ann decker tamara matthew
Women’s History Month was a celebration of the achievements of groundbreaking women everywhere and a time to examine the many obstacles they still face. However, we cannot let that vital exercise be confined to one month. We must continue it as the pandemic threatens to widen opportunity gaps between genders in Indian River County and the Treasure Coast even further.
Icons like Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells are historic agents of change whose fight for equality still resonates today. However, they are not impactful simply because of the reforms they championed; their legacy lives on in the countless women they inspire to believe in themselves and change the world. All women in mentoring positions, such as teachers or community leaders, can have that same influence on others.
Women now outnumber men in our region and their financial welfare is essential to the health of our economy at large. Unfortunately, recent reports find that women in Indian River County earn less money and hold fewer professional or management positions than Florida’s average. Financial security means more than money for women; it represents financial independence, freedom and empowerment in a world that often does not prioritize their welfare.
Studies have shown that women engage in philanthropy at a higher rate than men, meaning their economic welfare can be doubly beneficial to others. The Treasure Coast recently saw this generosity at work, when MacKenzie Scott made a transformative, $45 million donation to Indian River State College (IRSC), which is already having a massive impact on our female students and entrepreneurs.
Financial institutions can be a major catalyst on this front as well, as seen with Bank of America’s initiatives focused on gender lens investing strategies or the Tory Burch Foundation Capital Program, which has pledged $100 million in affordable loans to female entrepreneurs since 2019.
Many of the obstacles women face on their path to financial wellness are related to their unique planning needs and life journeys, such as taking time off from work for maternity leave, assuming responsibility for childcare or looking after an aging family member. These functions, which women already performed at a rate two and a half times higher than men pre-coronavirus, have only intensified amid the pandemic and a recent study indicates that as a result, nearly a quarter of women are now contemplating downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce.
Women must not be forced to choose between caring for loved ones and their financial welfare. Progressive workplace policies, such as the childcare reimbursements or adult care programs for aging parents that Bank of America provides its employees, can help make that choice obsolete. Colleges and universities can also help address this issue through similar initiatives for parent-students. IRSC’s recently launched program, CCAMPIS (Child Care Access Means Parents in School), serves as an example in our own community; last year, the U.S. Department of Education helped fund IRSC’s CCAMPIS program and Early Learning Coalitions throughout the Treasure Coast have signed on to be childcare partners.
Academia has an immense capacity to empower women through education, but our schools can have an equally substantial impact outside of the classroom. In the Treasure Coast, Indian River State College has committed itself to helping equip the community with the resources, services and skills to succeed. Identified by the United States Department of Education as the most affordable college in Florida, 91% of IRSC’s students graduate without debt. Its student body is therefore incredibly diverse; approximately 60% are women, over 40% are age 25 or older, and 38% are first-generation college students.
However, no organization or company can accomplish these important tasks alone. Fundamental change requires meaningful, cross-sector partnerships. Bank of America has been a supporter of IRSC for over 15 years. Recognizing the heightened need for IRSC’s resources amid the coronavirus, the bank provided a grant to the school’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), which helps businesses owned by women, and others disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, gain access to government contracts – at no cost.
Even though many organizations continue to help our communities recover and progress, there’s more work to be done. All of us can be a part of the solution. In addition to supporting these groups, we can personally advance this cause by engaging women in important financial discussions, promoting healthy financial habits and encouraging women leaders to become mentors for others. It is also crucial that we urge women to begin planning early for unexpected future challenges, such as career interruptions and higher healthcare costs. The pandemic demonstrates how detrimental those can be.
As we look to grow from everything Women’s History Month taught us, we can make a difference in the Treasure Coast by putting women’s lifelong financial wellness front and center. Financial health will not only be vital to achieving equality; it will prove essential to preserving that balance and advancing economic opportunity for generations to come.
Ann Decker is the executive director of the Indian River State College (IRSC) Foundation, and Tammy Matthew is the Treasure Coast market manager for Bank of America.