The State of Women


state-of-women-april-17-b-metroWritten by Rosalind Fournier and Joe O’Donnell // Photography by Beau Gustafson

We can all agree that the country has moved long past the days when flight attendants were “stewardesses” and prerequisites for the job included being single, childless and attractive. Today sexual harassment is against the law, women have reached unprecedented heights in politics, and some sit in the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies. Yet just when we start to take women’s progress for granted, something happens. We hear new, demoralizing statistics about single mothers struggling to raise children in poverty, or stubborn discrepancies between men and women’s earnings…or in the middle of a heated presidential election, startling audio of the worst kind of “locker room talk” is revealed by Access Hollywood, and the speaker in question turns out to be none other than one of the two major presidential candidates. 

Maybe it’s not so easy to measure progress, after all. But the time felt right to take a fresh look at the state of women today in five important categories: politics, leadership, pay equity, single motherhood, and the women who will grow up to become and shape the next generation. 

WOMEN IN POLITICS

There’s no sugarcoating it: women in Alabama politics have a long way to go, judging by the numbers. In the Alabama State Legislature, only 14.3 percent of seats are filled by women—compared to (an also dismal, but better) 25 percent in state legislatures nationwide.

But could that be on the verge of changing? Can the pulse of women’s involvement in politics be measured by numbers alone—without meeting the women, from the ones who’ve beaten the odds to win offices at the state and local levels to the grassroots volunteers who are newly invigorated, motivated and organized?

We think not. We found a fabulous sampling of local women—a Republican state legislator, a Homewood city council member and a handful of grassroots coordinators and volunteers—to tell their stories about why they do it and where they see the future of women in politics headed.

april-weaver

“I want to be an example for other women who may feel for whatever reason that they can’t step into the political realm.”- State Representative April Weaver

Alabama Representative 

April Weaver, District 29

April Weaver of Six Mile, Ala., represents District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives, a seat she won in 2010—beating out three men in the primary. “All of them had political experience,” Weaver says. “I had none. I had very little campaign money. I had a purely grassroots campaign, with zero support from Montgomery, because nobody thought that I could.”

What she had was grit. Weaver grew up here in Six Mile, an unincorporated community in Bibb County, and lived through a tornado that hit in 1973, sparing her family but taking everything their owned. “I learned from an early age that when life knocks you down, you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going,” she says. “I think all women who have had difficult life lessons pretty much do the same thing.”

And they need to, Weaver adds, to succeed to in the old-boys’ network of Montgomery. “We’ve all learned that women who want who want to serve in Alabama politics have to be really tough. It’s a very different world, and I think we as women hold each other to a higher standard to perform because we know we’re setting an example for future generations of Alabama women. And women being involved in politics is a great thing for our state, because we bring such diverse experiences and resiliency.” Weaver has the latter in spades—as a mother, wife, daughter to her aging parents, and a businesswoman who rose through the ranks to hold several high-level executive positions in the healthcare profession. Thanks to her expertise, in 2014 she became the first woman in the history of Alabama to be appointed chair of the House Health Committee.

Weaver says she can handle the demands of juggling job and family—even as she commutes to Montgomery three days a week from her family’s farm in Six Mile, where she still lives, and attends almost nightly political events when she’s at home—but suspects it may be a deterrent for other would-be female politicians who don’t have the same network of support from family and friends that she enjoys.

“I think the main reason there aren’t more women serving in the state legislature is simply time,” Weaver says. “It’s a very busy life for those of us who have children at home and professional careers on top of it. (But) I want to be an example for other women who may feel for whatever reason that they can’t step into the political realm, because if you look at my background, I am probably not a person that you would expect to end up being a politician.”

Weaver hopes more women will step in, because she believes they bring unique experiences and assets to the capital. “Women are great collaborators, and that is a huge part of good governance,” she says. “We tend to work well across party lines. We genuinely like one another, and even though we are often on opposite sides of issues, in the overall picture we often still find issues that are important to all of us because we’re women.

“There’s only a small number of us,” she adds, “but we work very well together. And as we look at getting more women involved, we need to encourage them to step out and do something they may not have thought they ever could have done.”

jennifer-barry

Jennifer Andress, left, and Barry Smith, right, serve on the Homewood City Council

Jennifer Andress

Homewood City Councilor, Ward 5

The Homewood mayor has a saying that recently elected city council member Jennifer Andress has adopted as one of her favorites: At its core, politics is about “neighbors helping neighbors.”

Of course, we all know it doesn’t always work that way. But Andress comes pretty close to employing that ideal. At the height of national political discord, for instance, she sees no place for partisan politics at the neighborhood level. “Last summer when I was campaigning, a few times somebody would ask me who I supported for president, and that just couldn’t be further removed from what I feel like this job is,” she says. “I feel like our job is to solve problems in the community.”

In fact, Andress, a past PTO president who along with Peter Wright represents Ward 5 in the Hollywood section of Homewood, came in with some very specific problems she wanted to solve—many of them related to making Homewood as safe for pedestrians, runners and cyclists as possible. A lifelong runner herself (as well as a breast-cancer survivor who appeared on a special-edition cover of Runner’s World dedicated to cancer survivors), she had served as president of the Birmingham Track Club (BTC) and helped it evolve beyond a social group that hosted races to also become a runners’ advocacy platform. “It’s important to see safe passageways connecting our communities, and kids being able to get on bikes and ride to get ice cream or whatever and not worry about getting hit by a car because the streets are too narrow or don’t have bike lanes or sidewalks,” Andress says. “And I think Alabama’s chronic obesity problem ties into that. So at the local level, it’s about getting around places, but at the macro level it’s getting people moving and healthy and not having to get into their car to go somewhere that’s three minutes away. So that was really even the bigger picture for me.”

Meanwhile, she’s determined—and has been, from her earliest days with the BTC—to work with anybody and everybody in local municipalities and at the state level to improve the bridge on Hollywood Boulevard that crosses Highway 280, connecting Homewood to Mountain Brook. “It is a very narrow bridge with no shoulder,” Andress explains. “The wall that separates people or cars from falling down onto 280 is very low, and it is regularly traversed by runners, cyclists, pedestrians, even cross-country teams…it is just a very common connector.” She and others pushing for improvements have come close to securing the funding necessary to overhaul the bridge only to see circumstances change unexpectedly and government support slip away; still, things seem to be back on track now, and she’s happy to report that a new bridge study is set to begin with hopes of finally moving forward.

In her new role as city council member, Andress is better poised than ever to help make that dream and others that her constituents care about a reality. And yes, she does feel good about adding another woman’s voice to the council. When she was still BTC president, she says she had come to speak to the council about issues important to the runners’ community and realized that, at the time, there was only one female council woman. “It was remarkable, the lack of estrogen up on that dais,” Andress says. “As progressive as I feel like Homewood is in a lot of ways, that was striking.” While she respects and enjoys the company of her male colleagues, “optically, to sit out there and look up and see one woman out of 11 council members was just not right.”

Now there are two women—Andress and her friend and now colleague Barry Smith—so that’s progress, and if more are interested in taking a stab at it during the next election cycle, Andress is happy to share some helpful advice that others shared with her, from handing out fliers at carpool to investing in plenty of sundresses and flipflops for the hottest days—because campaigning in August in Alabama in no walk in the park. Oh, and when election day finally arrives, avoid social media if you can. “The night before the election, literally I sat there watching two people online going back and forth about me,” she remembers, “and I was watching it in real time at 11:30 at night. I couldn’t sleep—I just sat there thinking, ‘Here we go.’ It’s surreal, it really is.

“But so far, I absolutely love it.”

Tracy Wooten- mom, teacher, and grassroots activists- bought a ticket to Washington, D.C. as soon as she heard about the march

Tracy Wooten- mom, teacher, and grassroots activists- bought a ticket to Washington, D.C. as soon as she heard about the march

The Grassroots Activists

Tracy Wooten, a French teacher and mom from Homewood, had felt alone in her political views for almost as long as she can remember. Though she’s always been involved in things like the PTO, her church, and the Alabama chapter of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Wooten always held views that were usually left-of-center among most of her peer groups here at home.

Or so she thought. The recent presidential election—with many inflammatory statements made about women (among many other groups)—has inflamed passions on both sides of the political spectrum in ways we haven’t seen since the ‘60s. And in many ways, women have taken the leading role in speaking out, beginning with what began as a March on Washington, D.C. and ultimately became a global women’s march—attracting more than one million people to cities around the world to speak out on behalf of women’s issues.

Wooten bought a plane ticket to Washington the moment she heard plans were forming.

“It was exhilarating,” she says. “The crowds were huge, but it was so positive…it just looked like a bunch of people who looked like you and me. And there were lots of men and children, tiny babies there with their moms…it was a real sense of, ‘We are all here to support and lift one another up and get ready to fight the big fight.’”

During one of the rare moments she spent in her hotel room, her husband, Jimmy, called from home. “Turn on the news!” he said. “Look—everybody around the world is marching with you. You’ve made history.”

Wooten came home rejuvenated, mindful of an observation she’d heard on CNN about the record-breaking turnout at the marches. “One woman said, ‘If 10 percent of these women do 10 percent more than what they were doing, then we can change the world,’” Wooten remembers. “That really resonated with me. I know I can do 10 percent more.”

"Muslim women are easily identified, and so people are interested to know what our experience has been like." -- Birmingham-Southern College senior Dala Eloubeidi

“Muslim women are easily identified, and so people are interested to know what our experience has been like.” — Birmingham-Southern College senior Dala Eloubeidi

Dala Eloubeidi, a senior at Birmingham-Southern College, says she’s definitely seen a raised level of awareness in women as well as men in politics, though she’s quick to point out her personal experience is limited given her youth. Speaking as a Muslim woman in particular, Eloubeidi has seen her members of her local community go beyond pushing back against angry rhetoric about Muslims during the 2016 campaign to using it as an opportunity to invite others to learn who they really are.

“From my perspective as a Muslim woman, I think people generally are interested in hearing what we have to say,” she says. “I get a lot of questions in terms of, ‘Have you been subject to any form of discrimination?’ And I don’t think it stems from a stereotype or anything, but they do know that Muslim women are easily identified, and so they are interested to know what our experience has been like. And in that sense, I do think we can offer a unique perspective.”

Eloubeidi points to an uncomfortable moment in the campaign when the Khizr and Ghazala Khan appeared at the Democratic Convention and spoke about their son, a Muslim-American soldier who died in Iraq. Then-presidential candidate Trump later suggested Mrs. Kahn stood by her husband at the podium but was not allowed to speak, setting off a firestorm throughout the Muslim community. “People were genuinely interested in hearing, what we as Muslim women thought when she was humiliated like that,” Eloubeidi remembers, noting there was a strong social-media backlash among the Muslim-American community and beyond, with a hashtag that quickly went viral: #CanYouHearUsNow?

Along the way, a friend signed Eloubeidi up for the Facebook group Resist Birmingham. “I saw it as a good way to connect with people locally,” she says. “Often I see political articles, but we also see a lot in terms of local efforts.” It seems more of like a grassroots-effort type of platform…a like-minded group that are worried about the current situation and want to come together and do whatever they can and address some of the issues that we’re facing.” Eloubeidi and others from her community also used Resist and other platforms to invite the public to come to an open house at a local mosque, which took place in February just a week after a death threat was sent there. “We saw that people were worried when we received that email,” she recalls, “but we said, ‘Why are we going to allow something like that to affect us?’ The next week was everyone was so happy with the turnout. We always wanted people to come and have that opportunity to see what we’re like up close and personal, because I think a lot of people now especially are more curious about Muslims, want to know more, and they want to be supportive.”

Another grassroots group with a strong social-media presence is Homewood H.I.V.E. (which stands for Huddle, Inquire, Validate, Enact and was originally known as Ladies United). Co-founders Megan Cheek and Kristin Rezek started the group initially out of concern over the proposed travel ban against some Muslim-majority countries, reaching out to about a dozen people to discuss local calls to action. “We were hopeful we could interest at least 10,” Cheek says. “That first meeting we had over 40 women from all over the community gather and spend three hours voicing our concerns about the current political climate and encouraging one another. Our list continues to grow, and we are constantly inspired by the wisdom, passion and dedication to the greater good of those in our group.” She says the membership list (with men also welcome) is now 100 and counting, with more on the Facebook page.

Finding groups like Resist and H.I.V.E. is one way Wooten discovered she wasn’t as isolated in her views as she always thought, and she feels more invigorated than ever. Off the top of her head, Wooten can list letters she’s written in the past few weeks to politicians; newsletters she subscribes to; and meetings she’s attended along with others already penciled in. “My calendar is full,” she says. “There’s so much—you have to go through and pick out which things are most important to you, because as much as you’d like to, you still can’t do everything.”

And though she says she feels her whole world changed after last November’s presidential election, she’s circumspect in the way she talks about that. She wants to focus on the future. “I was disappointed,” she says. “But this is not necessarily anti-Trump. I do think it has been a rallying cry for women and given us the kick we needed, so we can join together and make changes that are needed to make society better for women and for all people.

“I see a new purpose in my life.”

PAY EQUITY

Talking about the gender pay gap in 2017 can feel like stepping into a time warp. For many of us—having grown up with the firm message that no girl is less competent, intelligent, or deserving than a boy—pay equity seemed like a done deal, or at least headed quickly in that direction. President John F. Kennedy had signed the Equal Pay Act into law back in 1963, making it illegal to compensate men and women differently for the same work. Women were empowered, society knew it, and the money would follow.

So for anyone who hasn’t been paying close attention, it’s a bit jarring to hear that women today—in spite of making up almost half the workforce and now outpacing men in earning college and graduate degree—earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2015 on average. It is widely projected that it will take until 2059 for American women to reach pay parity, and in Alabama that figure is even more dismal: it could take a good 30 years longer, until 2089.

Where have we gone wrong?

Carol Gundlach is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, an Alabama-based nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, community groups and individuals dedicated to advocating for policies that improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Gundlach has been involved in women’s issues her entire life, from her college days in the 1970s to serving for nearly two decades as director of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and she agrees there is a disconnect between many women’s perception of pay equity and the reality.

“It’s one thing to say to a little girl, ‘You can be anything you want,’” she says. “It’s much harder for society to actually allow that woman to be anything she wants.”

The reality, in Gundlach’s view, is that employers who persist in paying women less than men usually have a simple reason—to save money. “I would imagine there is not as much overt bias today,” she says. “But the employer doesn’t see it as their job to achieve equality. It’s their job to take care of the company and worry about the bottom line.”

Meanwhile, though it might be illegal for men and women to receive disparate pay for the same jobs, there are a number of factors that make pay disparity less clear-cut than it was in Lilly Ledbetter case. For instance, if job responsibilities are defined differently—no matter how similar they are in reality—discrimination can be more difficult to prove. It’s also more difficult to prove in the absence of salary transparency. (In one of the most famous pay equity cases in recent history, Lilly Ledbetter—a manager at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Ala.—found out 19 years after the fact that she’d been earning less than her male counterparts all along, and only then when someone tipped her off with an anonymous note.)

stephanie-yates

Pay equity improves by generation “as older workers exit the workforce and younger, higher paid workers enter.” — Stephanie Yates, director of the Regions Institute of Financial Education at UAB’s Collat School of Business.

Moreover, in small businesses, there may be only one person at a time holding a given job, so there is no apples-to-apples comparison of salary compensation. There are also profession-wide discrepancies in which jobs traditionally held by women—elementary-school teachers, for instance—pay less than jobs traditionally held by men, such as a those in construction work. And then there’s what many call the “elephant in the room”—childcare. While many women lose ground in lifetime compensation by voluntarily leaving the workforce or reducing their hours for extended periods while their children are young, others pay a penalty just by virtue of taking on more responsibility than fathers for their kids’ sick days and other family-care needs. While that isn’t enough to explain away the discrepancies, it has long prompted many to push for more family-friendly policies from more paid leave to care for family to more flexible hours and better availability of high-quality, affordable child care.

Understanding the History

While many of these issues come with their own unique, vexing complexities, Stephanie Yates, associate professor and director of the Regions Institute for Financial Education at the Collat School of Business at UAB, says a large part of the problem can be explained more simply: Old habits die hard. “The wage gap is one of those phenomena that exists, in part, because it always has,” Yates explains, “and is therefore difficult to erase. Women didn’t enter the workforce in large numbers in the 1940s due to the war effort and then again in the 1960s as a result of the feminist movement. Many of those jobs were as unskilled laborers. Over time, as women pursued higher education, their wages increased along with their level of education.”

But not for everyone, she adds. “Some employers (still) did not believe that a woman was as valuable as a man for various reasons. Some argue that men are more productive, while others argue that men command higher wages due to their role in the family as primary breadwinner. All of those factors result in the origins of the pay gap, which take generations to overcome as older workers exit the workforce and younger, higher paid workers enter.” (A recent study by the Pew Research Study bears this out, showing that the gender pay gap is already smaller among young adults than workers overall, with the national, median hourly earnings of women coming out at 90 percent of men’s wages.)

Changing Cultural Perceptions

Natalie Davis, the Howell T. Heflin Professor of Political Science at Birmingham-Southern College, says pay equity could be achieved more quickly with more women at the top of the food chain, from those setting corporate policies to those elected to political office.

“What has happened over time is that while people in their heads know there’s something not right, they’re not in positions of power to do something about it—that is, women,” she says. “We have very few women in corporate positions. And there’s nobody out there ringing the bell for women except women. So if you don’t elect women, or if you think it’s not that big a deal to elect women, then you’re really not going to address issues that directly affect women and families.”

Davis points to another phenomenon she observes among her own students at Birmingham-Southern College. She’s concerned that from an early age society—particularly in the South—is giving girls mixed signals about what to expect and how to achieve it. “Women are certainly raised differently in the South,” she says. “It is true that women are not getting married in the same numbers they were right after graduation; they’re not coming just for an Mrs. Degree. That has changed, no question.

“But in terms of putting yourself out there, expressing yourself, raising your hand in class and saying, ‘I disagree,’ or ‘There’s another point to be made here’—that hasn’t changed,” she continues. She recalls an all-woman luncheon where she was struck by an astute observation made by a student she had barely heard from in class before. When she asked another student why this young woman who was obviously bright and perceptive seemed so reticent to speak out in class, she was told, ‘You don’t get dates that way.’”

Davis found it disconcerting. “Southern women are less likely to really step in,” she says, “and if you don’t think that affects their chances later on in terms of success and equal pay, you’re nuts.”

What’s a Woman to Do? 

Meanwhile, Yates offers some advice women can take right now to fight for pay equity on an individual level—beginning with knowing the market value of their work. “Always know what other employers are paying for the work that you do,” she says. “That means that sometimes, you may have to switch employers in order to be paid what you’re worth. …Loyalty isn’t always rewarded—especially for women. As we increase our education and skills, we may be better of moving to a new company. In fact, some firms may argue that there is a limit to the amount of a pay increase they can often regardless of how much your skills increase.”

Keeping your resume up to date at all times and testing the market to find out what other employers are willing to pay can be a strong negotiating tool with your current employer—though Yates advises women need to be prepared to follow through if they threaten to jump ship. Finally, she advises against bringing co-workers’ relative pay into the discussion. “That can open up another can of worms with regard to confidentiality and collegiality. Instead, always argue with regard to your own strengths, expertise and value. Remember, the most valuable employees are those who are productive and add value. That should be the basis of your argument.”

SINGLE MOTHERS

Parents and non-parents can often seem like they’re living on different planets. There’s nothing like hitting the grocery store on a late-night emergency diaper run, sleep deprived and looking it, and colliding with your childless friends who are dressed for a night on the town and stopping by for a bottle of wine to take along to the next party. It’s hard to read the look on their face—pity? Confusion?

But imagine if even the late-night diaper run is impossible, because you’re a single mother without a partner to stay with your young children, already asleep in bed. Just leaving the house to run a quick errand adds layers of difficulty to an otherwise mundane chore.

For single mothers, those challenges can seem overwhelming—from finding quality, affordable childcare so you can work to struggling to support your family as the sole breadwinner and coping with painful feelings of isolation.

We asked three single moms to tell their stories.

crystal-simmon

Single mother Crystal Simmons received help through a Women’s Fund-coordinated program to train for a new job at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital

Crystal Simmons

A couple of years ago, Crystal Simmons, now 28, was a single mom with three small children, working part time at UPS in the evenings from 6 p.m. until anywhere between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. She lived with her mother, who helped take care of the kids, but in other ways, “everything felt like it was going downhill,” Simmons says. She didn’t have a car, so she had to rely on others for transportation to work, and she wasn’t able to work enough hours to really make ends meet. She was also pregnant with her fourth child. “I was getting kind of overwhelmed.”

The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, founded in 1996 “to create positive change for women and their children through collaboration, grantmaking, and advocacy,” reports that in Alabama, half of all single mothers live in poverty, the third-highest rate in the country. Many of the women whom the Women’s Fund has surveyed report problems similar to Simmons’—not being able to work enough hours to pay the bills and struggling to find good child care they can afford. But Simmons did find help through the YWCA, where at various times her children have been able to attend PreSchool Partners, which offers high-quality childcare at reduced tuition according to need. As it happens, the Women’s Fund had approached the YWCA for help identifying moms with high-school degrees who are drug-free and ready to go back to school to participate in a new collaborative program to educate them for higher-paying, more stable jobs. Simmons applied, was accepted into the program and began in the spring of 2015 studying at Jefferson State Community College on Tuesdays and training at Callahan Eye Hospital at Thursdays. (The Women’s Fund has also successfully placed women in pharmacies and other post-secondary-level jobs.)

Simmons was excited about the opportunity, but the journey wasn’t easy. The classes cut into her already limited work hours at UPS, so for the time being she was making less money than ever. She now had a fourth child—her baby daughter, though she says her boyfriend, the baby’s father, is supportive. But for a while, the days were long. “It’s very stressful,” she says. “You have to try to maintain kids, study and work—studying during work breaks and whenever you can.

“But I stuck with what my grandmother always told me,” Simmons continues. “She said, ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’ That’s what kept me up and going. You’ve got to make time for the things that will get you ahead in life.”

Simmons completed Vision Assistant training and certification at Jeff State having never missed a single day of class, and this spring she celebrates her one-year work anniversary at Callahan Eye Hospital. Her two older children are in school, one is at PreSchool Partners and one is in a private church preschool that she likes. And Simmons is very happy with her new job.

“I love it at Callahan,” she says. “I’m glad I made the right decision.”

Hanson Watkins

Hanson Watkins was married when her two young sons were born. She is well educated, with a master’s in Health Administration as well as an MBA. She does not fit the profile of the struggling single mom.

But she is living proof that all single moms struggle—just as married parents struggle, but with some additional challenges thrown in the mix. There are never enough hours, never enough hands, never another person who understands exactly what you’re going through.

In Watkins’ case, that includes raising a child who has Asperger syndrome. And while her son has learned to manage his sensory-related meltdowns better over time, it has never been easy. She and her ex-husband divorced when the boys were small, and that was hard enough. But when she realized she couldn’t predict her older son’s outbursts, going it alone seemed nearly impossible. “There are things that other people take for granted when they have another parent in the house, like just being able to take a shower without having to ask someone to come over and help,” she says. “I had to be in arm’s length of the children all the time. There was no thought of going to do something else while they were entertained and playing or something. That did not exist for me.

“So much of raising children is boots on the ground,” she continues. “It’s having enough hands, it’s having enough people who are not tired and exhausted that you can respond to things with more patience and consideration.”

Watkins, who was living in Atlanta before the divorce, moved home to Birmingham to live near her parents, who help her every day—for which she’s very grateful. But she says the exhaustion remains, both physical and emotional. She says one of the hardest parts is feeling judged as a parent every time her son has a meltdown. “People assume that the behavior they’re seeing has to do with some kind of failure of parenting rather than some sort of issue that the child is having. We’re not nice about that in our culture. We don’t think, ‘How can I help?’”

While some days Asperger’s is first on her mind, on others, though, Watkins just wishes there were more of her to go around for both of her children. “That’s the thing that I think really stinks for single parents and the kids of single parents,” she says. “Some of the fun, giggly joy, it’s just not available. You do the best you can to make those things happen, but you’re so busy doing what you can to keep the house clean and make sure everybody has clean clothes and to get the groceries and get your work done and the homework done, and it’s exhausting.”

But is it getting easier? In a lot of ways, sure. Her son with Asberger’s has learned better coping skills, which allows everyone—her son most of all—to breathe a little easier, and she hopes they’re on their way to turning the page to a new chapter. “I feel really proud about that.”

katie-griggs

Katie Griggs, a single mother to eight-year-old Eli, says she sometimes feels shut out by the other moms at soccer and other activities. “But I don’t regret anything or resent anyone, because it’s made me who I am and put me where I need to be.”

Katie Griggs

At the same time she learned she was pregnant, Katie Griggs learned something she hadn’t suspected about her boyfriend, now the father of her unborn child. He had a heroine problem he’d been hiding from her. “The day after we told our parents that I was pregnant,” Griggs says, “his parents sent him to a rehab facility in San Francisco, and he never came home.”

Griggs was just 20 years old, and that was the beginning of her life as a single mother to Eli, now eight, who was born in February of 2009. In the hospital mother and child were surrounded by Griggs’ best friends, but Eli’s father was nowhere in sight.

Trying to get an education and also work while caring for her new baby, she lived at home with her dad—her mother had passed away just a few months earlier—until her dad was transferred for work, and she and her then-toddler found a place of their own. Griggs was in school full-time at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and working full-time doing banking and accounting jobs. It took her nine years to earn her bachelor’s in Psychology from UAB—an arduous, bumpy road full of both heartbreaking hardships and unexpected blessings.

For one, she was disappointed and angered by her experience trying to get any form of child support from Eli’s father, who has mostly remained hidden. “I have been through the Jefferson County Family Court System since Eli as born,” she says. “I used to go to the courthouse and sit all day waiting to be seen, but he would never show.” (Griggs says his family is still in town but has never offered any support or shown interest in being involved in Eli’s life.)

Still, Griggs is eternally grateful to the people she worked for during those years, as well as friends’ parents and others who acted as mentors to her and provided encouragement, and the director of Eli’s daycare center who allowed her to pick up Eli after hours when she needed to at no extra charge. She’s grateful to her dad for keeping Eli when he can, and she credits all of them with helping her to finally earn her degree so she could do what she feels called to do, which is work in special education. She now has a job at Vincent Middle High School, in Vincent, Ala. and loves it.

Griggs says she tries to use her struggle as a young, single mom to get to where she is today to empathize with the kids she teaches and also be a good example. “The kids I teach are in the behaviors unit, and they have some kind of situation in their lives that have put them there,” she says. “Some of them I can relate to.”

Trying to be both mom and dad to Eli—and breadwinner, cook, housekeeper, homework helper and all the hats that parents wear—Griggs says she has worked nonetheless to help keep as much normalcy and fullness in Eli’s life as possible. “He’s in karate and soccer; he’s done baseball, all kinds of things,” she says. Griggs has tried to smile past the looks she gets from other parents on the soccer field when they realize how young she is to be the mom of an eight-year-old and make sure Eli never knows the difference.

“I’ve grown a lot,” she says, “and I don’t regret anything or resent anyone, because it’s made me who I am and put me where I need to be.”

Business  Leadership

diane-mooney

“It’s time for parents to tell their daughters that ambition is a positive feminine trait.” — Dianne Mooney, who serves on the board of directors of Sanderson Farms, Inc.

For the past 10 years Dianne Mooney has served on the board of directors of Sanderson Farms, Inc., the third-largest poultry company in the nation. It is traded on the NASDAQ under the symbol SAMF and is a Mississippi company with a market cap of just under $2.5 billion.

“I joined the Sanderson board two years before I retired from Southern Progress Corporation after a 32-year career at that great company,” Mooney says.

Despite women’s many gains in the workplace, true equality on public boards remains a distant goal for even the most qualified women in business across the country, she says. “A board that is truly diverse demonstrates a higher ROE for most public companies. Cultural diversity, diversity of age, race, and competencies are all important, but it’s gender diversity that is growing at a glacial pace. Sadly, the majority of corporate boardrooms in this country are still pale and mostly male,” Mooney says.

Despite women’s many gains in the workplace, true equality remains a distant goal for even the most qualified women in business. An optimist by nature, Mooney shares the good news first:  Women gained 90 board seats in 2014 compared to 72 in 2013. The Wall Street Journal reported in late 2014 that the increase is due in large part to the increased number of female CEO’s of public companies who are bringing qualified women to their boards. “They must have listened when Madeline Albright said, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’ When women embrace the role of mentoring other women, everyone wins,” Mooney says.

“There is no doubt that women face a steeper slope to the top. To my knowledge, there are no classes in MBA school guiding women on the difficult path to the C-Suite and to public board service. It’s time to help women navigate that terrain. It’s time for parents to tell their daughters that ambition is a positive feminine trait.”

Mooney notes that the talent pool for corporate boards needs to be populated by more women who have been well mentored. The pipeline for future women leaders is still alarmingly thin. What makes a good prospect for board service? “In my opinion, collegiality, connections, being a great communicator, tact, one who can inspire others to follow, and a fearlessness that has been the purview of many men. And which CEO’s are inclined to invite women to serve? Those who are enlightened. Those with daughters. Those who respect the data that states that diversity including gender diversity creates improved financial results,” Mooney says.

“The MIT Center for Collective Intelligence has proven that a key statistic that predicts if a group will perform well in a variety of tasks is not the IQ of its members but the diversity of the group. So don’t be surprised if the future will be inherited by the peacemakers, the communicators, the women with generally higher social sensitivity and improved listening skills. A high-functioning board is in the best interest of the shareholders who, after all, are the ones whose interests we represent,” Mooney says.

Perhaps the momentum is moving toward inclusiveness. If so, then, one of Alabama’s premier women’s leadership programs is aptly named.

Momentum, located in Pepper Place, empowers a diverse group of promising women to develop leadership skills that positively impact business, culture and politics in Alabama.

Momentum is a resource for local and state-wide data on women in leadership; research and trends on national topics affecting women; connections to 350 accomplished alumnae; extensive mentoring program conferences and events for the community; and workshops and training tailored to individual organizations as well as top leadership development programs for executive women (and soon early-career women).

In terms of research into the business leadership status of women, Momentum recently compiled data on female representation among the Top 10 Public Companies in Alabama. The average number of female board members in 2016 was 14.29 percent.

A Harvard study looked at 842 of the active Fortune 1000 companies and found that women hold 18.8 percent of board seats. So the state has some ground to make up.

Momentum executive director Barbara Royal says: “The word ‘diversity’ used to be viewed in relation to how an organization was seen in terms of race or gender. More recently, diversity and inclusion efforts have taken on a broader scope. A diverse, inclusive environment provides ideas from different perspectives, and can provide a broader range of contacts and customers. Including diverse voices on committees and boards can help provide viewpoints that better anticipate potential threats and less group think.”

As with most things, the existence of a pipeline is critical for real growth to occur. That pipeline just might run through the golf course.

sister-golf

Shella Sylla launched SisterGolf to help women build valuable business relationships out on the course.

SisterGolf is the brainchild of Shella Sylla, a former banking executive with over 18 years in the financial services industry. Sylla experienced firsthand how golf can positively impact your career or business after taking up the sport early in her banking career. As a result of signing up for and taking lessons, in a few short months she went from struggling to meet her monthly goal of $500,000 to being a repeat member of the “Million Dollar” club.

While reaping the rewards of this newfound “secret” to success, Sylla noticed that very few women were taking advantage of the business-development and relationship-building opportunities that golf has to offer. This prompted her to create SisterGolf as a tool for helping women learn and leverage the game of golf for business and career success. Shortly after launching a series of workshops, clinics and events designed to help women get in the game, Sylla began getting numerous requests from male executives and professionals to provide a similar program for them. As a result, what began as a quest to empower women in the workplace expanded to include a curriculum that will benefit both male and female professionals interested in using golf as a tool for relationship building and professional engagement.

The plain truth is, whether men or women, most people don’t play golf very well. While basic skills are needed, the game as played by businesspeople is more about networking than hitting par—and leveraging that networking into a position of parity in some business situations.

“To those women waiting for the glass ceiling to break, I say, ‘if you’re waiting for that, good luck, sisters.’ It’s going to take a long time. Take your life into your own hands and make decisions or take steps that will help you get past that.We’re definitely making progress, and this can move you in the right direction and set you apart,” Sylla says.

We can all agree that the country has moved long past the days when flight attendants were “stewardesses” and prerequisites for the job included being single, childless and attractive. Today sexual harassment is against the law, women have reached unprecedented heights in politics, and some sit in the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies. Yet just when we start to take women’s progress for granted, something happens. We hear new, demoralizing statistics about single mothers struggling to raise children in poverty, or stubborn discrepancies between men and women’s earnings…or in the middle of a heated presidential election, startling audio of the worst kind of “locker room talk” is revealed by Access Hollywood, and the speaker in question turns out to be none other than one of the two major presidential candidates.

Maybe it’s not so easy to measure progress, after all. But the time felt right to take a fresh look at the state of women today in five important categories: politics, leadership, pay equity, single motherhood, and the women who will grow up to become and shape the next generation.

Women of the Future

faith“In the past few decades we’ve seen women become everything from world leaders to high-ranking military officers. Women have shown what I’d say most already knew—that they are just as capable as men and in many cases even more capable. Today, I don’t think there is much that anyone or anything can do to slow the future of women’s roles in places like politics or businesses. We are on a mission to become the absolute best person that we can be; we’re determined, empowered, and ready to inspire!”

—Faith Ngei of Homewood is a junior at Homewood High School and wants to study international affairs at the University of Georgia at Athens. She aspires to a career with the United Nations as a diplomat or ambassador.

maggie“I believe that women have already gone above and beyond reaching their potential, but I also believe that true equality has not been reached because female potential has yet to be recognized in all possible theaters. Women are more than capable of doing anything they set their mind to, and when that finally becomes common knowledge, women will be unstoppable in every field. The tireless activism of organizations like the Women’s March has shown that when we band together, women are heard. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of countless amazing, inspiring, powerful women.”

—Maggie Knight of Helena is a senior at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and heading to Louisiana State University in the fall to study marine biology and pre-veterinary studies. She plans to practice marine mammal veterinary medicine.

altamont-girl“I believe gender equality is not voluntary but is necessary. There is no logical reason that women should not be paid equally for equal jobs. Women are strong, beautiful, and powerful. There is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise.”

—Angie Sutton of Centerpoint is a junior at The Altamont School and plans to earn her degree in Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and teach at the elementary-school level. Later she plans to become a stay-at-home wife and mom, which she sees as “one of the most rewarding jobs” there is.

We want to hear from you. What do you see as the top issues women face today? Email your thoughts to Joe@b-metro.com.

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