In her role at WGF, Heather Arnet spearheads efforts to develop the female leaders of tomorrow, while investing in better public policy today. A thought leader and champion for women and girls equality, Heather’s writing appears in a variety of publications including the Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Business Times. As this week’s Insider, Heather shares insight on the dichotomy of Pittsburgh’s economic development and poverty rates for single mothers.
Last month, the Women and Girls Foundation launched a new initiative called Femisphere. Femisphere “reimagines Pittsburgh as a place that puts women at the center of economic growth and poverty reduction efforts.” What were the circumstances that led WGF to launch this program and what are some outcomes you expect to see from this program?
Since its beginnings in 2004, the Women and Girls Foundation has published a bi-annual report on the Status of Women in PA. In 2014, as we began a strategic planning cycle, we noticed that in ten years, poverty rates for single mothers in our community had only gotten worse while at the same time the region was experiencing an economic development renaissance. Most heartbreaking was seeing that single mothers now made up 77% of households living in poverty in Pittsburgh. Clearly there was a disconnect between the investments being made in our communities and the economic empowerment of women. We launched Femisphere to look more carefully at current services and opportunities so that we could discover areas for improvement and deeper connection. We published our Femisphere research report in 2016 which mapped out where concentrations of moms and kids living in poverty in our city are in relationship to core services. Our goal with this next phase is to engage the full community, including dozens of community partners in the public and private sectors, to work together to find ways to bridge these gaps for single moms. That means we need to consider transportation and childcare as key necessities to any new economic development or workforce initiative. It means we need to think holistically and put women at the center of development efforts.
A key tenet of sustainability is ensuring all people can live healthy, productive lives. Where do you see positive traction in addressing this issue for women and girls in the Pittsburgh region?
From our research we learned that in order to improve the economic security of single mothers, we need to focus more as a community on the intersection of work and family. We need to develop more workforce development and higher ed training programs which include transportation and childcare for participants. And from a systemic level, we need to develop more family-friendly work policies that can support the ability of parents to retain full-time employment. We are very encouraged by the bi-partisan groundswell of support for Paid Family and Medical Leave. Currently we are working with state agencies, employer associations, non-profits, and caregiving advocates to find an affordable solution to provide this benefit to nearly all workers in the Commonwealth. California, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C. have all recently put in place state level Paid Family & Medical Leave Insurance Funds which help increase job retention for employers, level the playing field for small businesses, and assist families in remaining economically secure while taking a few weeks off of work to care for an infant, child, spouse, or parent in need. This is critical for Pennsylvanians because our state has some of the highest cancer rates and one of the oldest populations in the country. Regardless of our age, gender, marital or parenting status, at some point all of us will need to care for someone we love and we shouldn’t have to lose our job because of it. These policies do not just benefit new parents. Health outcomes for all of us—especially children and seniors—improve significantly when a member of our family can provide care to us during a serious illness. Job retention rates improve dramatically when employers are able to offer paid family and medical leave.