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April 25, 2006

What Women Want......

Karen Lewis

The Frederick County Commission for Women (FCCFW) recently announced the results of a “Needs Assessment Study” on what is important to women in Frederick County. Similar research had not been done since 1994. With our expanding and more diversified population, it was deemed important to update and compare the findings.

I have always had a deep interest in women’s history and women’s issues. Ironically, this interest was fueled by some extremely inspiring male professors at my undergraduate college, Franklin and Marshall. F&M had gone co-ed two years before my arrival. Nevertheless, women were truly welcomed and encouraged. My experiences in corporate America have not always been as positive.

During the spring and summer of 2005 we conducted eight focus groups and received 356 completed questionnaires on the needs and issues of women in our county. This sample size is large enough to constitute a statistically acceptable projection for how all female county residents would respond. The questionnaire also evaluated how well the needs and issues are being addressed.

What is referred to as “the gap analysis” tells as much of a story as the listing of priorities. This story, from the quantitative portion of the study, is that our needs are not being met with much satisfaction.

As we have started to communicate these findings, the response has been almost as interesting as the results of the study. There are some who don’t understand how the needs of women are different from those of men. Certainly some of the affordable housing and healthcare needs are similar.

Also, the need to have local jobs that provide salaries that can support families does not differ between the sexes. The research findings do indicate that while women have been in the work force in large numbers for the past 30 years, there are still major equity challenges.

In addition, in most cases, women have the primary responsibility for children and the home. This creates needs and issues that differ from those of men.

There are others who claim that there’s nothing they can do about many of these problems. This sentiment is particularly alarming coming from an elected official. Don’t we vote for candidates who, at least, claim that they can make some inroads on our needs and issues? Then there are those who really are reluctant to hear this information. Perhaps, listening might carry some obligation to take some form of corrective action.

There is also some good news, however. The media has been extremely interested in this project. They have clearly exceeded expectations in getting this information out and encouraging the public to pay attention.

On an equally positive note, there are some elected officials and citizens who not only want to explore this information but also examine some recommendations on how to make the findings actionable. This concern, coupled with the extra visibility that election year platforms bring to critical issues, gives renewed hope for some creative solutions to the problems identified by the research.

A group of respondents, reflecting the views of 52% of the population, has made their needs, issues and satisfaction levels very clear. It will be interesting to see who is listening. Women have a stronger tendency than men to show up at the voting polls. It will also be interesting to see what needs and issues drive our selections.

Here is a summary of the key research findings:

The top seven “needs” in terms of importance are:

  1. Pay equity for women;
  2. Affordable health care;
  3. Quality public education;
  4. Local jobs that provide a salary that can support a family;
  5. Employers offering flexible work schedules;
  6. Easily available health care; and
  7. Promotions for women

The biggest gaps between “How important is this to you?” and “How well do you think that it is being addressed?” focus on the following needs:

  1. Affordable housing, for either rental or purchase;
  2. Ability to rent or buy housing regardless of where a woman’s income comes from, whether or not she has children or the number of children she has;
  3. Local jobs that provide a salary that can support a family;
  4. Affordable health care; and
  5. Pay equity for women

The top seven “issues” are:

  1. Availability of affordable education or training;
  2. Violence in schools;
  3. The ease of finding information on services and/or coordination of services;
  4. Visibility and acceptance of women in positions of responsibility in the media, community and at work;
  5. Sexual harassment in schools;
  6. Support systems for women; and
  7. Women’s voice and involvement in local government.

And, the largest gaps between those issues that are important and how well the community delivers on them are:

  1. Political support from the public and elected local, county and state officials on issues of concern to women;
  2. Violence in schools;
  3. Availability of affordable education or training;
  4. The ease of finding information on services and/or coordination of services; and
  5. Discrimination based on age.

These results are definitely different from the 1994 study where child care was a much greater issue. While participants in the focus groups claimed that child care is still an issue today, “local jobs that provide a salary that can support a family” and “affordable housing, to either rent or buy” have become much greater needs today than in the 1994 study. Also, “violence in schools” and “discrimination based on age” barely surfaced in the 1994 evaluation.

Are the results surprising? Probably not.

In addition to all the things that everyone wants, we have some special priorities. Clearly women still feel very strongly about workplace equity and flexibility issues. We want available and affordable education and training so that we can compete more effectively.

We need stronger support systems and networking opportunities. We also want to be heard by our elected officials and represented in government. Let’s not wait another 11 years to evaluate our progress on these needs and let’s examine the positions and accomplishments of the candidates for election on these topics!

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