Women in Howard still see gender gap

Study: Though they've made political strides, females have unmet social, economic issues.

March 13, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

It's been 16 years since Howard County elected Elizabeth Bobo as Maryland's first female county executive, but young women enrolled at the county's community college still strongly agree that "it's a man's world," according to a new county-sponsored study of women's status and needs.

The study results suggest that although American women have made progress, they still don't feel close to being equal to men - even in one of America's wealthiest and most progressive communities.

"We're all working women, and we know how true that is," said Deborah Lewis, vice chair of the county's 11-member women's commission that sponsored the study, using $10,000 in county funds.

The study's results included information from a survey of 800 senior citizens, five focus groups, a public hearing and interviews with 29 county and state officials.

As one participant in a focus group discussion said: "Even if you are not [staying] at home, you still have the pressure to do it all." Another noted that "when the meeting runs after 5 p.m., you don't see the men leaving to pick up the kids."

Groups of young women participating in Howard Community College's Women Studies program told researchers they hadn't experienced overt gender bias, but still see themselves "as being systematically less advantaged than men."

And although these young women might be expected to feel least limited, "they were the most outspoken and clear about their perceptions," that "subtle, but powerful influences" are keeping them back, the study said.

"We really cannot take equal rights for women for granted. We cannot assume that the younger generation growing up in what we consider a better world are really going to be free of gender discrimination," said Dawn Fisk Thomsen, chair of the women's commission.

Although the general conclusions were not surprising for progressive Howard County - that women are doing well politically, but are lagging economically and socially - the specifics are interesting.

Women represent 52 percent of Howard County's population according to the 2000 census, and almost three of five senior citizens are women.

Politically, Howard County women have done well compared with men. First, 54.4 percent of county women are registered voters, compared with 45 percent of men. In the last election, 83 percent of women voted, compared with 81 percent of the men.

And although only one of the five County Council members is a woman, Howard until recently had an all-female school board. The state's attorney and court clerk are also women. Howard County had a female County Council majority as far back as 1978. In county government last year, 45 percent of all appointed officials were female.

Lorsung said that although "clearly things have gotten better" since the first all-male council and executive, politics is cyclical and it takes continuous effort to involve new generations of women.

Bobo, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, said she feels economic concerns may be even more important for women now than getting elected to public office.

"What we're trying to do is narrow the gap in income. That has a big impact on women," she said, adding that "I would like to see us do more." State and local government should spend more money to "help women, particularly the ones on lower income rungs, move up."

Thomsen noted that Howard County "is really a good place for women," nevertheless, and the study found that in some county government jobs normally held by men and women - such as 911 operators and computer processors - the average salary for women is higher than for men. "That really blows my socks off," Thomsen said.

The study results show the needs:

Older women were twice as likely to have delayed or not bought prescription drugs than men because of lack of money.

90 percent of grandparents caring for young children are women.

Women need social services help far more often than men do - four times more often for housing, and one-third more often for financial counseling.

2.2 percent of Howard families live below the poverty line, but 11 percent of single mothers with children younger than age 5 live in poverty.

90 percent of community college students enrolled in office technology and data processing - both courses leading to lower-paying jobs - were women, compared with biomedical engineering and computer technology, which attracted 20 percent to 30 percent women.

Three of every five Howard senior citizens are women, and they are more likely to suffer from depression, financial problems and have fewer family members available to care for them if they get sick. Ten percent of female senior citizens felt their lives "burdensome," compared with 3.5 percent of men surveyed.

Women make up more than three-quarters of the senior citizens who are ages 85 and older.

Lewis and Susan Rosenbaum executive secretary of the commission, said the study will help chart women's commission activities.

"The neat thing about it is we're not looking at this by itself. We'll network with the Office on Aging, the disabilities board," and other county agencies to use the findings to make changes, Rosenbaum said.

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