Wendy Knight: Vermont needs to rebuild an equitable economy

This commentary is by Wendy Knight, a member of the Vermont Commission on Women, a board member of the Vermont Outdoor Business Alliance, deputy  commissioner of Liquor and Lottery, and former commissioner of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. 

In November 2020, I was appointed by Gov. Scott to serve a four-year term on the Vermont Commission on Women, an independent, nonpartisan state commission focused on the advancement of Vermont women and girls. 

It was during the second wave of the global pandemic, and I was keenly aware of my privilege: a white woman working remotely from a rural home with immediate access to outdoor recreation.

I was also fortunate in being employed full-time, a necessity the pandemic eliminated for many Vermont women, seemingly overnight. During the third quarter of 2020, 57% of the 37,000+ job losses in Vermont were held by women. Industries like accommodation and food services — where jobs are largely held by women — was among the hardest hit.

As a former tourism and marketing commissioner for Vermont, I understood the crippling effect of the pandemic on the sector. I saw it close up as a consultant with On the Fly, a women-led collective providing marketing and business support to Vermont’s hospitality and food services businesses negatively impacted by Covid-19.

My first client was a single mom juggling to keep her restaurant afloat while navigating the care and remote education of two small children. An independent business owner, she was initially reticent to receive our free assistance. Yet, when we virtually unveiled a new streamlined website and takeout strategy, her eyes welled with tears of gratitude. Our business support facilitated what she wanted most: the ability to earn an income to support her family.

What threatens the economic security for too many women isn’t a once-in-a-century pandemic but the persistent gender wage gap. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women working full-time, year-round are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men under the same work structure. For women who are also Black or disabled, the wage disparity is even wider. Though the discrepancy between women’s and men’s median earnings in Vermont is slightly less than national (16% vs. 18%), the gender gap exists across the state in all education levels and ages.

Fortunately, Vermont businesses have a new resource to help them close the wage gap within their workforce. Change the Story VT — the partnership initiative of the Vermont Commission on Women, the Vermont Women’s Fund, and Vermont Works for Women — partnered with Sadowski Consulting Services and Vermont employers to develop a road map for small to medium-sized employers to address gender and racial pay equity reviews.

The Leaders for Equity and Equal Pay toolkit will be unveiled at a  lunch hour event on Tuesday, June 8. Event participants will learn from state and nationally renowned experts and from Vermont employers, including Chroma Technology and SunCommon, that have worked through this process.

The pandemic exposed fissures and persistent challenges within our society: institutional racism, lack of child care, occupational segregation, and a troubling mindset of “otherness” that presented Vermont as less than a welcoming place to relocate. We saw that women and BIPOC individuals were disproportionally impacted.

However, the pandemic illuminated some bright spots: efficiencies and productivity of remote work, a better work-life balance for families, more people relocating to Vermont, the country’s best public health leadership, and the willingness of Vermonters to do the right thing.

While we emerge from the pandemic as the country’s best example of Covid leadership and management, we also have the opportunity to lead by example in gender parity and pay equity. Now is the moment to reimagine how we want to live and work and to be intentional about inclusivity and equity as we rebuild our economy.
Find more information and register for this free event June 8 at LeepLaunch.eventbrite.com.