This editorial first appeared in the 2014 Holiday (Nov-Dec) issue of Vermont Woman.

by Linda Tarr-Whelan


Before my husband and I relocated to Burlington, Vermont a few years ago, I was deeply involved in national and international efforts to ensure that the experiences, skills and ideas of women do not go untapped. I have written and spoken globally about the benefits of balanced leadership, when a critical mass of women sits at power tables.

Internationally, the lesson that gender matters has been taken to heart. There is a growing movement to invest in empowering girls and women to increase growth and well-being. It is led by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, financial giants like Goldman Sachs with its 10,000 Women Initiative, governments across the globe (including our own), major foundations and many corporations.

As one example, the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles have now been adopted by almost 1,000 corporate CEOs who have personally endorsed the seven-point program to advance their companies by focusing on gender equality. In this country, investors – particularly large pension funds and sustainable investment mutual funds – are pressing the companies they invest in to join the effort. Extensive business research shows that gender equality is a smart bottom-line business strategy.

Local Surprises

So when we moved to Vermont, I expected that this state would be in the vanguard of efforts to promote economic development by making sure that all our home-grown talent has a chance to thrive. We were drawn to retire in Vermont for many reasons: the beauty everywhere, the great people, the local fresh food, the lively arts and college scene, and the state’s strong reputation as a progressive national leader. I’ve had a few surprises, and as a New Englander it wasn’t the long, cold winter.

What really set me back was reading the recent Enough Said report released by Vermont Works for Women. The study was based on focus groups and interviews with girls and young women from every corner of Vermont. It told a story of missed opportunities – for women and girls today, but also for Vermont’s future.

The statewide Task Force on Women and the Vermont Economy, which was formed to respond to the report, made solid recommendations for correcting the deficiencies that young women saw. Calling our report Change the Story, each member of the 29-person Task Force made an individual commitment to action, underscoring that moving the needle depends on all of us.

Here is what young women of Vermont stated that they needed to succeed—and felt was missing. First, career exploration and guidance was needed for them to move into non-traditional fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). One student’s comment has stayed with me. She wondered how she could think about becoming an engineer or a mechanic if she had never used any tools.

In addition, the participants reported a deficit of personal finance skills to navigate the landscape of adult life including budgets, student loan debt and credit cards. And, last, the young women called for adult support to deal with rampant peer aggression and not push it under the rug as a teenage rite of passage. I asked our 16-year-old granddaughter who lives in Florida about peer aggression and she said, “Nana, that’s why most of my friends are boys, because there is no drama.”

Chilly Stat

I believe that the factors they identified are critical pivot points lying behind this cold statistic: Vermont women, across all ages and education levels, are more likely than men to live in poverty; they are a disproportionate share of our poor.

We know from the research why this is true. Recently, the Federal Reserve of Boston published an article that Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of Vermont Works for Women, and I co-wrote about investing in women and girls for economic growth in New England. Our article identified key reasons for this gender gap, such as limited assistance to help families balance family and work, including paid sick leave; minimum wages that have not kept up with inflation while two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women; and occupational segregation that clusters working women in just 20 percent of available careers.

I’ve been working with others on one aspect of changing the story to answer one important question raised by young Vermont women (also true for our young men): “How did I leave high school without understanding the basics around handling money?”

Champlain College’s Center on Financial Literacy has taken the lead on next steps to provide answers. Their national survey of 50 states last year gave Vermont a “D” on its financial literacy preparation for grades K-12.

Only seven of more than 60 high schools in the state require proficiency in personal finance for graduation. A committee of talented educators and experts is laying out a roadmap for the way forward, so stay tuned for the formal report which will be released by the end of this year.

Take Part

There are many ways for every woman to be part of the solution: to help and/or mentor girls and young women to have a better future and, at the same time, improve the potential for economic growth and stability in Vermont:

Check out the Vermont Works for Women website at to read the reports, sign up for peer aggression workshops, and learn practical ways to make a difference.

Parents and educators should ask school and supervisory union administrators what financial skills students will have when they graduate, and push for proficiency requirements.

Make sure the girls you know have a wide variety of career exposure experiences like the Women Can Do! annual conference, which last year drew 500 young women from across Vermont to meet with women in non-traditional careers.

For many years, the Ms. Foundation had a national “Take our Daughters to Work” campaign. Any business or community could make this real in Vermont and provide girls with a window into various options.

Make sure career nights at your school have lots of women role models—particularly in areas where women are under-represented—and that as many colleges and tech centers are present as possible.

Gender matters. Let’s work together for a healthy future for girls and young women and improve Vermont’s economy at the same time.


Linda Tarr-Whelan is the author of Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World and is the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and Chair of the Task Force on Young Women and the Vermont Economy.