Finding quality childcare underlies many of the challenges facing women in Arkansas' workforce, but businesses, nonprofits and government agencies are working to address the challenges, according to a report released Wednesday by the Arkansas Women's Commission.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson re-established the women's commission in February to examine and provide possible solutions for key issues women face in the workforce. The state's first women's commission was created by Gov. Orval Faubus in 1964. The current group marks the fourth such commission, with the last significant report produced in 1973.
Alison Williams, chair of the commission, became emotional when speaking about the work the committee has done over the past year.
"Thank you, Governor, for this wonderful opportunity to work with so many incredible women in Arkansas and their communities, and on behalf of the Arkansas Women's Commission the great honor of delivering our work to you today," Williams said as she fought back tears.
Hutchinson tasked the commission with analyzing barriers to entry for women in Arkansas' workforce, and asked for specific focus on single mothers, female entrepreneurs, the recruitment of women in the STEM field and the state's child care economy. Three subcommittees focused on the areas identified in the executive order.
"It will likely come as no surprise that the challenge of finding quality child care underlies many of the other challenges facing women in Arkansas since the burden of care largely falls to women," Williams said at the news conference.
Williams said covid-19 exacerbated longstanding challenges of child care, especially in rural communities where options are limited and transportation and work can be an issue.
"Access to basic physical and mental health services also dramatically declined during covid and still has not rebounded," she said.
Williams said throughout their research committee members found women have a strong desire for more mentorship, especially in regard to entrepreneurship.
"The flexibility offered by working for oneself is enticing to women," she said.
Hutchinson described the release of the report as essential to the state's future.
"I don't think my administration would be complete after eight years of service without this report that is so critical to everything we want to accomplish in Arkansas," he said.
The Republican governor described the report as "enlightening, concerning and motivating," and said he hopes others feel the same way.
The main focus areas of the report include women's labor force participation, the impacts of covid-19 and family care-giving. The report analyzed the economic status of women in the workforce and highlighted eight recommendations.
The recommendations are:
• Meaningfully engage the business community to address child care challenges.
• Increase access to women's mental health resources, especially in rural communities.
• Increase mentorship for women, especially single mothers, underrepresented students and entrepreneurs.
• Increase awareness of programs designed to assist single parents.
• Increase equity in the labor force and entrepreneurship.
• Incentivize Arkansans to enter or remain in the early childhood education profession.
• Increase equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
• Provide technical assistance and capacity building for expanding existing child care businesses.
"Nearly 50 years have passed since our state had a women's commission, and since that time our workforce and economic diversity has evolved tremendously," Hutchinson said in a news release. "As we look towards the future of Arkansas, I'm proud of the great work the commission has done to assist in eliminating the barriers that limit the economic success of women and creating a more equitable labor force for all Arkansans."
The Republican governor also announced he will commit $200,000 from the state's Rainy Day Fund to support Arkansas State University's expansion of its Women's Business Leadership Center through the creation of Delta Women's Leadership Academy.
Hutchinson said the academy will mentor students who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, business owners and the next generation of successful female leaders.
Supported financially by the Women's Foundation of Arkansas, the commission began its work in late February with the goal of delivering the report to Hutchinson and the General Assembly by the end of 2022.
The commission held monthly regional meetings, conducted a statewide telephone survey of more than 400 women and hosted a continuously available online survey on the commission website that received more than 80 responses.
Williams said 200 additional women spoke to the commission during regional meetings held in Fayetteville, Magnolia, Mountain Home, Lake Village, Pine Bluff, Russellville and Jonesboro, which provided more detail for the report.
"The most significant findings of the 2022 Arkansas Women's Commission are not revelatory: Women in Arkansas continue to bear the greatest burden of family care, which includes child and elder care, and covid-19 further brought this open secret into stark relief," the report states. "The Commission's recommendations are equally unsurprising. There is not much about reducing the barriers to women in Arkansas -- in wages, in professional advancement, in access to child care, or in terms of access to health care -- that is novel. What deserves continued vigilance is working together to address them."
Hutchinson said for the committee's recommendations to be successful it must go beyond assistance from state government. Engagement from the business and philanthropic communities are needed as well, he said.
"There is a lot of work to be done by all sectors of our life here in Arkansas, and government is just one part of that," he said.
The report also looked at some things that already have been implemented by various agencies. This includes Excel by 8, a nonprofit organization supporting youth and families, receiving funding to hire a campaign director to work with chambers of commerce and business leaders statewide to identify and address the child care needs impacting their employees.
The report also said that Hutchinson creating new programs, such as Life360 HOME, meet the needs of new and expecting mothers while addressing complex challenges facing many of Arkansas' most vulnerable residents.
Arkansas's Single Parent Scholarship Fund will increase awareness of programs designed to assist single parents by working with the Arkansas Department of Commerce's Division of Workforce Services.
Walmart also has granted $25,000 to the Women's Foundation of Arkansas to help fund outreach and stakeholder engagement in 2023. The money will be used to raise awareness about the commission's recommendations and build partnerships to bolster the economic development of women in the workforce.
"As the state's leading foundation focused solely on improving the economic mobility and security of women and girls in Arkansas, the WFA was proud to support the governor on this important initiative to invest in women's economic growth," Anna Beth Gorman, CEO of the Women's Foundation of Arkansas, said in a news release. "We hope that legislators, employers and organizations across the state can use these findings to help open doors for more women to successfully enter into the workforce and find success throughout their careers and endeavors."