A two-day discussion of women’s issues in Anchorage this month at the first-ever Alaska Women’s Summit spurred organizer Sen. Lesil McGuire to pen a bill tackling a topic that kept popping up time and time again: childcare, or the state’s lack thereof.
Childcare in Alaska is hard to come by, she said, and all too often women are unable to enter the workforce because they must stay home to watch their children.
“And because we have a shortage, we have extremely high prices for it,” McGuire said.
The senator hopes to encourage Alaskans to enter the childcare industry by offering loan forgiveness through the bill. More childcare providers on the market means cheaper, more accessible childcare and more women available to join the workforce, McGuire said.
The bill would also provide incentives for businesses to develop in-house childcare programs. It’s being drafted “as we speak,” she said.
Rep. Beth Kerttula said she’s been pushing a similar bill for about six years.
“My idea is to include childcare in state office buildings,” she said. “That’s basically the start — to open it up, to give an anchor for childcare in communities.”
Juneau’s childcare situation is dire, mirroring the state’s, Kerttula said. She’s read that not only would providing in-house childcare create a stronger workforce in Juneau, it would also create stronger families, she said.
“There’s evidence that people have greater job satisfaction and they do better as families if they can see their children during the day,” she said. “We have such a lack of childcare in the state and here in Juneau that it would really make a difference.”
But childcare was just one piece of the complicated puzzle of women’s issues discussed at the summit, organized by McGuire and legislative aid Amy Saltzman. The idea for the Alaska Women’s Summit came to McGuire in the middle of the night after reading a Legislative Research Services report on the state of Alaksa’s women she had commissioned last year. She called the findings of the report “shocking.”
“I had an idea that some of the statistics would be bad, but I was unprepared for how dismal the report would be across the board,” she said.
Among 53 pages of findings, the report showed a gendered wage disparity and high rates of homelessness and suicide in Alaska’s women. According to the report, 64 percent of Alaska’s sheltered homeless adults with children are women. And the suicide rate for Alaska’s women is twice that of the nation’s. Almost 10 percent of Alaska’s high school-age females had attempted suicide in 2011, the report stated. The full document can be viewed online at www.alaskasenate.org/Docs/Women_in_Alaska_Research_Report.pdf.
Saltzman said she and McGuire felt compelled to act after seeing the numbers.
“The report was really a call to action, and that we have to do something,” Saltzman said. “These statistics can’t come out and have us not do anything.”
McGuire said it was important to her that she act immediately.
“People were saying, ‘Wait ‘til next year,’” she said. “I said, ‘No, you’ve got to go when you have the statistics and the momentum.’”
So Saltzman found speakers and sponsors, filling two days with forums and breakout discussions on everything from youth empowerment to women in politics. Among the women who spoke were BP Alaska President Janet Weiss, First Lady Sandy Parnell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
The free summit “sold out” weeks before it began on Oct. 17 — the Anchorage venue could only fit 150 people, Saltzman said. The goal is to get a bigger space for next year’s summit, she said. McGuire said she intends the event to be yearly.
Juneau-based Alaska Department of Labor economist Caroline Schultz gave a presentation on the gender wage gap at the summit on Oct. 17.
DOL findings show Alaska’s women earn 67 cents to every dollar men make, she said. This rate hasn’t changed much over 10 years, staying in the 60s since 2002, she said. Out of the nation’s 50 states, Alaska comes in 43rd in terms of wage equity.
Juneau boasts the smallest pay gap of Alaska’s urban areas, Schultz said. This is due to the abundance of government jobs in the city; Washington, D.C., has the nation’s smallest gender wage gap.
“Juneau is kind of our mini Washington, D.C., with all of our government jobs,” Schultz said.
The Denali Borough claims the widest gap in the state, she said.
Saltzman said that although she learned a lot from the speakers, a “really important part of the summit was connecting everyone together.”
“There were lots of groups formed out of the summit that will carry on throughout the year that are going to work on different things,” she said.
Saltzman said she’s excited to plan the event all over again and has “already got my binder started for next year.”
“This is really the beginning of something,” she said. “It’s the beginning of the conversation that’s needed to happen forever.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.