March 2015 Women in Business Feature Story: Advocates work to empower women

Advocates work to empower women

Jeanna Matthews, left, Clarkson University computer science department, and Valeria Zhukova, right, a Clarkson junior, work with Daniel Dodds-Walters, 10, Parishville, during “Hour of Code” for 9- to 12-year-olds interested in learning more about computer programming last month at the Potsdam Public Library. The St. Lawrence County chapter of the American Association of University Women hosted the event. Photo by Jason Hunter, NNY Business.

Jeanna Matthews, left, Clarkson University computer science department, and Valeria Zhukova, right, a Clarkson junior, work with Daniel Dodds-Walters, 10, Parishville, during “Hour of Code” for 9- to 12-year-olds interested in learning more about computer programming last month at the Potsdam Public Library. The St. Lawrence County chapter of the American Association of University Women hosted the event. Photo by Jason Hunter, NNY Business.

AAUW members in Jefferson, St. Lawrence counties continue 134-year mission

By Gabrielle Hovendon, NNY Business

What do STEM programming, human trafficking, voter registration and professional business clothes have in common?

All are part of recent initiatives led by the Jefferson and St. Lawrence County branches of the American Association of University Women. With about 75 and 50 members, respectively, the two branches are busy addressing a number of issues that local women and girls face today.

“We really try to look at policy and problems that exist here in the north country and talk with some of the people who are either experts in the field or are working on solutions,” said Donna Seymour, communications chairwoman and Web editor for the St. Lawrence County AAUW and public policy vice president for the AAUW of New York State. “We do a lot of work advocating for women and their families at the governmental level, both at the state and national levels. We know that long-term solutions are going to have to be legislative solutions, because that’s how you get at fundamental discrimination and lack of opportunity.”

Founded in 1881, AAUW has more than 170,000 members, 1,000 branches and 800 college and university partners nationwide. While the St. Lawrence County chapter was founded in 1927 and the Jefferson County chapter was founded in 1977, all the branches promote the same mission: “Advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.”

One of the ways the AAUW is tackling this mission — both nationally and locally — is by promoting careers in STEM, science, technology, engineering and math, among girls and women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 9.2 million STEM jobs in 2020, and since these jobs tend to pay an average of 26 percent more than other fields, they may help women close the historical pay gap between the genders.

In order to raise interest in STEM careers among young women in the north country, the local AAUW branches, known collectively as AAUW District 7, have sponsored several events. To celebrate national Engineer’s Week in February, AAUW-St. Lawrence collaborated with the Potsdam Public Library to offer an “Hour of Code,” during which students learn basic computer programming and experiment with writing code.

The Jefferson County AAUW held a similar event at the Flower Memorial Library in December, and on May 2 it will partner with SUNY Jefferson to host a day of STEM workshops for fourth- to sixth-grade girls. On May 13, the St. Lawrence AAUW will hold a similar event with SUNY Canton: a Women in Engineering Day packed with hands-on workshops and exhibitions for middle and high school girls in St. Lawrence County.

“Right now we’re focusing on STEM opportunities for girls because those jobs are going to be the high-paying jobs of the future,” Ms. Seymour said. “A lot of girls and young women are not really focusing on math, science, engineering and technology now, so it means they’re going to have a harder time getting into those jobs when they graduate from school. We’re really working hard to make sure that more girls are taking some classes and exploring those opportunities.”

“I don’t think it’s going away,” added Tracy J. Gyoerkoe, secretary of the Jefferson County chapter, about AAUW’s emphasis on science and math. “I think we’ll continue to focus on STEM careers for girls because it’s such a growing field, and it’s so important for young women to know that there are opportunities for them.”

Mrs. Gyoerkoe, who has been a member of AAUW since moving to the north country five years ago, said she sees the importance of promoting these careers in her own job as director of career, technical, adult and continuing education at Jefferson-Lewis BOCES.

“We don’t see a lot of young people in careers that are non-traditional for their gender. We don’t see many women pursuing careers in auto technology, for example,” she said. “And there are challenges when you pursue a career that’s not traditional.”

To further support young women, both the St. Lawrence and Jefferson County AAUW chapters offer annual scholarships: a $500 award to a graduate of a SUNY Canton two-year program who’s going on to pursue a four-year degree, and a scholarship for a Jefferson or Lewis County native enrolled in a full- or part-time college program, respectively.

But the AAUW’s efforts extend beyond education, both nationally and locally.

“The focal point for AAUW at its inception back in the 1800s was education for women, but equity for women as a whole is at its core right now,” said Karen A. Carr, vice president for programs and former president of the Jefferson County branch. “Any area of discrimination or violence, any area where women are diminished, is an area where we would put some focus. We advocate for public policy, and we hope to make our communities aware of areas where inequalities still exist. You’ll find AAUW taking a stand on domestic violence; you’ll find it taking a stand on equal pay.”

Today, the national AAUW advocates for federal policies to help women and families achieve economic security and to promote gender equality within public education. Closing the pay gap, social security reform, increasing paid leave and providing access to affordable health care and reproductive care are just some of the goals the organization hopes to achieve.

Similarly, the local AAUW is involved in initiatives that go well beyond educational equity. The Jefferson County branch has recently started a student affiliate chapter at JCC, and in the fall it will run its annual nonpartisan voter registration campaign. From March 16 to 19, the branch will also host the 2015 Women’s Empowerment and Success Series at JCC. The events include a screening of the “MISSrepresentation” documentary, a Women’s Empowerment & Series Resource Fair, a performance by acoustic singer and songwriter Mieka Pauley, a workshop on leadership and gender titled “Who Does She Think She Is,” and a keynote address by explorer and filmmaker Céline Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, that will address the challenges of being a woman in the fields of research and exploration.

Meanwhile, the St. Lawrence AAUW is hosting its annual Professional Clothing Fair from March 17 to 19 at SUNY Canton. The fair, which is stocked by donations from the community, helps men and women obtain free business attire for job interviews, student teaching and other professional events.

District 7 isn’t afraid to tackle grave issues, either. Both local branches recently partnered with WPBS to produce a “Public Eye Report” about human trafficking and its ties to the north county.
The report, which was designed to raise awareness of human trafficking, or “modern-day slavery,” included panelists from the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the North Country Human Trafficking Task Force. It highlighted sex slavery and undocumented agricultural workers, two problems that Jefferson County faces because of its proximity to Canada and Interstate 81 and its large number of military and farms.

“We’re busy, and we do a lot, and we have a lot of ongoing projects,” said Ms. Seymour, who is also a member of the North Country Human Trafficking Task Force. “We really try to live our mission and make a positive difference.”

Although the AAUW was established to benefit women and girls, it’s obvious that not only women benefit from its efforts. Many of District 7’s events are open to both men and women, and its members hope that empowering women and educating the public will promote economic opportunity for everyone, not just women. As the tried-and-true wisdom goes, empowering women will empower their families, and by extension the whole community.

“We have to keep reminding ourselves and our daughters that the struggle isn’t exactly over,” Ms. Carr said. “It was really easy to see it back in the day, when women weren’t allowed in certain colleges and programs and when women didn’t have the right to vote. Those issues were long and hard fought, but there’s still the subtleties of equal pay and equal opportunity that we’re fighting today.”

Gabrielle Hovendon is a former Watertown Watertown Daily Times reporter and freelance writer who is working on a Ph.D. Contact her at ghovendon@gmail.com.