Spotlight Exclusives

October 26, 2009: Green Jobs Can Provide a Pathway Out of Poverty for Millions of Women, By Ruby Bright, Chris Grumm and Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, founding members of the Women۪s Economic Security Campaign

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In the months ahead, our country will have an unprecedented opportunity to provide millions of low-income women and their children with the chance for a better future. That opportunity starts with two words: green jobs.

As founding members of a new collaboration of women۪s foundations the Women۪s Economic Security Campaign we have seen up close how programs that train women for better-paying jobs with the possibility of advancement can make all the difference for families and communities. With the emergence of a green jobs sector, we have an opportunity to advance women۪s economic security in a bigger and better way than ever before, providing low-income women with a rare chance to get in on the ground floor of a growth industry and learn the skills to compete for stable, higher-paying jobs.

Low-income women desperately need this chance. Ninety percent of working-age adults who work full time but earn less than $15,000 a year are women. In 2008, 37.2 percent of female-headed families with children were living in poverty compared with just 8 percent of families with both parents in the home and 14 percent of male-headed families.

Unfortunately, most green jobs, from weatherizing homes and buildings to constructing wind turbines, are in fields that have typically been dominated by men. As a society, we have a terrible track record of training and placing women in these non-traditional careers. For example, 0.5 percent of roofers and 1.4 percent of plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters are women, according to a new report from the Women۪s Economic Security CampaignCreating Opportunity for Low-Income Women in the Green Economy. Even at the higher end, women make up just 10.6 percent of civil engineers.

For the small number of women who have found careers in the construction trades, the payoff can be years of stable employment at family-supporting wages. The median hourly wage for roofers, at the low end of the non-traditional job spectrum, is $16.17 an hour enough to cover the basic needs of a small family. By contrast, preschool teachers, 98 percent of whom are women, earn just $11.48 an hour. At that wage, a preschool teacher would need to work over 25 hours more per week than a roofer to support a similar living standard.

Fortunately, our country is in a good position to change this pattern. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided states with millions of dollars to train workers for new green sector jobs. We need to ensure that a significant portion of those funds goes to programs that prepare low-income women to successfully compete in the green economy.

Once they are on the job, we need to provide women with the supports necessary to stay employed. For low-income single mothers, that means child care, flexible hours and accessible transportation. It also means enforcing anti-discrimination and sexual harassment laws that for too long have made non-traditional workplaces inhospitable to women.

Finally, we need to make sure that the green economy is not simply another ticket to dead-end jobs that happen to be environmentally friendly. Continuous training and opportunities for advancement should be readily available to even low-skilled workers starting out in entry-level positions.

As Congress debates climate change legislation, our representatives in Washington, D.C. should stand up for the needs of low-income women when considering provisions aimed at training and placing workers in green jobs. We have the chance to do it right this time and shape a more promising future for the growing number of women and children in poverty. In the process, we can help our nation move toward a long-term economic recovery that will benefit us all.

Ruby Bright is executive director of the Women۪s Foundation for a Greater Memphis; Chris Grumm is president and CEO of the Women۪s Funding Network; and Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is vice president of programs for Washington Area Women۪s Foundation. They are all founding member of the Women۪s Economic Security Campaign.


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