A refrain from a Beyonce song swirled through my mind when I read a report compiled by Meredith College titled, “The Status of Girls in North Carolina 2013.” The words? “Who run(s) the world? Girls!”
The report, though, illuminated the difficulties N.C. girls face in reaching that level of empowerment more than it echoed that anthem as reality. Yet the data about Tar Heel girls stand as an opportunity for parents, policymakers, educators and others to proactively deal with issues that are roadblocks to the progress and well-being of females in this state.
Targeting and addressing these issues should not be seen as discriminating against males. Indeed, boys have specific needs that should be addressed as well.
But here’s the crux: Effectively addressing the obstacles to female success inevitably improves the chances for the success of many males. Culturally, females still bear more of the weight of childrearing and child care. And in today’s world where the number of children raised by a single parent – overwhelmingly the mother – is steadily increasing, improving the well-being of mothers can’t help but boost the well-being of the children in their care.
That’s not to say that fathers aren’t vital, and that committed, married couples aren’t the best environment to raise children. Study after study affirm that. But that family situation does not exist for far too many children, the N.C. Status of Girls report highlights.
More than half the state’s population is female. Children represent 13 percent of the total N.C. population. Of those children, 25 percent live in poverty. Another 23 percent in North Carolina are close to living in poverty. Taken together, that means nearly half the state’s children live in dire circumstances. North Carolina has the 10th highest rate of child poverty nationally.
Additionally, families headed by single women are most likely to live in poverty. Of all the state’s impoverished families, 44.2 percent are headed by single females with children compared with 27.2 percent headed by males with children. And the number of single-female headed families has increased, now comprising 21 percent of our families. Many struggle on their own – only 12 percent of those with children under 5 who are poor receive any cash assistance.
The Meredith College report comes at an opportune time, just as there is a lot of buzz around Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” The book, dubbed a “feminist manifesto” by some, focuses on the lack of women in top jobs at Fortune 500 companies. It examines how women hold themselves back, as well as institutional obstacles to their success.
The Meredith report underscores something that N.C. girls – and the adults around them – should build on. The report shows that academically girls perform as well as or better than boys even in math and science – areas where as adults females lag behind in numbers and in top-level jobs. This report emphatically illustrates that is not for lack of ability.
Still, a recent report on the status of women in North Carolina found how tenuous progress for females can be without sound policy initiatives and continued support to address inequities and other problems. The report, from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, highlights progress and setbacks for the state’s women.
Women have narrowed the wage gap with men, more so than has been done nationally. But N.C. women in comparable jobs to men still make only 83 cents to every dollar men make.
And though more women hold elective office than did 20 years ago, they continue to be underrepresented in North Carolina’s legislature relative to their share of the population. Many more women remain stuck in low-wage jobs compared with men even while they have become the main wage earner or equal partner in that regard in nearly 4 out of 10 families.
N.C. girls – and women – have come a long way. But many of the state’s females won’t get a chance to even rule their own small part of the world without help and support. It’s to our benefit as communities, cities and a state to see that they get it. As these status reports highlight, failing to do so will hurt all of us.
MCT Information Services
Fannie Flono is a Charlotte Observer associate editor.