Kansas women articulate unnecessary economic barriers in parental leave, pay gap, mentorship

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TOPEKA — Emily Vincent strategically planned the births of her three children around her accumulation of sick leave while working for a former employer who didn’t provide parental leave.

Vincent, who now works for Johnson County government, was among 150 women who participated Wednesday in a statewide virtual town hall to talk about the economic barriers they face.

“I did try to be strategic and space out my pregnancies,” Vincent said. “I understand not everybody’s in that position, but that was something from a family planning standpoint that I took into consideration so that I could build my sick leave back up to utilize for a maternity leave for each of my pregnancies.”

The discussion was the latest in a series organized by United WE, a nonpartisan nonprofit whose mission is to advance all women’s economic and civic leadership. The organization plans to issue findings from the conversations in a comprehensive report this November. That report can then be utilized to engage policymakers at the state level.

“We know too many women remain on the sidelines because they face unnecessary obstacles, such as pay inequality, access to affordable child care, limited family leave, entrepreneurship restrictions, perhaps sexual harassment in the workplace, and inadequate public policies,” said Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of United WE. “All of these issues disproportionately impact women, yet they are solvable.”

The organization, in coordination with the University of Kansas, released research in February that pointed to several key issues.

Women in Kansas have more education than men but still only make 78 cents to the dollar that men make for the same work. Infant care in the state is 1.3 times more expensive than in-state college tuition. While more women vote than men, only 28% of legislative seats are held by women.

Participants in the town hall talked about the importance of paid family leave, health care benefits, mentorship opportunities and pay inequity.

Jennifer Rettele-Thomas, co-founder of Voice First World, which trains leaders to speak with courage and clarity, said she previously worked for a nonprofit where salaries were made public. The disparity in pay between genders was apparent.

“Our chief talent officer said, ‘Here’s the reality. The reason for that is the men are negotiating, the women are not, that’s why there’s a discrepancy.’ And then you have to own that,” Rettele-Thomas said.

April Henry, with the Kansas Board of Regents, said women have to overcome being perceived as “argumentative” for challenging a salary that somebody is willing to offer.

“I always had to fight my mindset of, ‘They’re offering me what they believe I am worth, so why should I argue with them on my worth?’ It’s a weird thing. Your brain plays a trick on you there,” Henry said.

Several women said they struggled to find mentorship from other women leaders. Some expressed concerns that women are sometimes harder on each other. They had to look outside the workplace, to community groups or churches, to find support.

Jessica Kinsey said she is in her mid-30s and at a point where she wants to further her career.

“There’s no one that offers to teach, or really that I can can even ask,” Kinsey said. “When I have tried to network with males and try to even get some mentoring or advice from them, oftentimes, quite frankly, it turns into them trying to flirt with me or thinking I’m coming on to them. So I’ve kind of steered away, which is sad.”

The town hall ended with informal polling of the participants. Sixty-four percent said they had experienced negative behaviors, such as harassment, discrimination, racism, gender bias or toxic culture, in the workplace.

About half of the women were responsible for caring for children, and 28% were responsible for elder care.

Three-fourths of the women say paid parental leave is very important. Just 29% of the women think their health insurance company cares about them. About 31% of women say their access to health care was affected by COVID-19, either by loss of job or because health care providers were overwhelmed.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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