Change Maker: Dr. Teresa Boyer, Executive Director, Rutgers Center for Women and Work

Although it has been nearly 100 years since the 19th Amendment was passed guaranteeing women the right to vote, the fight for equal rights persists. The issues of today include winning equal pay, paid maternity leave, and family leave for care taking responsibilities, among others. At a time when 57% of women participate in the labor force, their work lives increasingly determine the quality of their lives. Are they offered paid maternity leave to care for newborns? Are they able to earn enough to meet basic expenses? Are they able to take care of a child or elderly dependent when they fall ill?

The Equality Indicators identifies women as one of 12 disadvantaged groups in its 2016 annual report of equality in New York City (NYC). They found that in key measures related to Economy, Education, and Justice, women lag behind men. For example:

In New Jersey, Dr. Teresa Boyer, executive director at the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, also takes a broad look at women’s social and economic equality, examining issues affecting women of all professional classes, from sexism in white collar work to low wages among women who lack a college degree. Dr. Boyer’s center has worked together with the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition to provide outreach and education, which has shaped the passage of legislation securing paid sick days and family leave in 12 municipalities in New Jersey. Dr. Boyer works both inside and outside the classroom to bridge the gender gap in earnings and to win greater workplace protections for women that enable them to work while still fulfilling care-taking responsibilities.

The Equality Indicators got a chance to speak with Dr. Boyer about the work she is doing and why she is hopeful about finally attaining gender equity.

Career and technical training are some of the areas the Center for Women and Work focuses on in conjunction with the New Jersey Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education. What are the opportunities now in technical careers for women?

Career and technical education (CTE) offers a number of possibilities in career fields in which workers earn an economically sustainable wage, often for low to no educational costs. CTE has broken away from the outdated perception of vocational training as the place for students who couldn’t make it in traditional schools, to education which is both academically rigorous and includes pathways to careers and a college education as well. When done right, CTE is one of the best public education options out there in terms of the return on investment. However, too often, women and people of color are underrepresented in those CTE programs which are in the greatest demand and earn the highest wages in the labor market. There are great career opportunities in advanced manufacturing and information technology, for example, yet female enrollment in those programs is very low in most cases. My colleagues and I have worked with schools and policymakers to increase the access and success of all students in these high-skill, high-wage programs through research, technical assistance, and professional development.

An innovative program that your Center spearheads is Leadership Development for Early Career Women, which focuses on women three to five years into their careers that management or a sponsor has identified as having high potential for leadership development. Why is it important to focus on leadership development so early on in women’s careers?

We often only think about leadership development when someone is many years into their career and ready to be named to a pre-executive position. At that point in their careers, men have had the benefit of years of informal networks and unconscious bias in their favor, which positions them well, but for women it may be a different story. Once women have been in the professional workforce for 3 to 5 years, they have some awareness of workplace culture and function, and they are making decisions which, consciously or unconsciously, may steer them away from a leadership track. The program we developed uses a gender lens to create a deeper understanding of how workplace policies and culture impact participants’ leadership paths, and how to recognize and address when gender bias occurs. We explore topics such as career development pathways, building networks and social capital, implicit bias, the behavioral double-bind, cultural competence, work-life issues, and how to develop and maintain a personal leadership development plan. The participants develop the skills and knowledge they need to empower themselves to better navigate their leadership path from the early stages, rather than working to address potential deficits later in their careers.

You seem to be a fan of Heather Boushey’s work, “Finding Time.” In fact, you ask your students to compare and contrast the experiences of low-income women and higher-earning women she outlines in her book. What are some of the reactions your students have to this exercise? What assumptions do men and women make about women in regards to work-life balance that are false?

This exercise really resonates with my students. We tend to think of work-life from either one perspective or the other, and researchers and the media further those divisions. What the students see when they compare those two populations is that the factors that create work-life tensions are very different for low and high income women, but the resulting conflicts and stress are similar. For low-income women, those factors include the lack of resources to assist in their care giving responsibilities, potential job insecurity, and lack of access to paid leave and sick days. For high-earning women, they often have greater resources and paid time off, but are expected to devote more of their time and prioritize work as a result. In both situations, women are having to make choices between being the caregiver they want or need to be, and being the worker that they want or need to be. Lastly, we tend to look at work-life as a “women’s issue.” That is a disservice both to women and men. The reality is that while pregnancy and childbirth are specific to women, there are a host of other work-life issues that are not. I have my students make a chart of all the elements that can influence work-life, and they are often shocked that family care and responsibilities are only one small category in a much larger list. Even if we were to focus on those factors though, we know that although women still do the majority of caregiving at home, men are taking on more of these responsibilities—younger men in particular. As long as we take a narrow view of work-life, and continue to assume work-life issues are only relevant for one segment of the population, there will always be stigma around seeking flexibility or accommodations from their work places.

What role do grassroots organizations play in advancing women’s equality in a state like New Jersey? Would the passage of paid family leave have been possible without the work of groups such as the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition?

Grassroots organizations are critical to moving social policy such as paid family leave and paid sick days, as well as an agenda to advance women’s equality. There are so many groups and organizations, representing the diverse voices in our state and region. While each of those organizations has its own mission and goals, coming together in a coalition to organize around common interests raises the power of their voices exponentially. This is particularly important when those common interests seek to benefit those whose voices may not be those that typically receive the most attention—including women. Grassroots coalitions can form an agenda for reform and leverage the unique strengths of each organization for a greater collective impact. In the case of paid family leave in New Jersey, coalition members contributed education and research about the need for it and the positive impact it could have, the voices to share that knowledge and tell individual worker’s stories and group perspectives, and access to policymakers who were looking to address the needs of their constituents. The process took many years of collaborative efforts, but without those grassroots coalitions, it may not have happened at all.

You have two children of your own. What is your strategy for balancing work and family?

I try to avoid using the term “balance” when it comes to discussing work and life because it creates an illusion of separate and relatively equal weight to each of those terms. For me, the two are integrated. “Life” and family are of the greatest value to me, but being a good mother and role model to my daughters includes being able to do the work that I do for gender equity—not to mention that it is also personally satisfying to be successful in my career. Both my husband and I have demanding careers, so we often find ourselves sharing calendars and figuring out who needs to be where, when, and sometimes running around a lot more than we would like. In the end, it comes down to prioritizing which things I value most in the short and long term, being flexible, and sometimes saying no. Sometimes that “no” is at work, and sometimes it is at home. As part of my integration approach, I am a strong proponent of not hiding family life from my work, and vice versa. If I have a family obligation that requires me to miss something at work, then I am open about it. I talk about my children all the time at work and bring them to my office frequently. Research shows that women are often penalized for these behaviors with perceptions of lack of commitment and drive, but feel if we don’t openly discuss work-life issues and continue to hide them, then we won’t ever change that stigma and penalty. I am intensely committed to the work that I do, but I want to work for an employer who will provide me the support I need to be successful in achieving both my career and life goals. I recognize my privilege for being able to do this without obvious penalty, but I also continue to advocate for better work-life policies that can make this the norm rather than a privilege.

Could you point to one or two feminists who have been particularly influential for you? What have you learned from them?

There are many feminists who have influenced me in both life and career. Those who come to mind at the moment, though, are not the iconic public leaders, but rather the women I have worked with on a daily basis. My first boss when I was at the University of Alabama’s Women’s Resource Center was a strong mentor for me as I developed my career interest in women and gender equity. She had started her career doing community-based domestic violence prevention and counseling services. In some ways, there is no better front line for feminism than the prevention of violence against women. She taught me about power and control and the many forms it can take to oppress women and people of color. She also taught me that doing feminist work means you always have to be rooted in the community—even if you are working in the “ivory tower” of a university.  Another particularly influential group for me right now are the women that have led the Women’s March on Washington and subsequent social movement. I was a participant in the March, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The leaders of this movement have furthered my understanding of intersectionality and how feminism needs to be inclusive of all women. They have also shown me the amazing power and energy that can come from the collective voices of women who have come together for change.

Dr. Terri Boyer is assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) and Executive Director of SMLR’s Center for Women and Work. Her research interests focus on the interactions of gender and experience in education and training programs, and how these affect success and career development, particularly for girls and women’s experiences studying and working in nontraditional roles and fields. She holds a Doctorate in Education from The University of Alabama, a Master’s Degree in Higher Education Administration from Alabama, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Secondary Education from Villanova University, where she also received the Villanova Medallion for Excellence in Education.

In July 2017, Dr. Boyer will be starting a new position as Founding Director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.

This is a part of the Equality Indicators’ Change Maker Q&A series. This ongoing blog series aims to highlight individuals and organizations who are actively working to increase equality. The views expressed here are those of the featured change maker and do not necessarily reflect the views of CUNY ISLG.