How to End the Cycle of Poverty

In 2014, the official overall poverty rate in the United States was at almost 15 percent. For children under the age of 18 years old, that statistic jumped significantly to more than 21 percent—almost a full quarter of our nation’s children. We have heard the phrase “cycle of poverty” repeated for so long at this point that we have forgotten just how very real the struggle to be financially stable is. And that is just in America. Today, over a quarter of the world’s population—so somewhere around 1.8 billion people—still don’t earn enough to have reliable access to food. And a billion people are “extremely poor,” earning less than $1.25 a day.

The numbers simply don’t lie: adults who remain in financially challenging situations pass these same obstacles down to their children and this pattern continues on through the generations. So how do we begin to change these numbers to tell a different truth? What would a world without poverty really look like?

When Dress for Success was first established, we were very much a welfare-to-work organization. Over the years, the face of the Dress for Success woman has changed—she can hold a Bachelor’s degree just as often as she could hold a benefits card (sometimes she is even the owner of both!)—but the fact still remains that we as a society have much to do to eradicate poverty and expedite the economic independence of those in our global community who are so eagerly striving to obtain it.

An undeniable barrier facing poverty is, quite frankly, getting jobs that pay living wages. Workers are finding it difficult to maintain themselves and their families because the only employment they’re able to secure are positions that pay them below what they need to simply survive—let  alone thrive—as productive members of society. In order to elevate the economic status of our lower income peers around the world, we need to find a way to increase their wages.

Millions of men and women are working low paying jobs as maintenance workers, janitors, taxi drivers, waitresses and other occupations in the restaurant/fast food industry. These are necessary roles that must be filled to maintain the quality of our collective life, but jobs such as these offer shockingly low wages and little—if any—benefits. And let’s not forget that most of these positions are only offered on a part-time basis. Many employers hire several part-time positions because having a high quantity of staff is still less expensive than having to provide benefits and paid time off to full-time employees, even though the quality of work arguably suffers. Whether part-time or full-time, all workers should be compensated with a wage that allows them to provide for themselves and their families, as well as to plan for their future—to those inevitable days that will come where they simply are not able to work any longer, be it due to an emergency or a planned retirement.

Once we see the wage increase that our global society so desperately needs, we need to ensure that it’s implemented justly across the board. As we all know, despite how far we’ve come with women’s equality, women are still paid more than 30% less than men here in the U.S. for doing the same work.

In 2014, the median income for women who worked full time was $39,621 compared to that of men which was $50,383. Due to the wage gap, it’s no surprise why a great amount of women fall into poverty. This is a problem that all businesses must rectify, however, the ability to make an impact does not solely fall on the institution. Working women can do their part by allowing their voices to be heard, asking for raises or promotions based on the value and performance they bring to their jobs. Yet women tend to shy away from such situations because of the fear that it will be detrimental to their careers. Speaking up and taking initiative is perceived to be a risky endeavor. A recent article in The New Yorker shows that when women take the initiative to ask, being assertive and authoritative, they are often seen in a negative light. They are perceived as “tough” and employers are less inclined to work with them.  We need to create infrastructures and environments that encourage more women to speak up for what they want and receive what they rightfully deserve. Closing the gender gap alone would cut poverty in half for working women and their families.

Unequal pay and low wages are just a few of the many challenges we face in poverty. Women who fall into poverty are often also caregivers—workers who are mothers caring for their children and also at times their sick or aging relatives. The hurdle they face is the lack of policies to support them. Among advanced economies, the U.S. stands alone in not mandating for paid leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act. When caregiving duties call and a woman must take time off from her job, the result can be a drastic reduction in her paid work hours.  One can imagine the conflict faced in deciding whether to stay to earn the money from the job she needs or take leave because of the necessity of caring for an elderly family member or a young child. Not having paid leave creates fear of financial security— anxiety of whether she can make enough money in spite of the other challenges in her life.  As a result, after an absence from the workplace, a women is less likely to return, leaving her struggling to find a new career path and leaving a company scrambling to fill a new position and train a new hire.

Out of 185 countries, the U.S. stands with Oman and Papua New Guinea, both developing nations, in not granting paid maternity leave. Some of the developed nations that do offer paid maternity leave include the United Kingdom, which offers 40 weeks, and Vietnam and Ireland, both offering 26 weeks. Research shows that paid maternity leave of up to five months increases mothers’ employment. More women will enter and remain in the workforce as a result of paid maternity leave. Providing employees with paid leave is vital because it fosters a workplace culture in which mothers and caregivers belong in the work world. A study based on California employees and employers provides evidence of this phenomenon. Workers with low-quality jobs who used family leave insurance were more likely to return to their employer: 82.7% of workers who used paid leave returned, compared to 73% who did not have paid leave.

Wage increases, pay equality and paid family leave are all major issues to tackle, but I think that we as a society are up to the challenge. As the saying goes, “there’s no better time than right now,” especially as we see more women becoming the main providers for their families and as more women are aspiring for greater leadership positions throughout all sectors of industry. Plainly put, every aspect of the world suffers when the employment rate is low and the poverty rate is high, and we have suffered long enough.

So what does a world without poverty look like? It’s a world where every child has an education and is able to read because they don’t have to drop out of school to earn money for their family. It’s a world where family structures are strong and sustainable because parents are afforded the time away from work that it takes to lay a solid foundation on which the family can be built. It’s a world where workers are happy to perform their jobs, which leads to higher rates of production and better quality work. It’s a world where women have a true voice because they are provided with infrastructures that empower and support them, which leads to more women in leadership and more profitable companies.

Achieving a world like this requires the efforts of everyone. It requires us all to advocate for the government to perform its duties by ensuring that it implements policies that serve to help all people. We need to be vocal about the need to maximize programs and policies that empower women because empowering women worldwide is not just a win for women, it’s a win for everyone—and it’s a huge leap forward in eradicating poverty across the globe.

Confidence is not Masculine or Feminine: it’s Structural

A widely accepted justification for the glass ceiling is a difference in confidence levels between men and women. In 2014, a study from Washington University of St. Louis reported that women perform better in less competitive work environments.  Today, more than 70 years since the world’s first female head of state took office, this news sounds regressive and antiquated at the very least.

Women have spent years catching up in academia and now outrank men globally in higher education enrollment and graduation rates. In the United States, women earn 60% of all undergraduate degrees and account for 52% of the workforce. This increase can be seen across the board, including in countries like Saudi Arabia, where women make up 51% of the total college enrollment but yet do not have the freedom to operate a vehicle alone.  Despite these widespread gains, we are still vastly underrepresented as leaders and disproportionately compensated for our positions.

For 17 years, I have worked directly with many ambitious and resourceful women who are anything but apathetic towards their careers. These women have faced challenges and come out on other side exuding both professional initiative and overwhelming personal aspiration to move forward for themselves and their families.

So why are so many strong women perceived as timid in the workplace? Just like any professional skill, confidence is learned and therefore can be influenced by our surroundings. Women’s ‘soft’ approach to career advancement can be attributed, in large part, to a lack of structural support in the workplace. Since many women serve as the primary caregivers to children as well as the sick and elderly in their families, they may endure periods of time out from their careers, which forces them to work twice as hard to get the same distance as their male counterparts. Even without these breaks in career momentum, limited institutional support including inadequate maternal policies and inflexible work schedules make it hard for women to stay competitive and hinder their upward mobility. The unfortunate consequences can be a loss of self-confidence and lowered expectations in order to meet the demands of splitting time and energy between professional and family life.

However, there is some progress on the institutional level that suggests corporate mindsets are shifting towards being more inclusive of women.  The British based phone company Vodafone recently announced it will be instituting a maternity policy at the end of 2015 that set a precedent for businesses worldwide. The new policy will include 16 weeks of fully-paid leave. In addition, returning employees will be able to work 30-hour weeks for the first six months and still receive their full compensation.  This will dramatically increase benefits in several of the 30 countries where Vodafone operates, especially the United States.  As the only developed country without sanctioned minimums for maternity leave, the United States falls behind less progressive nations like India, who provide 84 days of paid leave for their women.

Offering structural support to working women does not just benefit the individual; it also bolsters the economy. Many companies would actually save money by including paid leave for their female employees. The total cost of replacing women who leave the workforce to start a family often outweighs the price of increasing benefits to retain a current employee. Providing more agency incentives like those at Vodafone would boost self-esteem, making women feel more valued in their positions and ultimately encouraging their return to the workforce.

Though enhanced work-life policies make it easier for women to access the workforce, it’s not the only change that needs to be made. Some countries, like Spain, have even implemented equity laws that require a certain percentage of female candidates be represented in each electoral race but still have yet to appoint a female leader. To generate actual change, advancements on the institutional level must also be coupled with a psychological shift.

The belief that women are not strong or effective leaders persists despite the evidence.  A study from Pepperdine University reported Fortune 500 companies who more frequently promoted females boasted higher profits and outperformed those at the industry standard. In order to change this perception of women’s professional worth we need more visible female leaders in the workplace.  Historically, women were held back from attaining senior positions while today we are challenged to find those mentor relationships that play a vital role in career advancement. The perpetuation of prescribed gender roles ensure women with powerful careers are labeled as “exceptions,” rather than role models. Much like maternity provisions, mentorship is seldom integrated into a company’s policies, putting the burden on women to fill that role externally.

At Dress for Success we work to close this gap by creating a global network of women helping women. Our programs thrive on mentor relationships that educate and empower women to make changes in their own lives and share their experiences with other women.  Within this culture we can cultivate a change in perspective that will normalize female leaders in our workforce and strengthen professional networks for all women.

Until society develops larger internal framework to accommodate all women in the workforce, we would benefit from looking to each other for mentorship and offering the support that is lacking on the institutional level. If properly supported in our careers, we would no longer perceive a lack of confidence as an obstacle for women in the workforce.

Regardless of gender, our confidence is influenced both internally and externally and together reinforces our overall self-esteem.  If we begin to view the issue of career confidence in its structural context rather than as an intrinsic male or female trait, we can identify the holes in our current system and begin to offer better supplemental support to working women. Broadening the scope of the conversation will allow women to realize their full professional potential, open the door to more career opportunities and create a stronger and more lucrative workforce worldwide.

Are We Creating a Lost Generation of Women in Our Workforce?

Throughout the past 16 years, I’ve seen many qualified women come through our doors who are simply passed over in the job market, judged on external factors rather than on their experience and capability. One of our clients, Sheba, came to us with an impressive resume and a long career working in non-profits and human resources. But in 2009 she was unexpectedly laid off from her job and has spent the last six years trying to navigate her way back into the workforce. Employed steadily since she was 17, Sheba’s now in her 50s and reaching her prime earning stages but subsequently receiving little interest from employers. Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Many women in their late 40s and early 50s are being pushed out of the workforce during what should be the height of their careers.

Since the recession in 2009 there are about one million fewer women ages 45-54 in the workforce. But these women are not leaving by choice. In fact, a recent study by Pew Research shows that middle-aged to older women value a high paying career as much as men while younger women value a career more than men.

Yet despite ambition women are still seemingly “retiring” earlier than men. According to the American Time Use Survey, only 55% of women ages 55-64 are still employed, compared to 64% of men the same age. And it’s not just women’s career aspirations that have changed; we also have the credentials to back it up, attending more schooling than men overall.  Women are still falling through cracks in the system every day, part of a lost generation who are too young to retire but seemingly too old to be marketable in the workforce.

Unfortunately, Sheba and many other hardworking women her age have little control over the structural and cultural factors that have left them out of work for years. Though some see it as antiquated, ageism is a real factor for many women I see, especially those who fall into the “middle-age” bracket and find themselves subject to stereotypes. In fact, at Dress for Success our largest demographic falls within this range.  Middle-aged women are being passed over in the job market, perceived as out of touch and even less productive than younger applicants. Rather than face years of struggle with unemployment or settle for below-living wages, many of them look to retirement so they can at least reap the benefits of their 401(k) or other security funding.

However, this path should not be their only option, and it’s not even a viable option for many, since women are generally still paid less than men.  We earn less over our lifetimes and are subsequently left with smaller pensions and assets. And with longer life expectancies than men, we are forced to live on less for longer, making us twice as likely to live below the poverty line after retirement.

But stereotypes are not the only hurdles these women encounter. As our health care improves, we are all living longer, but this shift has also positioned many women to sacrifice their prime earning years to serve as caregivers to sick and elderly parents. Others are stretched even thinner, caring for their own children, who are now living at home longer, as well as an elderly parent.  And with more and more women as single breadwinners, I’ve seen many struggle to take on the extra burden of finding an income large enough to support more than one household.

Despite the shifting attitudes and career progress for women, society still lacks the structure to support senior women in the workforce. Until we can create a system that will incentivize women to care for both their families and careers, we need to offer more services to give older women opportunities to utilize their experiences and skillsets in the workforce.

Shortly before she was laid off, Sheba was looking to move up in her career and came to Dress for Success to join our programs and improve her interviewing skills. She wasn’t receiving any feedback from employers, and, like many women we work with, she found it difficult to market herself. When she suddenly lost her job, Sheba’s lack of confidence was further complicated by gaps in her resume. After joining our Going Places Network by Walmart, Sheba participated in mock interviews and career counseling and learned to understand her resume as part of her own narrative.

As we age, we experience a change in perspective that causes some of us to readjust our career paths to find new means of fulfilment. Speaking with our career experts, Sheba decided to explore other options and go back to school. Attending college part-time, allowed her to still care for her elderly father. Now with a better idea of how to tell her story, Sheba is able to speak to her job experience as a part of “her brand” and is comfortable communicating her skillset to employers, even landing a work-study job while in school.

A recent graduate, she holds a degree in business administration and is currently enrolled in a certificate program for non-profit management. Like many of the women who come through our doors, Sheba lacked options but not ambition. With more services available to middle-age and mature generations, these women could regain the confidence and skillsets needed to overcome structural and cultural barriers that have left them prematurely displaced. Society as a whole would benefit from a new generation of untapped experience, bringing flexibility and productivity to the workforce.

November: Handling the Hectic Holidays

As if maintaining some semblance of work-life balance wasn’t hard enough already, now it’s the holidays!  Not only are you obligated to your hours in the office and responsible for fulfilling your role at home, now you have to find time to shop for gifts, make that dish for your lunchtime potluck, catch the little ones in their school holiday play and, wow, the list doesn’t seem to ever end.

Life can definitely get more hectic around the holidays and that’s why we’ve dedicated the November issue of the Dress for Success Blog to help relieving some of this stress.  We’ve included tips from Carmen Rita Wong on how to balance your children’s expectations with your financial obligations, advice on how to look for work during the holidays, a review of Diane Muldrow’s “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book” and so much more!

I hope that we can help you get a handle on the holiday season and just remember—it’s almost over!

 Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide

October: Treating Yourself to the Career That You Always Wanted

As children, we understood “treats” to mean a bagful of guilt-free candy, but as we got older, the word took on new meaning.  Treats became more than just a simple indulgence, but something that we earned.  They became rewards for a job well done– and what better way to reward that achievement than by treating yourself to the job that you always wanted?

Much like going door-to-door around the neighborhood in search of sugar-filled satisfaction, you must actively search out that perfect professional position for yourself.  Doors will open for you, you just need to know which ones to knock on, when to knock on them and why.  As each door opens, build on that experience to reach the next opportunity.  Finding a career that best suits you is definitely a process, but the journey is what actually makes this treat so sweet.

In this month’s edition of the Dress for Success Blog, we cover everything from defining success in your career to how to balance networking and friendship, all in an effort to help you treat yourself to the career you always wanted!

Enjoy!

 Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide

September: The Rules of Going Back to School

Knowledge is power and there’s an abundance of lessons to be learned through the experiences that life throws at us.  Regardless if they’re good or bad, we always walk away knowing something about the world, or simply about ourselves, that we didn’t know previously.

And sometimes those real life lessons lead you down a path that you never expected… until you’re taking your first steps back onto that campus and entering that classroom door again.  For some, maybe only a short time has passed, but for others, it might even be decades since finding themselves in an academic setting.

Choosing to continue your education can be a hard decision to make, but the rewards can be immense, both in your professional and personal life.  So for those women who decide to give college the “’ole college try,” this month’s edition of the Dress for Success Blog is dedicated to you.

Regardless if you’re walking down the school hallway or up the steps of an office for a job interview, we hope that what you read here inspires you to continue learning– and striving to always be your best self!

Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide

August: The Sky Is the Limit

Sometimes life takes you on a professional detour.  Sometimes you reach one career destination only to find out it wasn’t the right place for you.  And sometimes you just can’t seem to figure out where to go in your field.  Many women walk through the doors of Dress for Success with these same occupation obstacles and we are happy to help them navigate themselves—and you, our dear readers—to calmer seas.

The path to economic independence can have many twists and turns, but with determination to reach that destination, you can definitely make it there.  And it’s actually the journey that makes reaching this destination so rewarding.

That’s why this month the Dress for Success Blog is exploring the theme of travel.  We’ve tapped into the expertise of some of the most respected names in the travel industry to find out their secrets to success.

How did Travel + Leisure Editor-in-Chief Nancy Novogrod find job security and career contentment over her last two decades leading the magazine? Find out how the who’s who of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants achieved suite success. We even have suggestions on how to properly prepare your boss and coworkers before you leave for a vacation!

And just remember, when it comes to your financial future, the sky’s the limit.  Enjoy your journey!

Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide

July: Turning Your Obstacles into Economic Independence

It can be tough to figure out what to do with your money once you’re making money—and even tougher to figure out what to do with your money when you’re not making any.  Regardless of the situation, Dress for Success knows that economic independence is definitely on your horizon, but let’s be honest, it may take some hard work.

So this month, we have dedicated the Dress for Success Blog to “Turning Your Obstacles into Economic Independence.”  We are celebrating each and every women who strives to achieve financial freedom and those who are determined to maintain it.  And for those that don’t know anything about financial freedom, we’re here to let you know all about it! So it’s no wonder why we chose the women that we did to participate in this month’s blog…

A woman who set herself apart from her high-profile family to carve out a career all her own? Liz Goldwyn did that!  What’s the best way to manage your money?  Alexa Von Tobel breaks it down in her new book What are the most important lessons to teach your child about money?  Carmen Wong Ulrich has all of the answers!

There’s only one person that determines your financial future and that’s you!  But we’re to help you along the way, so we hope that you are empowered and inspired on your path to economic independence by what you read this month on the Dress for Success Blog!

Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwid

June: Courting a New Career

Spring is a time for new beginnings, but sometimes you don’t know how to take that first step to create the change in your life that you really want.  That’s why we have dedicated the month of June on the Dress for Success Blog to “courting a new career.”  Just like dating, finding the right line of work for you involves some trial and error.  You may try something or even many things, only to find out that you’re not in the right position or even the right industry.  But there is the perfect job for you out there, you just need to be persistent, consistent and strategic.

Did you know that fashion guru June Ambrose originally worked in invest banking before switching over to the world of style?  Or that coming to a crossroads can be a good thing?  Or that there are many ways to try to get your dream company to notice you?

We tackle all of these topics on our blog this month to help prepare you for making your next move once you feel that the time is right.  Just remember: know before you go!

 Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide