Changing GED Could Mean Greater Barriers for Area Women

GEDgirl_courtesyColumbusStateCommunityCollegeI’ve had the amazing opportunity to be a volunteer teacher at Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s Grantee Partner, The Academy of Hope, and can speak to the hard work of the learners who step through their doors each day. This innovative organization provides basic education to adult learners. Though most learners have jobs, families and a myriad of other responsibilities that compete for their time, they still make their studies a priority. In spending time with the learners there, I’ve come to see that the value of a GED or high school equivalency diploma goes beyond the increased job opportunities and higher wages associated with obtaining that level of education (though these are extremely important). Their value is also in the confidence gained by the adults who walk across the stage at graduation, in a mother who is more equipped to help her children with their homework, in that member of society who is more prepared for civic engagement and in immeasurably more ways. In January of 2014, however, the GED is undergoing significant changes that will likely make it considerably more difficult to obtain.

While there are several changes coming to the GED, three of the most significant shifts are the transition from paper-based tests to computerized-only exams, the jump from a $50 testing fee to a fee of $120, and an increase in the test’s difficulty. These changes have been widely debated, and Academy of Hope has been tackling the tough questions around this transition through a series of panels and continuing dialog on this issue. Most recently, they hosted local experts for a panel discussion on July 17th, in partnership with the Moriah Fund and PNC Bank, to discuss the implications of the changing GED for DC adults.

The panel raised several great issues, discussing the challenges and barriers that the changes to the GED could mean for adults looking to pass the test, and balancing these with comments on the need for the GED to remain relevant at a time when many jobs demand higher levels of computer literacy and “soft skills” such as listening, critical reasoning, and inductive reasoning. For me, one of the most relevant comments came from Nicole Smith, a research professor and senior economist at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. She noted that her research has shown that women need an entire layer of education higher than men to obtain the same salary, meaning that when a woman obtains her GED she would still need at least an associate’s degree or certificate just to earn what a man with a GED alone would be able to earn; women with the same educational attainment as men earn about a quarter less than their male counterparts over a lifetime. For the new GED, with the increase in difficulty, greater need for computer literacy and higher financial burden just to take the test, women will face an even more difficult road to higher education and family sustaining wages.

In a city where, in 2008, 14% of girls did not complete high school, the ramifications for this are serious. The GED test is the most widely recognized alternative to a high school diploma and a gateway to higher education opportunities. The changes to the GED will likely increase the time commitment of adults studying for the test, and will mean a tremendous amount of work for organizations that prepare adults in the Washington area for the GED, as they will need to revamp and adapt their programs to the new standards. At the panel discussion, NPR’s Kavitha Cardoza remarked that with the coming changes in the GED, “this is a really scary time for adult educators and adults in DC.”

As the barriers to higher education for women in the region increase, so, too, do the barriers to better jobs and more opportunities for women and their families to find economic security. This is why The Women’s Foundation funds programs like Academy of Hope and appreciates their commitment to continuing the conversation with great events like this panel!

For more information on what the changes to the GED could mean for area adults, click here for a policy brief courtesy of The Working Poor Families Project.

You can follow Academy of Hope as they continue the discussion on twitter at @AoHDC and on Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Columbus State Community College

Miss Utah Equal Pay Flub Should Be a Call to Action

miss_utah_questionLast week, the media was buzzing following Miss Utah’s flubbed response at the Miss USA Pageant to a question about pay inequity and women’s rights. The question from judge NeNe Leakes was: “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does it say about society?” Miss Utah (aka Marissa Powell) for all intents and purposes could not answer the question, and under the pressure of the lights and the cameras, vaguely responded with allusions to increased education and job creation. I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of this issue as there appears to be some level of outrage, at least across the media, to the fact that Marissa botched the answer to this question, and of course the commentary about the relative intelligence of beauty pageant contestants has been part of the ribbing. ( I found this media reaction particularly interesting given the fact that, in general, mainstream media does not seem to be aware of or interested in women’s rights issues and reporting on the continued inequality in this country).

At the end of the day, I think this contestant’s inability to answer the question is less about beauty pageants, and in fact more reflective of the lackluster state of the women’s rights movement, and in particular, the lack of awareness among young women about the issues that women continue to face in this country. For me, this is a call to action – women’s organizations, policymakers, and leaders need to do a better job of educating the public on the need for continued focus on women’s rights and re-galvanize women of all ages to continue to fight for equality. Only then will we have the voice and power to shift policy and institutions that continue to hold women back.

Nicky is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

No Joke: The Impact of the Sequester is Devastating Vulnerable Families

Capitol Bldg by Amanda Walker_CCSeems like the word “sequester” has become part of our everyday vernacular here in the DC metro region, so much so that not a day goes by without it coming up in some context. Yet, since its implementation, it feels like the sense of urgency to resolve the impact of the sequester has dissipated. It’s no longer front page news and has become the source of jokes and derision. There was the non-“snowquester” in March; the sparring about what was really behind the cancellations of all White House tours; and the reports about how Congress quickly passed legislation to resolve the impact of the sequester on air travel – just as their week-long recess was beginning (really???). And all the while, critical social services that are helping to meet the needs of our poorest communities are being cut. Programs like Headstart, nutrition assistance, child-care subsidies, and health screenings for low-income women all faced significant cutbacks but without the same sense of outrage or swift action that some of these less consequential outcomes spurred.

The reality is that the sequester is not a joke, and though the hype has faded and pundits are saying the effects have not been as bad as predicted, for many people the very real implications and impact of these policy decisions are just beginning. For them, this will be devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by cuts to programs like those listed above; poor people in this country are once again bearing the brunt of bad policy and are finding that their pathways out of poverty have been blocked.

And the sequester isn’t only affecting people who rely on social services. There are also the large swaths of the federal workforce that have been required to take mandatory furloughs. A chief economist for Moody’s Analytics told The Hill last month that one-third of the federal workforce – nearly one million people – “will be furloughed for an average of 13 days through September.” This can have an enormous impact on any family, and for those at the bottom of the federal pay scale – who are probably already living paycheck to paycheck – it is likely crushing and life-changing. Keep in mind that, in the Washington region, the federal pay scale that determines how much most of the federal civilian workforce is paid starts at just over $22,000.

People I know and people you know and maybe see every day could be among those who will have to go without pay for more than two weeks to ease the financial strain on the federal government. It makes you wonder what the average person is supposed to give up to ease her own financial strain.

Our lawmakers need to start putting the needs of those who are most disadvantaged first instead of last and try to put themselves, even for a moment, in the shoes of those who are most profoundly impacted by the policy decisions they are making (or not making as the case may be) from on high.

Nicky Goren is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Equal Pay Day: Gender Wage Gap is a Chasm for Women of Color

As we approached Equal Pay Day (April 9th), a number of bloggers and organizations were asked to write about what they’d do with an additional $11,000. That’s how much more the average woman would earn per year if her pay were equal to a man’s.

If she were a woman of color, however, that gap would be even greater. In the Washington region, the median earnings for black women are over $37,000 less than that of white men ($46,138 vs. $83,299). For Latinas, the gap is more than $52,000 ($30,831 vs. $83,299). Asian women have median earnings of $48,891 – over $34,000 less than the earnings of white men.*

If women’s incomes matched those of white men, what would that additional money mean for women of color in our community? It would be more than enough to fund an entire associate’s degree at a local community college. It would fund more than half of a bachelor’s degree at some local universities. It would send three children to a really high-quality preschool in DC. And it would cover the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in the District. It could provide more reliable transportation and could fund afterschool activities and trips. Something could be set aside for the inevitable emergencies life throws everyone’s way, and investments could be made.

In addition to funding the basic needs of themselves and their families, these women would be putting a staggering amount of money back into our community. In our report, 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area, we shared that nearly two million women live in the DC region. Fifty-three percent of them are Asian, black or Latina – that’s about one million. If just half of them had an income that matched the median earnings of white men, they’d have a combined income of $42 trillion. And that’s only half! Imagine if all women across the area were compensated as well as men….

That money would support families, be spent at local businesses, and could be invested in assets across our region that would build better neighborhoods and ultimately a better community. A significant portion would go to the federal government and – given the fact that women donate an average of 3.5 percent of their wealth – the nonprofit community would see some pretty significant changes, as well.

In addition to discussing what women would do with a higher income, I think it’s important to recognize what we can all accomplish when women earn more. Like so many other things, pay equity is an issue that primarily touches the lives of women – but it’s not simply a “women’s issue.” It affects every one of us and as long as it exists, it means that we’re not doing as well as we could be economically or morally. Equal pay for equal work is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, and the only thing to do if we truly want to make this a country where everyone can thrive.

*See page 32 of 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Leaning in isn’t an option for all women

lean inSheryl Sandberg has stirred up quite a bit of controversy with her book “Lean In,” in which she advises women to assert themselves in the workplace and beyond. Sandberg calls women out for creating invisible, self-imposed barriers when considering how far they want to go in their respective careers. She notes, “we hold ourselves back in ways both big and small by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” With the ongoing dialogue sparked from this book, I can’t help but wonder about the women who have real-life barriers that impede their professional growth.

While I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for tackling this complex issue and bringing it (once again) to the forefront of national discourse, I think for most women this issue is bigger than simply asking more questions at the weekly staff meeting. Currently in Washington D.C., one in five women live in poverty and women are 35 percent more likely to be in poverty than men. In Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area, we shared that female-headed households in the District had the lowest median incomes in the region, earning $29,000 annually. For these economically disadvantaged women, leaning in can be tough to do when there are so many other mitigating factors surrounding their survival. Issues like the cost of childcare, unemployment/underemployment, lack of educational attainment, transportation, and securing affordable housing continue to stifle women within this region.

With all that being said, I do feel that Sandberg is definitely on to something! By choosing to launch a nonprofit in conjunction with her book, she’s demonstrating that her words alone are not enough. is geared towards empowering and encouraging women to create their own Lean In Circles, which will serve as a space for women to come together and strategize on how to push their careers to the next level. My suggestion would be to add an advocacy packet to the Lean In Circle kit that would educate women on how to become spokeswomen for those who can’t advocate for themselves. The message that action must accompany words is invaluable and perhaps the most meaningful piece in this whole debate. Of course, we all want equal pay and a well-deserved promotion, but imagine the power that we could collectively posses if we not only leaned in for ourselves, but also for the women that aren’t afforded the same opportunity. Now that would be powerful!

What would you add to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Circles? Share below.

Grantee Partner Spotlight: Academy of Hope

In December 2012, Washington Area Women’s Foundation made grants totaling $805,500 to 23 DC-area nonprofits whose work is improving the economic security of low income women and their families. One of those organizations was Academy of Hope, which provides high quality adult basic education that changes lives. Here’s a look at why The Women’s Foundation made a grant to Academy of Hope.

Women's History Month Q&A – March 29, 2013

Q: Who was the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as U.S. Surgeon General? Hint: she served from 1990 to 1993.

A: Antonia Novello, M.D., served as the 14th U.S. Surgeon General from 1990 to 1993. Her work as Surgeon General focused on the health of women, children and minorities, underage drinking, smoking and AIDS.