Women urged to speak up for themselves.
FITCHBURG - The wage gap between women and men, about 60 percent, is wider than many think, according to Montachusett Opportunity Council Executive Director Kathleen J. McDermott, emphasizing that despite the progress women have realized, there is still a long way to go.
The wage gap was one of several topics panelists delved into during a forum last week on "Race, Women and Women of Color" in Percival Hall at Fitchburg State College. The hall was filled with women of different cultural backgrounds and ages, and scattered with a handful of men. Panelists spoke about poverty, intimate partner abuse and violence, education, advocacy and philanthropy.
Mrs. McDermott said the state Commission on the Status of Women collected data on the difference in pay for men and women and found that 10 percent of women fall below the state's poverty guidelines: $17,600 or less for a family of three and $21,200 for a family of four. In households headed by women, one in five lives in poverty across the state, and that increases to one in four in Worcester County, she said.
"Children are affected by theses numbers dramatically," she said. "In Fitchburg, 51.8 percent of children who live in single-parent households live in poverty."
How these numbers translate into pay inequality was looked at by the commission's council in Worcester, she said.
According to 2006 statistics for Worcester County, a woman graduating from high school will make $700,000 less in her lifetime than a man with a high school education, Mrs. McDermott said. If both are college-educated, the woman will make $1.2 million less than a man.
"Education helps, but it doesn't really diminish that wage gap," she said, adding that the gap also increases with age and race.
The reasons, she said, include the prevalence of women in helping professions that pay less; "glass ceilings" and gender discrimination, which have diminished but still exist; the way jobs are valued and devalued; women being the primary caretakers; and the historical and current process of holding onto assets.
"Women must advocate for equal pay for work of equal value," she said.
It is crucial for women to advocate for themselves in the workplace, she said, and women must mentor young women, instill confidence in them and encourage them to advocate for themselves.
In addition, child care, health care and housing must be made more affordable, she said.
Panelist Seema Williams, president of Black Tyz Entertainment in Lunenburg, knows firsthand about those issues. She said she came from a large family with five girls and three boys. When her family moved to Fitchburg when she was 14, she said, they were not allowed to rent just one apartment because of the number of children; they were forced to rent two.
"We had to make a decision: Do we go to school, or do we go to work?" she said.
Ms. Williams went to school and told a teacher she wanted to work, but was told she was too young and had to get a work permit. She said that was when she felt discriminated against for the first time - not because she is a Latina, but because of her age.
"I came here from a country where family is everything," she said. "All I kept thinking was, `Why can't I be older?' so I could help my family more. That is when I decided to help young women that are 14 to get a job if they need to."
Ms. Williams said her childhood taught her she needed to be strong in this country and rely on herself, but also taught her that education needs to be the No. 1 priority. She said that when parents are busy working, young women are often left behind without enough knowledge or basic life skills.
Panelist Lysa Mosca, a survivor of domestic violence, said the potential for such abuse
is held together by culture and community. If people in the community are aware of abuse - family, neighbors, co-workers, the schools, churches, doctor's offices and people in the legal system - they can
limit it. Or, by their silence, they can enable the abuse, she said, and it continues and is passed on to other members of the family.
Poverty is also a factor.
"Continued economic dependence perpetuates the cycle," she said. "And through learned helplessness, women are unwitting accomplices to their own abuse."
Domestic abuse is also prevalent when women further their careers and become more independent, she said, causing the men in their lives to feel threatened by a loss of control and dominance, especially when they are not as successful and turn to abuse to regain control.
The moderator for the event, Sibyl M. Brownlee, vice president of student affairs at Worcester State College, asked women to take what was said at the forum and put it into action by mentoring one on one with women at church or at school.
Renae Gray, a Cambridge activist and former executive director of the Boston's Women Fund, encouraged the audience to become philanthropistsnot just through monetary donations, but also by helping people in their community, donating time and talents such as poetry or dance - things that make people feel good and give them hope. She also counted as philanthropy the small donations people send to relatives in other countries to purchase clean water or buy food or other necessary items.
The forum was sponsored by Fitchburg State College, Mount Wachusett Community College's Center for Democracy and Humanity, and the North Central Massachusetts Minority Coalition.