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Inside the Hustle

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There is much to love about life in Indy, but the status of working women in our state is not one of them. 

According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, as of 2016, Indiana women were at a significant disadvantage in the workplace, both when compared to women in other states, and to men here. Research revealed that men in our biotech-driven economy are 2.6 times more likely to work in STEM fields than women; the date when the pay gap will close, if it continues at its 2016 rate, will be 2082, long after most women currently working in Indiana are retired or dead.

Our wage ratio and share of management and leadership positions both rank 48th in the country. Secondary issues that impact women’s economic participation look grim, as well: only 14.5% of four-year-olds are enrolled in public early education programs; our state neither provides nor requires paid FMLA leave for new mothers or caregivers; and despite our otherwise low cost of living, we rank 19th in the U.S. for cost of infant daycare as a percentage of women’s earnings. 

 
 
 
 
 
 

What’s a working Indy woman to do? For many, the answer is to make her own path. Traditional “women’s work” like childcare and housekeeping have almost always been “gig” jobs, meaning they exist outside of the traditional employer/employee structures that provide long-term salaries and at least a modicum of job security, and that most workers are employed directly by the consumers of their services. Residential real estate has long been a woman-dominated field, with women surpassing men in membership in the National Association of Realtors in 1978 and never looking back.

Women in Indy are driving for Uber and Lyft, supplementing their traditional income with MLM and direct marketing programs and online sales of goods, which, of course, many of us need to do to stay afloat, since we make only 72% of the wage a man makes in Indiana for the same work. And in a state with a notable shortage of family-friendly employment policies, it’s no wonder that women with children seek nontraditional forms of work; in 2014, a joint poll by Kaiser Family Foundation, New York Times, and CBS News found that an enormous portion of unemployed “homemakers” would happily re-enter the job market if employers offered more flexibility or more pay (presumably to offset the high costs of childcare and domestic help). In fact, a 2015 study indicated that 71% of women freelancers were freelancing to supplement their incomes, possibly due to the impact of the wage gap, and 58% chose nontraditional work structures to avoid the typical office strictures.

That data underscores the reasons Indianapolis freelance interpreter Hilari Butler Vargo chose to forego a traditional 9 to 5. “The one thing I want my children to be able to definitively say, is their mom was there for them,” she tells Indy Maven.

Having previously worked as a full-time interpreter at the Indiana School for the Deaf and Easter Seals Crossroads, she now loves being in full control of her time and fully available to her three kids and her husband. The disadvantages, including struggles to secure insurance and clients who don’t want to “pay a little woman on time,” don’t begin to offset the advantages of the choice to control her own work life.

Employers talk a good game about work-life balance, but in Indiana, our workforce is not built for it. All the features women report wanting most from employers are largely lacking here, where employment comes on terms that benefit and favor the priorities of men. Turning to gig work allows us to choose how our lives are balanced, but at the cost of security, steady pay, and benefits like health insurance and sick leave. For now, in Indiana, it may be some women’s best option. 

Here’s hoping for improvements on all fronts in 2020 so that the women of our state have even more options that make sense for the chosen careers and personal lives. 

Victoria Barrett is a regular contributor to Indy Maven.