Kuster: Wage gap in NH is too wide Congresswoman talks with NH women business leaders in Amherst

AMHERST – Nine women business leaders met with U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., last week for a roundtable discussion about issues important to women.

The freshman 2nd District congresswoman said she wanted to hear from women directly about their problems and goals so that she can work to give them the support they need to succeed.

“Women are under-representated in corporate leadership and in high growth STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and have a more difficult time getting access to capital,” she said during the April 22 meeting at the Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce office.

In Congress last month, Kuster proposed a women’s economic agenda that focuses on paycheck fairness, a fair minimum wage, sick leave, family leave, fairness for pregnant workers, tax relief for families, early childhood education, job training and other issues important to women.

Among her women-centered goals are a fair minimum wage, because women represent almost two-thirds of the minimum wage workers, and eliminating sexual assault in the military.

Education is a key equalizer, they agreed, and making education more affordable is another of Kuster’s goals. She applauded the state’s decision to lower tuition by five percent and called community colleges “a great opportunity for women to go to school in a more frugal environment.”

Paycheck fairness should be a big issue in New Hampshire, Kuster said, because the wage gap in this state is 23 cents, meaning women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, while the national gap is 18 cents.

That discrepancy means that over the years, middle-class families, especially families headed by women, find it harder to buy a house, send their children to college or save for a secure retirement, Kuster said.

With 40 percent of U.S. families headed by women, the way we think about American families has not caught up to that reality, she said.

When she was a young lawyer 20 years ago, Kuster said “the wage gap happened to me, and if I had not rectified it,” there would have been serious financial consequences for her family that is now “crawling to the end” of paying for two children in college.

Other goals are dealing with hostile work environments in traditional male fields and sexual harassment.

The women agreed that the business climate in New Hampshire has changed for the better, but while there are many more opportunities for women entrepreneurs, women still only own about 27 percent of the businesses.

Noreen O’Connell, who owns Butternut Farm in Milford, said that during her long career in public health as a dental hygienist – a career she pursued after being told she couldn’t be a dentist because she was a female – she became aware of the ways women need more support and education.

“What I saw was low-
income families that lacked good child care and early education. Working with Head Start, I saw so many who just didn’t know how to cope,” she said.

As a farmer, though, O’Connell said her problems aren’t gender issues, but issues of government regulations burdening small businesses.

“No matter whether we hire one or 10 workers,” our unemployment insurance is very high, she said.

Kuster said one of her top priorities is to support New Hampshire’s economy and a big part of that goal is supporting women entrepreneurs, business leaders and women in the workplace.

“As women succeed, New Hampshire succeeds. When women fall back and are exposed to financial insecurity,” their children often don’t thrive and that means more social problems.

The purpose of the local roundtables is to hear directly from women, Kuster said, and let them know “what we are doing in Congress” to help women get the support they need to succeed.

The bad news is that the poverty rate for women is increasing and part of the reason is the wage gap, she said. Women tend not to ask for raises and even when they do, they get less than men.

“Everything follows poverty,” agreed Marianne Jones, of The Women’s Fund of New Hampshire, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing more resources to women and girls.

“Women and girls are still the primary victims of poverty and violence,” she said.

Karen Keating, of First Colebrook Bank and the chamber board chairwoman, recalled her father telling her she didn’t need college. Nevertheless, she pursued a career and “when I started it was a man’s world,” she said, even the tellers in the bank’s main office were men.

Other roundtable participants were Mary Jo Brown, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Women’s Initiative, Tracy Hutchins, executive director of the Souhegan Chamber of Commerce, Adria Bagshaw, vice president of W.H. Bagshaw, a Nashua manufacturing company, Heidi Copeland, publisher of New Hampshire Business Review, Joan Goshgarian, executive director of the New Hampshire Business and Arts Council, and Beth Boggis, assistant to the chamber’s executive director.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@
cabinet.com.