Council on Women and Girls Blog

  • Protecting Public Health and the Environment

    In 1962, Rachel Carson’s renowned book “Silent Spring” warned us of the dangers of uncontrolled pesticide use threatening our natural resources and the many living thingslike peoplethat rely on those resources to survive. Against all odds, her passion and empathy, catalyzed and empowered the modern environmental movement as we know it today. 

    That movement remains firmly rooted in the principle that no matter who you are or where you come from, we all deserve clean air, clean water, and healthy land to call home. I'm proud to be part of an Agency whose mission to protect public health and the environment is fueled by that principle.

    From mercury poisoning to pesticide exposure—credible scientific information empowers women to protect themselves and their families. Over the last 15 years, EPA has sponsored information campaigns that have helped lower blood mercury levels in women of childbearing age by 34%. Just last year, EPA partnered with the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs to develop trainings to teach women farmworkers the risks of pesticide exposure when pregnant. 

    Warnings are important, but they’re not enough. The lives of nearly 7 million children, including 3 million girls, are affected by asthma every day. In the U.S., 10 million of the 16 million adults that suffer from asthma are women. In May 2012, thanks to President Obama’s leadership, EPA, HHS and HUD took action to implement an Asthma Disparities Action Plan. Through that plan, EPA is supporting training programs for 16,000 health care providers, preparing them to deliver badly needed, comprehensive asthma care.

    Although our focus is protecting public health here at home—we know that pollution is blind to borders.  Every year, more than 4 million people die prematurely from indoor smoke exposure, with women and girls disproportionately affected. Much of that smoke comes by cooking food using rudimentary stoves that burn coal, wood, and other solid fuels. That’s why EPA built on its Partnership for Clean Indoor Air to help launch the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. And we’re making progress. Alliance members delivered more than 8 million improved cookstoves last year, bringing a healthier, higher quality of life to more than 40 million people worldwide—mainly women and children.

    Back in the ‘60s, thanks in part to Carson’s foresight, President Kennedy took action that ultimately led to banning DDT. If she could see us now, Carson would not only be proud of our march toward a cleaner environment, but also of our march toward a more equitable society. Today, almost 40% of EPA scientists and engineers are women. But we know that there’s a lot more to do on both fronts. With a changing climate, our environmental challenges have evolved. We must too. 

    Rachel Carson overcame the odds and blazed a trail toward a safer, more equitable future. During Women’s History Month, we not only recognize women like Carson, we also celebrate our intrepid women scientists today who continue to fight for a healthier, more prosperous planet for all. 

    Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Environmental Protection Agency.   

    Gina McCarthy is the Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. 

  • Hook ‘Em Early: The Importance of STEM Education For Girls

    Some of my most formative experiences happened over three summers in Seattle beginning when I was 9. A friend’s mother organized a group of my peers to spend two weeks in Washington’s wilderness with graduate students from the University of Washington who taught us about the clouds we were seeing, the trees that were all around us, and the marine critters that inhabited the waters of Puget Sound. We had so much fun we barely noticed we were learning about meteorology, ecology and taxonomy.

    This early love of science propelled me to study engineering in college – knowledge that has helped me in every stage of my career, as a petroleum engineer, as a banker in natural resources, as CEO of REI, and now, as Secretary of the Interior. 

    I know how important it is to develop a passion for science and math in the next generation of women. At the Department of the Interior, for example, about a third of our employees will be eligible to retire within five years. It’s critically important that we develop the next generation of park rangers, wildlife biologists, scientists and policymakers.

    As a department that develops and relies on the best scientific knowledge available, Interior is uniquely devoted to supporting women and girls interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). In 2013, for example, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey reached thousands of women in elementary, high school, college and post-graduate programs with educational presentations and internships— including the oldest STEM internship in the country. These activities particularly benefit girls because so many are otherwise “counseled out” of STEM fields – something I experienced in high school myself.

    The successes of thousands of young women participating in service projects on lands managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management are receiving increasing recognition. Lesser known successes include the Volunteers in Service to America teams sponsored by the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, which have placed 238 young professional women in capacity-building roles with non-profits in mining communities challenged by environmental degradation.  

    There’s no doubt that much work remains to be done to create more opportunities for women. That’s one reason why we are ramping up President Obama’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. Like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, the 21 CSC will create more work opportunities for young people while helping rebuild and enhance our parks, refuges and other public lands. 

    Our 21st century version is bigger and broader than the Depression-era Corps because it includes women and the private sector as we strive to bridge the growing disconnect between young people and the outdoors in the digital age.

    All of these programs are aimed at supporting the President’s goals for improving the lives of  American women and girls, for promoting STEM education, and for preparing tomorrow’s leaders to preserve our natural resources for future generations.

    Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of the Interior.   

    Sally Jewell is Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

  • Department of State and Women’s History Month

    In the early days of World War II, years before I was born, my mother was living in Paris, helping to treat the wounded in Montparnasse. The day before the Nazis entered the city, she escaped on a bicycle, made her way across France, finally reaching Portugal, where she boarded a ship that brought her home to the United States.

    Less than a year after she passed away, my brother found a letter she’d sent my father during those days when war was everywhere. It’s a letter that my brother, sisters, and I still cherish. Speaking of the war effort, she wrote simply: “There is something for everyone to do.”

    I’ve always thought it was a beautiful expression, and I try to hold onto it in my work as Secretary of State. It’s a reminder that while we’re not all going to solve every problem the world faces, there is something that each of us can do that can make the world a little bit stronger and make even just one life a little bit better.

    One of the lessons my mother taught me and my siblings  and which my sister Peggy, particularly, carried on in dedicating her life to global women’s issues  is that there is no greater return on investment than the work to protect and advance the security and fundamental dignity of women and girls around the world.

    Placing women at the center of our foreign policy isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also a strategic necessity. Societies where women are safe and empowered to realize their full potential are more stable, prosperous and secure. 

    The State Department is doing its part. Just look at the progress we’ve made this past year.

    Preventing and Responding to Gender-Based Violence

    We’ve taken concrete steps to protect women and girls and address gender-based violence at the onset of humanitarian emergencies.

    That’s the goal of our Safe from the Start Initiative. And we’re building on our efforts by leading the Call to Action on Protecting Women and Girls in Emergencies. 

    We’ve also launched the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Prevention Initiative. This public-private partnership between the Department of State, Vital Voices, and the Avon Foundation provides emergency assistance to survivors of extreme acts of GBV. 

    I’m especially proud of our $10 million commitment to support the goals of the United Kingdom’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Foreign Secretary Hague and I came together last month to bring greater attention and focus to this issue. And the United States will continue to make protecting and empowering vulnerable populations a top priority on United Nations bodies such as  the Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission on Population and Development, and the Human Rights Council.

    Women, Peace, and Security

    We also know that peace is more durable and societies are more stable when women’s voices are heard at the negotiating tables and in peace building.

    The Obama Administration has worked hard to ensure that women are fully represented in peace and security efforts in conflict and post-conflict areas, from Afghanistan to Yemen to Burma. 

    And in Syria, we’re working with international civil society groups that provide ideas and training on negotiations, mediation and coalition-building. Syrian women can be strong voices for peace and reconstruction, and they need our support.

    Advancing Women’s Political and Economic Empowerment

    That’s as true when it comes to ending conflicts as it is jumpstarting economies.

    I say it all the time: no team can win with half its players on the bench. Believe me, as the proud father of two daughters and as the husband to an extraordinarily accomplished philanthropist and activist, I know the value of playing on that kind of team.

    I’m proud of the State Department’s efforts to integrate gender issues in our work across all regions and subject areas. That’s why I launched the Full Participation Fund to support our bureaus and embassies as they advance gender equality through diplomacy and development. 

    And that’s why we launched the Equal Futures Partnership. The United States is committed to tearing down barriers to women’s political and economic participation. I was proud to join with representatives from 23 other countries at the UN last fall to elevate this important initiative.

    President Obama and I firmly believe that as the opportunities for women in all of our countries grow so will the possibility of prosperity, stability and peace throughout the world. 

    Here at the State Department we are committed to working toward these goals with our partners throughout the Administration, across the private sector, and around the world.

    That’s what this is all about. We remember that there is something for everyone to do, that someone else’s life depends on it  and that we all benefit when those lives know a brighter future.

    Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of State.   

    John Kerry is the Secretary of Department of State

  • Empowering Women Across Our Economy

    As the government agency charged with managing the nation’s finances and safeguarding and growing America’s economy, Treasury has long understood the critical role women play in moving our country forward. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we have an opportunity to reflect on the progress that’s been made both inside and outside the walls of Treasury, and look for ways we can do more to promote gender equality, expand opportunity and empower women across the economy.

    According to the Small Business Administration, there are approximately 7.8 million women-owned small businesses in the United States. Treasury is committed to seeing that number rise so those businesses can create jobs and power our economy. That starts with doing all we can to support women-owned entrepreneurs through our internal decision-making. As a large government agency, Treasury contracts with hundreds of businesses every year and we have consistently made consideration of women-owned small businesses a priority. In fact, based on preliminary data for FY 2013, Treasury has achieved more than double its SBA-set women-owned small business contracting goals for three years in a row. 

    Beyond utilizing our own purchasing power to support women entrepreneurs, Treasury is also investing in women small business owners across the country through our Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, or CDFI Fund. The mission of the CDFI Fund is to increase economic opportunity for underserved populations and in low-income areas by supporting financial institutions dedicated to community development investments. To that end, between 2003 and 2012, CDFI Fund program awardees made 16,627 loans totaling $342 million to low-income women. Through Treasury’s New Market Tax Credit program, also administered by the CDFI Fund, we have supported investments of $1.4 billion in women-owned or controlled businesses and $181 million to low-income female borrowers.

    Beyond the CDFI Fund, Treasury is empowering women through other programs. Through the Capital Purchase Program, part of our efforts to stabilize the financial system following the financial crisis, we worked to appoint women to corporate board positions where Treasury had a stake. Across the department, our efforts could have long-lasting impacts that not only empower women business owners and leaders, but can help change cultures inside and outside of government for years to come.

    Looking to Treasury’s international programs, we continue to forcefully advocate for ways that our allies and trading partners can promote the full economic and political participation of women inside their borders. Around the world, cultural and economic barriers prevent nearly a billion women from fully participating in economic growth. In order to break down these obstacles and unlock the economic potential of the world’s women, Treasury has focused on promoting the participation of women and girls through multilateral development banks like the World Bank. By pushing for policies to integrate a gender perspective into the design and implementation of development projects, Treasury is committed to advancing gender equality and continuing to open up the labor force to women across the globe.

    While we have made substantial progress both at home and abroad, we know there is much more work to be done. I look forward to working with the Council on Women and Girls to maintain our focus on these initiatives – our economy and the American people are counting on it.

    Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of Treasury.     

    Jacob J. Lew is the Secretary for the Department of Treasury. 

  • Making Progress for our Nation’s Families

    Shortly after he took office, President Obama created the White Housing Council on Women and Girls. Chaired by Valerie Jarrett, the council is charged with ensuring there is a coordinated effort between federal agencies of policies and programs that impact women and families.

    As a partner of the interagency council, HUD serves as a safety net for vulnerable women and girls, whether they are living with HIV/AIDS or living in shelters for victims of abuse. Providing them with physical and emotional safety, HUD works hard to place women and girls in transitional housing, public housing and rental housing, where they will experience a continuum of care ranging from substance abuse counseling, to financial literacy classes to job training.

    Through the Continuum of Care grant competition, HUD has awarded $46.7 million to continue 349 projects that predominately serve victims of domestic violence as well as an additional $2.6 million to support 28 new projects. All these projects provide much needed housing and services for victims of domestic violence.

    In 2013, HUD was able to expand housing protections for victims of domestic violence thanks to the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. This allowed HUD to make necessary changes and begin alerting the public of how the changes will impact tenants and housing providers in HUD-assisted housing and shelters.

    While ensuring victims of domestic violence don’t end up homeless, HUD is also continuing to identify best practices, share guidance and award funding to communities based on the policy priorities of the Opening Doors plan to prevent and end homelessness. Since 2010, family homelessness has decreased by 10.7 percent. 

    Last year, HUD graduated 3,400 families from the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program. This means they were free of welfare assistance and employed. Over 90 percent of FSS participants are female-headed households, 33 percent of graduates no longer needed rental assistance, and 15 percent went on to purchase a home.

    HUD has also aggressively investigated and resolved cases where women experienced lending discrimination for being pregnant or on parental leave. In 2013 alone, HUD settled 28 cases obtaining almost $300,000 for 43 complainants. Thanks to HUD’s efforts, some of the country’s largest lenders have changed their policies and practices on maternity leave lending.

    HUD continues to make great strides in ensuring our policies and programs are taking into account the needs of women and girls. HUD had many great accomplishments last year, but we have work left to do. As we look forward to making more progress in 2014, we are driven by what President Obama said in the State of the Union, “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

    Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    Shaun Donovan is the Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

  • The Power of Women in Agriculture

    Agriculture touches our lives each and every day—whether actively farming and ranching, conducting research, or shopping at the grocery store—and women leaders play an increasingly pivotal role across the board.

    The number of farms operated by women has more than doubled since 1978. Across the country, nearly 300,000 women serve as principal operators on 62.7 million acres of farm and ranchland, accounting for $12.9 billion in farm products in 2012. Countless more women live, work and raise families in rural America. At USDA, we support projects designed to help women in agriculture improve production, develop good business and risk management practices and transfer knowledge to other women agricultural leaders.

    Parents from all walks of life care about giving their children the best possible start in life. USDA has helped make that a reality for millions of families. Last year, our WIC program helped nearly 9 million women and young children access healthy food, nutrition education and breastfeeding support. Our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which gives families in need extra resources to purchase healthy foods, helped lift nearly 1.4 million households headed by single women out of poverty, including 600,000 households headed by women with children.

    We’ve also made it a priority to foster new talent in research, science and technology, and support young leaders. For example, last year, USDA worked with the Girl Scout Council to host a day-long event for over 100 young women. At the event, young women leaders discussed conservation, forest management, and future careers in science. The attendees also created naturalist kits that were used during a week-long outreach camp for 700 girls, grades K-5, from underserved neighborhoods to encourage them to consider future careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

    Better representation of women in agriculture means more than just an increase in the amount of food produced on women-owned or women-operated farms and ranches. It means expanded opportunity for today’s women agriculturists to access credit and grow their operations, assume leadership roles at the local, state and federal level, and perform cutting edge research that will help ensure the future food security of our nation and the world.

    I am proud to work alongside strong leaders like our Agriculture Deputy Secretary, Krysta Harden, and countless other dedicated women who work on behalf of farmers and ranchers each and every day here at USDA. These women lead by example and inspire the next generation of women leaders, including my own granddaughter, to pursue careers in agriculture. 

    Click here for a fuller list of accomplishments by the Department of Agriculture.

    Tom Vilsack is the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.