced area that then will have under-resourced schools, so your educational outcomes are probably going to be poor.”
As a whole, girls in North Carolina perform as well as or better than boys on end-of-grade standardized tests in reading and math. But when the data is broken down by race, the scores for African-American, American Indian, and Latina girls are much lower than for white and Asian girls.
These racial disparities have a life-long impact on women and a multi-generational impact on communities, as they follow women out of the public education system and into the workforce.
The continuing disparities are reflected in women’s earnings. The median annual income for a white woman in North Carolina is $35,000. “But $29,000 is the median income for an African-American woman, $24,000 for a Latina woman, $30,000 for an Asian American,” said Briggs. These dollar amounts are medians, so half of women make more and half make less. It’s not surprising that the racial disparities in income result in many more minority women living in poverty.
The Status of Women in North Carolina report finds that 12% of white women live in poverty and 18% live in near poverty. Among black women, 25% are in poverty and 27% are near poverty and among Hispanic women, the rates are 34% and 30%, respectively. ‘Poverty’ is defined as having household incomes below the federal poverty level for household size – in 2011, that was $18,123 for a single person with two children. ‘Near poverty’ is defined as twice the federal poverty level for household size.
“The faces of poverty are women and children,” said Briggs.
The Health of Women and Girls
Poverty often leads to poor health outcomes for women and girls in North Carolina. “Obesity is highly associated with poverty,” Hess points out. “Bad food – food that doesn’t have as much nutritional value – is cheaper.”
The Status of Women report finds 30% of women are obese and another 30% are overweight, and these weight issues contribute to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other life-threatening conditions. The Status of Girls report looked at high school students in North Carolina and found that 10.9% were obese and 16.4% were overweight.
In addition to the health issues associated with weight, girls and women in North Carolina are facing a growing crisis of sexually transmitted diseases. Teenagers and young women in North Carolina have higher rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea than the national average.
“I think this is one of the lasting legacies of abstinence-only education,” said Hess. “There’s some evidence to show that kids [whose only formal sex education is abstinence-only education] know much less about disease, and they’re less likely to use protection when they do have sex.”
“Chlamydia is very high for teen girls,” Briggs added. “Untreated, this can lead to an inability to have children or to potential cancers in the future. … These are girls 15 to 19, and they’re having unprotected sex, and that’s really a concern.”
Despite these concerns, there is reason to be optimistic about the status of women’s health in North Carolina. “Preventive health care has gone up significantly,” said Briggs. “Eighty-two percent of women are getting pap tests annually. Eighty-two percent of women [over age 45] are getting mammograms. Prevention is really significant.”
Briggs added that encouraging women to maintain a healthy weight, get preventive health care and see a doctor on an annual basis are important ways North Carolina can improve the well-being of women.
Women Empowering Women
Another way North Carolina can use public policy to improve the lives of women is to facilitate women’s ability to work.
“Women need access to child care that they feel comfortable with,” said Hess. [For formal child-care arrangements], “they’re probably going to need subsidies – meaningful subsidies, not where they’re on a waiting list for five years and by the time they get it the kid is in school.”
Briggs stresses the need to have women in leadership roles in businesses and government. “We have to think about having more women in charge of businesses, more CEOs, moving women up to a higher level of management within corporations so [the businesses] have an empathy about what women are dealing with, how challenging it is.”
Briggs also points out that women’s low representation in the state legislature affects policy decisions. “There needs to be a more significant representation within government and companies because women make decisions that take into consideration women and families,” she said. “We also encourage companies to think about doing an internal assessment to say, ‘Let’s take a look and see if there is wage inequity within our company.’ A lot of times people don’t even realize it’s happened.”
Briggs stressed the importance of mentorship among women so that young women learn to negotiate on the job and so they can develop a plan for the challenges they will likely face balancing the work lives and their family lives.
“There’s a 40% increase in women taking management positions,” Briggs said. “Where do we want to be in ten years? How do we insure that the generation of women who are in school now have a real strategy for helping to maintain income in their families?”
Briggs said the report found that 28% of businesses in North Carolina are owned by women, and she anticipates that more young women will follow that path in order to ensure they have the flexibility they need.
“I do think the younger generation of women needs to be informed and educated about these issues,” Briggs continued. “They need to read the paper; they need to understand local politics and state politics as well as national politics. … [Young women] need an opportunity to really think about the issues that affect them and their families and to engage in conversation.”
“And it’s not just women. It’s men and women, because it affects us all.”
This is the third post in a series reflecting on the findings of the Status of North Carolina Women report.