Women’s Foundation of Arkansas leader says recent report shows state far from level playing field

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,864 views 

Amidst the backdrop of an Arkansas Women’s Commission report that was delivered in December, a new bill to end affirmative action may seem tone deaf.

In December 2022, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson received the results of a year-long task force from the commission he created which looked at women’s roles in the labor force for the first time in nearly 50 years.

“Women in Arkansas continue to bear the greatest burden of family care, which includes child and elder care, and COVID-19 further brought this open secret into stark relief. The Commission’s recommendations are equally unsurprising. There is not much about reducing the barriers to women in Arkansas – in wages, in professional advancement, in access to child care, or in terms of access to health care – that is novel. What deserves continued vigilance is working together to address them,” the report said.

Other takeaways from the 48-page report include:

  • Universities have been intentional in recruiting and admitting women and minorities; retaining them to graduation is another challenge. Many struggle with not having family or friends and/or financial and academic support.
  • Attrition is high for Black and non-White Latino STEM majors – 26% of Black and 20% of non-White Latino students drop out of college.
  • Cultural barriers continue to result in girls and women being stereotyped and even counseled into non-STEM careers.
  • Bentonville-based think tank Heartland Forward ranked Arkansas 46th overall in its Entrepreneurial Capacity Index, and specifically encouraged states “lagging in support of entrepreneurs” to “prepare people, particularly women and those with diverse backgrounds, to pursue and participate in creating a more equitable economy.”
  • Women-owned businesses account for only about 16% of the nation’s employer firms despite representing half of the population.

There were several conclusions noted in the report that depress the number of females in business, including gender bias, a lack of female investors, socio-cultural barriers, lack of female mentors and business/social networks, lack of access to capital, and access to quality child care.

Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and former Democratic nominee for Secretary of State who vowed to use the office to promote more entrepreneurship, served on the Arkansas Women’s Commission. Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, she said childcare is one of the biggest hurdles impacting women’s roles in the labor force.

“A significant barrier of entry in Arkansas still is childcare,” Gorman said. “We were all taken aback by how big of an issue that is. I mean, the childcare economy in Arkansas, access to good quality childcare, affording it, that’s a significant barrier, but also a significant barrier for women continues to be access to mentors. Access to resources and things that steer women to opportunities in our workforce. So that continues to be an issue.”

Gorman said Arkansas has a lot of single heads of households and women skew more in that category.

“We’ve got a significant portion of our population that are single heads of household. And so it comes down to one individual, most often women to figure this out,” she said.

Gorman’s nonprofit is taking the report and building on its findings.

“The former governor was very clear that this is not the government’s sole responsibility to solve these challenges. And really, the challenge was to get a cross-section of stakeholder partners to develop solutions. And that’s what the exciting part for the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, the organization that I lead, is that we’re going to take this report, its recommendations around the state, and really try to recruit those stakeholders,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of opportunity going to revisit where the commission held their meetings and bringing in business, city, local governments to really talk about how we can support women.”

Recently, Arkansas State University received $200,000 to expand its women’s business leadership center and will create a Delta Leadership Academy for up-and-coming female entrepreneurs in the Arkansas Delta. This is just one area where assistance can help women and minority entrepreneurs.

Last week, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, amended SB 71 to include close to nine pages of new language. The Senate State Agencies committee approved the amended measure and sent it to the full Senate floor for consideration despite little notice for any stakeholder to offer viewpoints.

“We’re effectively eliminating affirmative action and in reality making affirmative action available to everyone, not just a select group,” Sullivan told committee members.

He said most of the impact would be in the field of education by removing preferential treatment. For instance, the bill eliminates language for public and charter schools as well as higher education institutions to have a “Minority Teacher and Administrator Preparation and Recruitment Strategic Plan; minority retention plans, or affirmative action plans.” Sullivan said seven other states have passed similar measures and “at this time” have not been declared unconstitutional.

Gorman, who sees many unintended consequences of Sullivan’s bill, said affirmative action is a philosophical conversation.

“We can never even define what an even playing field is,” she said. “There are real concerns about fallout, of unintended consequences, about how affirmative action is very broadly and vaguely not defined in what this bill would do, because it would impact a lot of our state’s current economic development work by just assuming that we don’t need to have targeted strategies or innovations to address where we see that people could really need some help and assistance accessing existing resources in our state.”

“I mean, we can look at our state’s demographics and we can break down the percentage of white people compared to Black people, men compared to women, other communities of color, and break it down. And then you could look at an institution of higher ed and ask: does our population reflect the true population of our state? If it doesn’t, why are we not being successful in having those populations represented on our campus? Do we need to do intentional outreach to certain communities to ensure that we’ve got programs and pathways to jobs that are great paying jobs in Arkansas? I love the word ‘intentionality’ and I think that we should be very careful about confusing ‘preferential treatment’ with just ‘intentional’.

“I hope there’s an open dialogue about what is the true intention? What are the true concerns? Have you considered the unintended consequences that could really move our state backward? Economic development and economic mobility of Arkansans should truly be a nonpartisan issue,” she said.

You can watch Gorman’s full interview in the video below.