On January 27th, a group of motivated and influential women gathered together for a virtual panel discussion surrounding the launch of the Rhode Island Women’s Well-Being Index, a data-driven, collaborative effort led by the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. The index is the first of its kind in Rhode Island aimed at truly capturing the unique data necessary to further understand women’s well-being on a multi-faceted level. Intending to dive deeper into women-specific issues, the Index covers five distinct areas: Health, Personal Safety, Employment & Earnings, Economic Security, and Political Empowerment.
The index takes a closer look at each city and town in Rhode Island to allow for some shockingly stark contrasts. National averages are presented as a backdrop for these RI-specific numbers. Some are encouraging and many are not. Policy recommendations are also laid out within each data set, detailing a strategy for reducing these inequities.
A First of Its Kind Step Towards Reducing Inequities
The panel was organized by Ellie Brown, Director of Development and Operations for Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, and moderated by Paige Clausius-Parks from RI KIDS COUNT. Panelists included Nishi Kumar, RI Department of Housing; Angela Kemp, Day One RI; and Dr. Deborah Pearlman, RI Department of Health.
The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island exists with the specific purpose of bettering the lives of women all around the state. The recipe for this work involves many complex factors including “advocacy, grant-making, and strategic partnerships” and calls on for partners across all levels of society, both public and private.
This Index, supported by Craig Newmark Philanthropies and Nordson Corporation Foundation, is an inspiring addition to the Women’s Fund’s long history of philanthropic work. “It took a small army to put this project together,” explains Nevins at the start of the discussion, adding that their culmination of data came from both federal and local sources, and relied heavily on census data. Progression, especially progression towards gender equity, relies on data, and it’s clear “how much this data is really needed…this holistic approach of looking at the well-being of women,” says Kemp.
The launch of the Women’s Well-Being Index comes amongst the COVID pandemic, which is impacting women in multiple disproportionate ways. As stated in the opening remarks of the Index, disparities are now clearer than ever, specifically for women of color, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and impoverished women. If there’s a time to research, spread awareness, create plans of action, and as Nevins states, “correct inequities that the index is lifting up,” it’s now.
Hearing Everyone’s Voices-The Downfalls of Data
All the panelists emphasized the dire need for not only the data itself, but the stories that can be told from it. Dr. Pearlman summarizes one of the main concerns with accurate gathering data on underrepresented groups — the lack of funding to do the necessary drill-down on those underrepresented populations. “We don’t do the oversampling to hear their voices and that’s an enormously expensive endeavor.” Dr. Pearlman wants to see the federal government provide support for more detailed indexing of data on women and girls.
“There has to be the political will and there has to be funding,” she said.
Therein lies the problem for philanthropic efforts like the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island: the chronic underfunding of women and girls. This Index was supported by private sector companies and fueled by the passion of countless volunteers. Yet, it’s hard to dismiss the lack of role federal assistance is playing in these steps forward. The federal lack of support is not surprising, but listening to these extraordinarily driven women discuss their valiant efforts, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered from the higher-ups.
Looking to the Future
To fully grasp the information that can be pulled from the Index, context and what’s still missing both need to be acknowledged. The panelists made sure they recognized not only the immense benefits of the Index, but also their hopes for future endeavors. Kumar provided insight into one area that requires more in-depth analysis: “For all of the fantastic data built into the Index, there’s always more that could lend more context to the trends that we’re seeing. I think one area that I would be particularly interested to see across the board would be information on racial disparities between women.”
Women’s experiences are difficult to quantitively define. Adding further detail like race and age could guide better social policies aimed at equality. A specific example of this was brought up by Clausius-Parks in regards to the racial disparities in home ownership and rental income, with homeownership rates for single women in Rhode Island the “second-lowest in the nation.” When looking at women of color, home ownership in Rhode Island drops to the lowest in the nation. Women head of household renters in Central Falls and Woonsocket are dealing with fair market rent at over 60% of their medium income, exponentially higher than the recommended rate of 30%.
Researchers have known for some time that gender disparities are compounded in different socio-economic regions of the state, but having the ability to use one source of data for future action could be a game-changer for RI. It may be the smallest state, but it is making some big strides for gender equality.