This spring, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was reinstating the Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women to examine the role women play in the state’s labor market and economy, understand barriers women may face in these areas and make recommendations to eliminate obstacles and build on past successes of Arkansas women.
“In my administration, women are an essential part of my leadership team,” Hutchinson said, naming his chief of staff, Alison Williams, as chair of the commission, which consists of 16 Arkansans.
From Northwest Arkansas, Hutchinson appointed Gayatri Agnew, a Bentonville City Council member, and the U of A’s own Todd Shields, dean of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, to serve on the commission.
“This is the right time to examine these issues and to benefit from the knowledge, insight and feedback of Arkansas women,” Williams said. “Women are disproportionately economically disadvantaged, and the pandemic exacerbated that, especially for mothers. And since women in Arkansas earn 80 percent of what Arkansas men do, this is an issue that affects us all because it affects a large portion of our state’s population.”
Williams said Shields will also be a valuable commission member, who will bring his expertise in research, survey administration and data analysis to the group.
“I’m truly honored to help the commission and our beautiful state of Arkansas in any way that I can,” Shields said. “Especially if that means helping Arkansas’ women to be heard, to create change, to have more opportunities and to better their lives in significant ways.”
The commission was established this past February by an executive order from Hutchinson, who stated in his proclamation, “Women are a vital part of Arkansas’ rich history and are fundamental to the economic, political and social prosperity of Arkansas, and research is needed … to help better direct policies and lawmaking.”
Ultimately, the commission will submit its findings and recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by Dec. 1.
The Commission on the Status of Women most recently gathered in March at the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History to meet with women from Northwest Arkansas who shared their life experiences.
In addition to those on the commission, more than 30 women attended the meeting, hailing from fields like business and industry, the non-profit sector, education, the arts and local and state government. Williams encouraged all who desired to share their stories to use “I” statements to talk about their specific experiences.
Recurring themes quickly emerged, including concerns about access to childcare, healthcare and mental health services, along with challenges caring for elderly parents, the wage gap between men in women in Arkansas, women often being essential workers even before the COVID-19 pandemic and what society often does knowingly or unknowingly that “keeps women down.”
The U of A’s Kim Needy, dean of the College of Engineering, said she was used to being one of the only women in her field, and when she speaks with young women, she always encourages them to find a way to stay in the workforce and persevere.
“It’s not always going to be easy, it’s not always going to be pretty, but until women are in positions of leadership we really can’t make significant changes,” Needy said. “Until we’re in positions of leadership, we can’t lift each other up.”
Needy also said women from all walks of life need to share their stories to encourage one another. She added that female leaders, especially, should talk about the barriers and challenges they’ve overcome to encourage and inspire more women to do the same.
Another concern Needy and several others raised was that things have changed very little over the years for women. Needy said when she meets young women today, their question often is “Can I have a career and a life?” — a question she asked as an engineering student herself.
Arkansas previously had four commissions that focused on women, starting with Gov. Orval Faubus’ group created in 1964 to focus on the social, political and economic status of women.
Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller established the next commission to focus on state employment laws and differences in legal treatment of men and women.
In 1973, Gov. Dale Bumpers reinstated the commission to find ways to enlarge the role of women in economic, political and social institutions. That group’s report is available to read online.
Gov. David Pryor instituted the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women to focus, in part, on Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment in 1975.
At the most recent 2022 commission meeting in Fayetteville, women were asked to share:
- The biggest barriers they have faced in
- Business / Career / Finances
- Family / Childcare / Relationships
- Physical and Mental Health / Medical / Wellbeing
- Social / Spiritual / Safety & Security
- Education/ Development / Personal Growth
- If COVID-19 had a noticeable impact on any of these parts of their lives, and how
- If there are policies and practices in Arkansas government and business they think create potential barriers
- If there are policies and practices they think Arkansas government and businesses could implement to reduce or eliminate these barriers
Women who couldn’t attend the meeting can still provide their feedback by completing this online form.
In addition to Northwest Arkansas’ Agnew and Shields, the 2022 Commission members include: Mellie Bridewell of Lake Village, Charisse Childers of Little Rock, Breanne Davis of Russellville, Tamika Edwards of Little Rock, Joyce Elliot of Little Rock, Marie Holder of Little Rock, Cherisse Jone-Branch of Jonesboro, Kim Lane of Conway, Heather Larkin of Little Rock, Beverly Morrow of Little Rock, Veronikha Salazar of Arkadelphia, Kathy Webb of Little Rock, Naija White of Lewisville and Kathy White Loyd of Mountain Home.
The commission’s next meeting will be on April 19 in Little Rock. Future meetings will also be held throughout Arkansas.
For more information about the commission, its activities and future meetings, visit women.arkansas.gov.