Guest opinion: Overcoming challenges women face in SWFL critical to pandemic recovery

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us make a difference in Southwest…

Guest opinion: Overcoming challenges women face in SWFL critical to pandemic recovery 1
Guest opinion: Overcoming challenges women face in SWFL critical to pandemic recovery 2

Women’s History Month is a celebration of the achievements of groundbreaking women everywhere and a time to examine the many obstacles they still face. That examination is especially important now, as the pandemic amplifies gender inequalities in Southwest Florida that have existed for generations. In our region, where women now outnumber men, studies show women earn even less money than the national average. Likewise, women have fewer professional or management positions and less health insurance coverage than Florida’s average, which is already among the worst in the nation.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, there are more Southwest Florida women in poverty than men. Looking at the higher end of the economic spectrum, women with graduate degrees in Lee County still earn an average of 19% less than their male counterparts, while the earnings difference in Collier County is 39%.

Through the lens of public health, this inequality persists, with women experiencing higher COVID infection rates and coronavirus-related job losses as the financial consequences women have historically faced for taking different life paths than men compound: 80% of women have children, and one-in-three women who work report earning less after taking maternity leave. Those same women frequently bear more childcare and home management responsibilities than men, leaving less time for their own financial planning. Women are also more likely to step away from the office and look after an aging parent, again affecting their earnings.

These duties, which women already performed at a rate two and a half times higher than men pre-coronavirus, have multiplied due to the pandemic. A recent study indicates that as a result, nearly a quarter of women are now contemplating downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce, with another study finding that women are experiencing the mental health consequences at a rate nearly three times higher than men.

It is crucial that women are not forced to make tough decisions between caring for the ones they love and their financial welfare in an uncertain economy. That difficult choice can be addressed with progressive workplace policies, such as the childcare reimbursements or adult care services programs for aging parents that Bank of America provides its employees.

Outside of the workplace, we must give women the tools they need to achieve their own economic success as well. Financial security means more than money for women; it represents financial independence, freedom and empowerment in a world that often does not prioritize their welfare. Financial institutions can be a major catalyst on this front, such as Bank of America’s initiatives focused on gender lens investing strategies or the Tory Burch Foundation Capital Program, which pledged $100 million in affordable loans to female entrepreneurs.

However, no organization or company can achieve these important tasks alone. Fundamental change requires meaningful, cross-sector partnerships.

The Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell has provided free business courses to over 20,000 women since 2018, 86% of whom are women of color. With the pandemic magnifying the inequities people of color also face, the bank recently worked with the university to add an additional 30,000 seats to the program.

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s mission to create lasting progress by working with regional leaders is an example of the difference collaboration can make in our region. One of its hallmark funds, FutureMakers Coalition, aims to increase the percentage of local, working-age adults who hold professional credentials, including industry certifications and workforce certificates, to 55% by 2025. Since its launch in 2013, the Coalition has helped 31,000 residents earn such credentials.

Yet, the pandemic has demonstrated the Coalition’s long-term goal cannot be achieved without directly addressing the opportunity gaps women face. Recognizing this, Bank of America partnered with the Community Foundation, which provides backbone support to FutureMakers, to help expand the critical services and equity programs the Coalition offers to women and others disproportionately impacted by existing inequities amplified by the coronavirus.

While many organizations and partners continue to help our communities recover and progress, there’s more work to be done. All of us can be a part of the solution. In addition to supporting these groups, we can personally advance this cause by engaging women in important financial discussions, promoting healthy financial habits and encouraging women leaders to become mentors for others down the line. It is also crucial that we urge women to begin planning early for unexpected future challenges, such as career interruptions and higher healthcare costs. The pandemic demonstrates how detrimental those can be.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us make a difference in Southwest Florida by putting women’s lifelong financial wellness front and center. Financial health will not only be vital to achieving equity; it will prove essential to preserving that balance and advancing economic opportunity for generations to come.


Gerri Moll is president, Bank of America Southwest Florida, and Sarah Owen is the president & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

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