Anne Mosle

(WOMENSENEWS)–More and more women’s foundations are funding research on women and girls in their communities because the information is otherwise unavailable. The result, according to many who work in such foundations, is a more highly focused policy on giving and a clearer call to action.

“Invisibility is the highest form of discrimination,” says Marla J. Williams, the president and chief executive of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, based in Denver. Her organization found that when it tried to find data and statistics about the conditions of local women, it came up empty-handed. “Women,” she says, “were sort of being buried in the numbers.”

In 1999, Williams decided the foundation should fund its own research. In 2001, it produced “At the Beginning of a New Century: A Summary on the Status of Women in Colorado.” Though it appeared that Colorado women were at the forefront of chipping away at the wage gap, women without a college degree, it was shown, had actually seen a decrease in their wages in the last 20 years.

That was followed by a report on women in technology that found that women were not participating in high numbers, though the technology sector was the fastest growing and highest paying. Another report about the status of girls in Colorado found that although suicide is the third leading cause of death among Colorado girls, they are less likely to receive treatment from the public health system.

Spending the money on research was well worth it for the foundation, dedicated to the economic progress of the state’s women and girls. “To be able to do our job well, we needed to know more about our audience,” Williams says.

Need for College Assistance Found in Colorado

Once the foundation was able to show that women without a college education had lost purchasing power and gone backward in the last 20 years, the group spearheaded a campaign to eliminate a state welfare provision that keeps women from using college courses as credit for work.

“Basically, this is condemning a woman to a downward spiral,” Williams says. The group failed but has not given up on changing the welfare law or conducting research. “I believe in the adage, ‘What gets measured, gets done,'” she adds. “This is some of the best work a foundation can do.”

A growing number of women’s public and private foundations are doing the same type of research. For many communities, it is either the first or only research of its kind. Last year, at the annual conference of the Women’s Funding Network, an umbrella organization of 96 women’s foundations in the United States and abroad, 25 foundations announced that they were funding research in their communities. At this year’s conference, in April in Dallas, about 20 foundations talked about the research they were doing.

“The funds are saying that they are doing it for two reasons,” says Chris Grumm, the executive director of the funding network, based in San Francisco. “It’s not out there and they’re looking to be more strategic in their grant-making.”

The Washington Area Women’s Foundation worked with more than 20 leading research organizations–including the Brookings Institution based in Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, also based in Washington, D.C.–for over 18 months to find out what life was like for the Washington-area’s 1.8 million women and girls. The study looked at economic security, education, health, violence and leadership opportunities through a variety of methods. During this period, the foundation held 14 community focus groups, where they heard from teen-age mothers, immigrant women and female entrepreneurs.

Anne Mosle, president of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, spearheaded the study, published earlier this month, because she wanted to create a “blueprint” for supporting women and girls that her foundation, government and other public and private organizations could follow. After the report was finished, Mosle was struck by the stark contrasts among women in the D.C. area. While the number of women with a college degree is nearly double the national average, nearly half of the Latina women in some communities have no high school diploma. She found similar pockets of polarity when it came to the wage gap. The median yearly income for women in Washington outpaces the national median earnings for women. In Fairfax county, Virginia, men’s annual median earnings outpace women’s by $18,700.

Alarming Rates of AIDS among Women in D.C.

“White and Asian American women are doing enormously well,” Mosle says, “but the same success is not being played out with African Americans and Latinas.” Mosle was particularly troubled by the rate of new AIDS cases among girls and women in D.C. With 92 cases for every 100,000 people, it is 10 times the national rate. “This is cause for alarm,” she says.

The organization is starting a $1 million initiative to target women-headed households after finding that the Washington area is home to more poor families headed by women than the national average. “We wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to just sit on a shelf,” Mosle says. “But we want to see new change and new ways to address the problems.”

San Francisco’s government-funded Department on the Status of Women recently published a year-long study on the 55,000 girls in its city after extrapolating data from government agencies, private groups and the Census Bureau and compiling it into a single report. One disturbing trend the department found was that African American girls make up just 12.5 percent of the girls in San Francisco but 70 percent of the foster-care system. They also account for 57 percent of juvenile arrests. The department has already shared the report with the police department, the school district and private organizations, such as the local Girl Scouts and the local chapter of Girls Inc., a non-profit organization serving more than 350,000 girls nationwide.

The next step will be to have a public hearing and a policy forum to come up with ideas for addressing the problems that the report highlights. “We’re now working with bare bones,” says Belle Taylor-McGhee, the executive director of the department, referring to the scarce amount of money that foundations are working with as a result of the weak economy. “This kind of data can only help foundations as they look at their own strategic plans. We’ve got the facts to help you spend your money.”

“Research is becoming a key piece in the process of saying how do we get more people to give,” says the Women’s Funding Network’s Chris Grumm. “We have to provide more specific information on impact and change. And we are getting smarter about how to capture that knowledge so we can get on the right path to do the best grant-making.”

Minnesota Research Finds Need for Girls’ Career-Training

When board members of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota were trying to decide the single issue in which to invest over a five-year period, they organized a listening tour across the state. The foundation, based in Minneapolis, made 14 stops and heard from mothers living on federal assistance, businesswomen and Native American girls. The two biggest issues that emerged were poverty among women and the future of the state’s girls. The foundation linked the two and is now investing in projects that teach girls about careers, pair them with female business owners and even help them to start their own businesses.

“It’s a very exciting way to launch an initiative,” says the foundation president Jane Ransom. “It really is grounded in both the research and what Minnesota women and girls identified. We feel like it’s really meeting a need.”

While various women’s groups across the country are conducting research on their own communities, the only group that appears to be doing this kind of broad research on women nationally is the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Every two years, the Washington, D.C., research organization publishes its “Status of Women in the States” report, comparing women in each state through the lens of work, health care, political participation and reproductive rights. Often, the institute will join or consult with local women’s foundations or commissions to produce the report.

Jean Sinzdak, the institute’s outreach director, has seen the research bring about change in a state. Mississippi residents, repeatedly ranked the worst state for women, used the institute’s report to persuade the governor to establish a commission on women.

“People can’t argue with statistics,” Sinzdak says. “That’s where people have found actual statistics to be very effective.”

The Colorado foundation’s Marla Williams agrees. “Whenever someone is throwing around statistics, I think it is our job to ask the question, ‘What does that mean for women and girls?’ I have found it to be a very valuable question.”

Luchina Fisher is a free-lance writer and producer living in the New York area.

For more information:

Women’s Foundation of Colorado–
“At the Beginning of a New Century: A Summary on
the Status of Women in Colorado”:

Washington Area Women’s Foundation:

San Francisco Department on the Status of Women: