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Arkansas Women’s Commission delivers final report to governor

Daniel Breen
Allison Williams, chair of the Arkansas Women's Commission, gestures in a news conference at the Arkansas State Capitol Wednesday as Gov. Asa Hutchinson looks on.

Childcare, mental health and pay equity are among the topics covered in the final report by the Arkansas Women’s Commission.

Members of the group presented their recommendations Wednesday to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who re-convened the commission in February after a nearly 50-year hiatus.

Commission Chair Allison Williams, Hutchinson’s chief of staff, said the report finds access to childcare and the impacts of the pandemic both affected the number of women in the workforce.

“COVID-19 exacerbated long-standing challenges, especially for those women in rural communities who may have already had difficulty accessing quality childcare due to the clustering of childcare in more heavily-populated areas, transportation challenges, or availability for second and third-shift workers,” Williams said, adding that access to healthcare has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in the state.

The report also underscores the need for more mental health resources, increasing awareness of programs for single parents, and new incentives for early childhood educators to remain in the profession.

Following one of the report’s recommendations, Hutchinson says he’s dedicating $200,000 in discretionary funding to boost Arkansas State University’s efforts to increase the participation of women in the business world.

“This will allow the Delta Women’s Leadership Academy to mentor female college students who are determined to become entrepreneurs, business owners and the next generation of successful leaders across a range of industries and occupations,” Hutchinson said.

The commission reached its findings through surveys and public meetings across the state, reaching about 700 women in total. Subcommittees tackled specific issues such as labor force participation, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state of the childcare economy.

Hutchinson says the commission’s findings on the pay disparity between men and women in Arkansas were especially important to him.

“It compared 2016 data with 2020… and progress was made. The income disparity reduced, but there’s still the gap there. And so it illustrates that in society we are making some progress, but it is slow,” Hutchinson said.

Going forward, Hutchinson says it will largely be up to businesses, nonprofits and other industry partners to work toward making the commission’s recommendations a reality.

The commission’s eight recommendations, in brief, are as follows:

  • Meaningfully engage the business community to address child care challenges
  • Increase access to women’s and mental health resources, especially in rural communities
  • Increase equity in the labor force and in entrepreneurship
  • Increase mentorship for women
  • Incentivize Arkansans to enter or remain in the early childhood education profession
  • Increase awareness of programs designed to assist single parents
  • Increase equity in STEM education
  • Provide technical assistance and capacity building for expanding existing child care businesses
Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.