|Updated Feb 14, 2001||[an error occurred while processing this directive]|
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The State of Women
BY CATHARINE CLABBY and BRIDGETTE LACY: The News & Observer
North Carolina Still Has Serious Problems
These days, Florry Glasser’s old women’s liberation button “Make Policy, Not Coffee” looks more prophetic than pushy.
North Carolinians just elected four women to powerful statewide offices. Three women, so far, occupy seats in Gov. Mike Easley’s new Cabinet.
“Today, the opportunities are boundless,” said Glasser, a Chapel Hill resident who has worked in and out of state government for nearly 30 years to improve the lives of women and their families.
But Glasser knows the job is far from finished. Serious problems persist for women in the Tar Heel State.
Although the 51-cent wage gap that Glasser and others exposed in the mid-1970s has shrunk, it is not extinct. On average, women still earn 78 cents for every dollar men bring home, according to the latest “Status of Women in North Carolina” report by the N.C. Council for Women, a state advocacy agency.
The report documents other serious shortcomings in women’s economic authority, health, safety and stability in old age. So did a recent report card from the nonpartisan Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which ranked North Carolina among the worst states for women on key benchmarks including health and well-being.
A third, recent research project emphasizes how life is toughest for women on the lowest economic rungs, especially for those with no college or vocational training.
In that study, the N.C. Justice Center, which monitors the needs of lower income families, and N. C. Equity, which focuses on women and children, reported that more than one-third of North Carolina families make too little to meet basic living expenses, despite unprecedented prosperity during the last decade.
“If you are an upwardly mobile professional with your 2.5 kids, an SUV, preferably a husband, this is a good place,” is the way 29-year-old Phyllis Jeffers, a Raleigh office manager and N.C. Central University graduate, puts it. “But if you are a girl from Hamlet, and your mom works in the chicken plant and your father works in hog producing, it’s very unlikely you are going to get to college.”
Led by N.C. Equity and N.C. Women United, women across the state helped craft a Women’s Agenda Program that was given to state legislators last week. In coming weeks, they’ll be reminding lawmakers again and again of their concerns about the state of women in North Carolina. Four key areas will dominate the discussions:
Economics — Eliminating the wage gap would have a profound effect on the stability of women and their children, says the Council for Women report. If women received wages equal to men, their pay would rise, on average, by $3,618 a year. By the council’s estimate, that would reduce the number of single mothers living in poverty by 13 percent.
One strategy, advocated by N.C. Equity and others, is to push state leaders to lobby for increases over the next several years to boost the United States minimum wage from $5.15 to $8.50 an hour. They have also asked officials to scrutinize whether the state’s 43,796 female employees, about half the government’s workforce, are fairly paid.
Because today’s women on a whole are better educated than ever, some income improvements are expected no matter what government does, but experts say obstacles to full pay equity remain.
On the positive side, women’s enrollment in higher education continues to rise, with the proportion of North Carolina women who hold bachelor’s degrees nearly doubling between 1980 and 1998, from 11.2 percent to 21.8 percent, compared with 25 percent of men.
The number of women-owned businesses also is on the rise, swelling 48 percent between 1992 and 1999 to 229,600 firms that generated $76 billion in sales. The fastest growth came in fields not usually considered women’s work: agriculture/mining and construction.
In addition, women are leaving the workforce for shorter periods to tend to family needs. As a result, they are gaining more work experience, a key factor in income gains over time, said Rachel A. Willis, an associate professor of American studies and economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Still, large numbers of North Carolina women remain clustered in some of the lowest paying fields. One in five worked clerical and administrative support jobs in 1997, compared with one in 10 in executive, administrative or managerial posts.
And women still shoulder the major burden of caring for vulnerable family members, young and old. Although access to childcare has improved, especially with the Smart Start subsidies, the Women’s Agenda Program says more money is needed to expand services and eliminate waiting lists. And, Willis said, more help is needed from men and employers to help women manage the care of elderly relatives.
“One need that is not being met yet is elder care. It has an unpredictable duration. It’s a far more complex workplace issue,” Willis said.
Health — Every year, thousands of North Carolina women die early, especially those who are African-American or other minorities. Minority women are 58 percent more likely than white women to die from heart disease, for instance. Black women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer but more likely to die from it, state health records show.
Experts say women could do more to help themselves, but too many lack access to quality preventative care and information about healthier living.
If more women stopped smoking, for example, the most deadly cancer among women in this state, lung cancer, would decline. So would the incidence of heart disease and chronic obstructed pulmonary disease. Earlier detection of breast cancer, through regular mammograms, could increase chances of survival.
Sometimes the logistics of how physicians practice make it tough for women to get needed medical attention, said Dr. Katherine Hartmann, an obstetrician and co-director of the N.C. Program for Women’s Health Research at UNC-CH.
She sees some patients in the evening, knowing it’s difficult for them to take time for a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day.
“You have to think about how far does she have to go to get healthcare. Is she paid on hourly wage or a salary? When she’s not at work, is she earning income?”
A more difficult problem to solve is the shortage of jobs with comprehensive health insurance, said Susan Markham, president of N.C. Equity. The number of North Carolinians without health coverage hovered near 15 percent between 1996 and 1999, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
“If you look at the growth of jobs, 17 out of 20 in the fastest-growing sectors are in the service industry, many of which have traditionally paid low wages and offered few or no benefits,” and women fill many of those jobs, Markham said.
The Women’s Agenda Program wants North Carolina to expand Medicaid eligibility to working families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That would make the cutoff point for an adult and two children about $27,800. The program also seeks expanded funding for the children’s insurance program N.C. Healthy Choice and more health education for women.
Violence — Communities across North Carolina have agencies that reach out to women who are sexually assaulted or beaten by intimate partners. But the quality and scope of help varies widely. Not every agency operates a shelter, for instance, or has equal means to help clients maneuver through the courts.
Most alarming, said UNC researcher Beth Moracco, is that many agencies have waiting lists, meaning they can’t always help a woman or family in crisis. And they often lack the means to work on education and prevention because they are so busy dealing with crisis.
“When I was on the board of a local domestic violence board. We were always saying that we needed to focus on prevention and evaluating what we’re doing. But we never caught our breath long enough to do that,” said Moracco, who is on the faculty of UNC’s School of Public Health and involved with its injury prevention research center.
More than 67,000 people statewide, mostly women and children, obtained help from the domestic violence agencies during the 1998-99 fiscal year, according to the Council for Women. More than 8,000 people turned to sexual assault programs.
But problems extend beyond the availability of services. Advocates for women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted say North Carolina laws are too weak to permit prosecutors to adequately punish all sexual offenders.
For one thing, no charge specifically punishes sexual groping. An assailant can be charged with assault on a female but that doesn’t fully signal the crime’s sexual dimension, something law enforcement needs to be alerted to in case the behavior escalates, said Monika Johnson Hostler of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Her group is lobbying for a new felony charge for groping.
Even when a rape occurs, prosecutors can’t win a case in North Carolina if there is not sufficient evidence of a struggle. Lack of consent alone is not sufficient grounds for conviction in this state, even though the trend nationally, particularly in northern states, has been to take bullying or other psychological forms of coercion into account, said Diane Moyer, a lawyer affiliated with the National Sexual Violence Research Center in Pennsylvania.
“Sometimes (women) don’t fight because they’re paralyzed with fear,” Johnson Hostler said.
Aging — It’s hard to separate women’s issues from aging issues, because women outlive men. And women’s longer lives, seven years on average, are more often marred by financial instability.
Older women are more likely to be widowed, live alone and have financial struggles than are older men. Sixty percent of elderly Social Security recipients in North Carolina were women in 1997. Their average monthly benefit was $625.30, compared with $826.38.
“Despite all the retirees streaming to Southern Pines, there are a lot of elderly people who are poor,” said Polly Williams, a retired N.C. State University English professor who is president of the Triangle chapter of the national Older Women’s League. “We don’t all have pensions, some have low Social Security and some have no coverage for prescription drugs.”
Women are more likely to wind up in rest homes and nursing homes. Those who are disabled and reside with relatives or live alone are more likely to become the subjects of local adult protective service investigations into allegations of mistreatment or neglect.
“They require more assistance with the daily activity of living. It can become a very difficult situation,” said Dennis W. Streets, deputy director for the N.C. Division on Aging.
The Older Women’s League wants lawmakers to help on several fronts. To ease the severe shortage of nurse aides, it is seeking increased Medicaid reimbursements tied to salary improvements. The league is also lobbying to expand subsidies for home-based services and affordable housing, to help elderly people stay in their own homes. And it wants more help for all seniors struggling with the high cost of medications.
“Older women are very much aware of the problems,” Williams said.
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