In progressive Austin, women still lag behind

Just entrepreneurs

In Central Texas, gender disparities remain even as the region’s economy grows. Austin women continue to lag behind men in income, safety, and financial security, and women and children are disproportionately living in poverty. But there have been some improvements, too, and a number of nonprofits are taking on these disparities directly.

The latest data comes from a report by the Women’s Fund, a grant-making nonprofit that focuses on specific outcomes from area women and children. The Women’s Fund, a program of the Austin Community Foundation, examines the status of women up and down the socioeconomic ladder to gauge where it will apply its funding. The report was released at a December 5 event.

“We are so used to being on the winning side of things in Austin that I think sometimes we look at our community through rose-colored glasses,” said Terri Broussard Williams, a member of the Women’s Fund, “and we don’t see some of the pressing issues right in front of us.”

The report gathered various indicators to paint a picture of the status of women in the region in terms of economic security, housing, education, health, safety, and leadership. Among the most startling findings, said Meagan Longley, Austin Community Foundation’s vice president of community impact, was the teen pregnancy rate. “Teen pregnancy rates have dropped from last report in 2013,” she said, “however they’re still really high in a region that we consider to be a progressive bastion.” In Travis County, 33 out of 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19 gave birth, nearly the rate of Texas at 35 per 1,000 and far higher than that across the United States at 20 per 1,000.

Not surprisingly, according to the report, 20 percent of the families in Travis County are led by single women, and further, one-third of those families live in poverty. In Austin, programs like the Jeremiah Project support single-mother families by helping mothers increase their income and providing educational support to their children. Longley says programs like this have proven to increase the family’s income and decrease reliance on public assistance.

But low-income women aren’t the only ones challenged by the disparity. Even though more than half the Austin-area women have completed some college, women consistently make less money in the top five workforce sectors. For example, the median income level for women in management is $62,950 versus $85,544 for men, according to the report. The study also found that women are underrepresented in positions of power. “Without a voice at the table for civic, community and business conversations, policies and decisions will be made that marginalize the needs of women and families,” the report stated.

A new organization in Austin called JUST addresses many of these issues head-on. By offering microloans and community support to low-income women entrepreneurs, and specifically to Hispanic women, JUST believes their success as small business owners can lift the family out of poverty. “Women are the most excluded from resources,” said Steve Wanta, founder of JUST. “Only $1 of every $23 in small business loans goes to women-owned businesses. But women are the center of the family. So by helping them build stronger businesses, they can create more resilient communities.”

Photo: Entrepreneurial women of JUST gather at Whole Foods Market for a quarterly retreat. JUST offers micro-loans to low-income, women business owners as well as ongoing support. Photo by Genie Bolduc.

NOTE: This story was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on Dec. 17, 2017.
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