Ten years ago this spring, Mount Saint Mary’s University released its inaugural edition of The Report on the Status of Women and Girls in CaliforniaTM. A groundbreaking report at the time, it remains the most authoritative collection of current research on issues affecting the 20 million women and girls who call California home.
The Report has helped inform public policy decisions and nonprofit funding priorities statewide. Governments, foundations and professional organizations regularly commission the Mount to create custom reports, while community partners amplify the research and provide MSMU with data from their own fields of expertise.
Ultimately, the Report’s success led to the founding of the Center for the Advancement of Women at Mount Saint Mary’s, which has become one of the most dynamic hubs in the nation for intersectional gender equity research, advocacy and leadership development.
A decade ago, though, all of these outcomes remained mere hope on the horizon.
When Mount faculty wrote the inaugural Report in 2012, it was a pilot project of sorts, intended to support the work of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. The Report quickly proved useful to the Commission’s work, and others across the state — from nonprofit leaders and journalists to private companies and members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus — found the Report’s data-driven insights invaluable, too. In response, Ann McElaney-Johnson, PhD — in her first year as president of the Mount — pledged that the University would publish the Report on an ongoing basis and convene gender justice advocates from near and far to discuss new findings each year.
“You have to be able to measure what you want to change,” McElaney-Johnson says. “We saw a need for a more comprehensive approach to tracking gender equity in our state and region. As the only women’s university in Los Angeles, we felt compelled to take on this work, to make visible what was often unseen and to lift up the inequities impacting not only women and girls but our state as a whole.”
By year two, in 2013, attendance at the Mount’s public release event had swelled to more than 850. A massive tent had to be set up on the University’s Doheny Campus to accommodate the crowd. By 2015, the annual convening moved to the Skirball Cultural Center, where approximately 1,000 attendees gather each year.
“While I’ve been researching women and the presidency for 20 years, I never once looked at women’s progress through the fundamental lens of health and wealth inequities. My research is likely to take a dramatic shift because of this.”
—Nichola D. Gutgold, PhD, Professor, Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University
Geena Davis, Academy Award-winning actor and past chair of the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, has often served as a featured speaker at the Report’s public release. Davis is also founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which is a partnership with financial and administrative support from the University.
“Over the past decade, I’ve seen up close how the Report’s research motivates people to advocate for more equitable opportunities for women and girls,” Davis says. “It’s a heartening thing to see 1,000 people gathered in one place to talk about how to make the world a better place for all of us.”
The Report’s impact isn’t limited to its usual Women’s History Month release each year. It serves as a vital policymaking and advocacy tool year-round for gender equity advocates in California and provides support for similar research being conducted across the state and around the country.
The Report remains a pivotal source of information for the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, equipping its commissioners to champion policy solutions in the state legislature that make California a more equitable and inclusive place for all. That’s especially true with this year’s Report, which focuses on the impact of COVID-19.
“The research and work that Mount Saint Mary’s University is doing is really critical to starting the conversations that ultimately can lead to change.”
—Jennifer Siebel Newsom, First Partner of California
“As we grapple with a pandemic and the associated economic turndown, this year’s Report confirms for us that the existing inequalities for women and girls of color make it necessary to immediately focus our attention on Black women, Latinas, working mothers and frontline workers who make up the majority of those hit hardest by COVID-19,” says Alisha Wilkins, PhD, chair of the state commission. “Women are leading the charge for change at every level, and we know that partnerships such as ours with Mount Saint Mary’s will help to inform our decisions for change every step of the way.”
City of Los Angeles
In 2015, Mount Saint Mary’s was commissioned to create a local Report on its hometown of Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States. Funded by the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, the Report’s areas of focus were developed in partnership with First Lady Amy Elaine Wakeland and the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The resulting research provoked immediate change. Shortly after its release, Garcetti issued an executive directive aimed at achieving gender equity in all city operations.
Among other things, Garcetti’s Executive Directive No. 11 created a Gender Equity Coalition, made up of liaisons from each city department who would work to promote gender equity throughout Los Angeles.
Five years later, MSMU’s hometown impact is evident.
“For nine decades, Mount Saint Mary’s has been doing an extraordinary job to really develop leaders to find the path that they choose. The Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California is indispensable in this task.”
—Mayor Eric Garcetti, City of Los Angeles
There’s now full gender parity on all city boards and commissions. Record numbers of women have advanced to leadership positions as general managers, deputy mayors and directors. Twice as many girls participate in the city’s sports leagues and fitness programs. Domestic abuse services for survivors are available citywide. And a once-glaring gender pay gap in the mayor’s office is no more.
“The Report on the Status of Women and Girls is a blueprint for change,” Wakeland says. “Using tools like this, we can ensure that women always have their fair share of seats at every table and an equal voice in all important conversations…This is what we can achieve when we are intentional and we collect data about the largest gaps in the resources and opportunities available to women and girls — and when we then hold ourselves accountable for closing those gaps.”
Los Angeles County
In 2016, the Los Angeles County Commission for Women asked Mount Saint Mary’s to conduct the first of three county-level Reports. Each one offered insights to elevate the work of the county’s Initiative on Women and Girls — a group that’s tasked with applying a gender lens to how the county hires personnel, provides public services and contracts with external vendors.
“Mount Saint Mary’s Reports have really shifted the perspective on the importance of data and the ways in which commissions like ours can advise legislators around policy,” says Karriann Farrell Hinds, president of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women.
“We’re not empowered to act independently so our advisory function is significant. That’s where data provided by these Reports become so important. They give us quantitative data that supports the anecdotal experiences we’re hearing in the field. MSMU’s Reports give us weight and credibility, and that’s vital for us when presenting recommendations to our county supervisors.”
THE GENESIS OF PROGRAMS
As Mount Saint Mary’s began producing The Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California, a question soon arose: How would the Report affect the Mount?
“The answer to that question was clear,” says McElaney-Johnson. “It had to affect us in every way if we were to live out our mission.”
Indeed, it has.
“The data compelled us to found our Center for the Advancement of Women,” McElaney-Johnson notes. “It helped us reshape our cornerstone Women’s Leadership Program for students. It also informed the creation and continued work of our Center for Equity, Diversity and Justice and is a catalyst in our commitment to be an anti-racist university.”
Through the years, the Center for the Advancement of Women has expanded public programming and funded more research opportunities: An annual Women’s Leadership Conference; nonpartisan campaign training workshops to prepare more women to run for office; and Collectif, an original research companion to the Report that further explores some of the most crucial topics and trends related to equity and access.
“Collectif allows us to dig deeper on certain topics in a way we can’t within the broader Report,” says Emerald Archer, PhD, director of the Center for the Advancement of Women. “Food insecurity, for example, might be a couple of paragraphs in the Report. With Collectif, we can commission a whole paper on that one topic. This journal also helps connects activists and policymakers with experts in their field who are writing these papers.”
The Center enhances student life and learning on campus, too. Archer co-developed the Mount’s new Women and Gender Studies major, launching this fall, structured around leadership, policy and undergraduate research. The program includes a Voice in Action living and learning community that will enable students in the major to live together — reinvigorating a shared campus experience around women and gender.
In recent years, the Center also established a Legislator in Residence program to bring timely policy conversations to campus, along with mentoring opportunities for students. Former state Sen. Holly J. Mitchell — now a supervisor for LA County — is the program’s first Legislator in Residence.
“I’m proud of how we’ve been able to engage both our Mount community and our external network of allies in this work,” Archer says. “The Legislator in Residence program has been particularly successful, modeling what good leadership looks like for students. It also puts students in proximity to power, which is crucial for young women.”
Julia Vanella ’18, a history and political science graduate of the Mount, had the chance to speak with Mitchell during a class her senior year. The experience changed the course of Vanella’s life.
“I had never met or spoken with someone in state government,” she says. “Having that exposure to someone in public office opened my eyes to pursuing a career in public service.” Today, Vanella is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Representation matters,” says McElaney-Johnson. “That’s what this Report was all about 10 years ago when we got started — and it remains so today.”
Beyond commissioned research, the Mount is often sought out for advice by communities that want to create reports on their own. MSMU researchers have served as consultants for colleagues and communities near and far — from the City of West Hollywood in LA County to Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
In 2018, to address these growing requests, the Center for the Advancement of Women at Mount Saint Mary’s University released a white paper, “Reporting on the Status of Women and Girls in Your Community: A Guide to Using U.S. Census Data.” Prepared by the Center’s longtime lead researcher and professor emerita of physical science, Eleanor Siebert, PhD, the guide offers step-by-step instructions for mining federal census data — a core resource for the University’s annual Reports.
“Empowering others to uncover helpful data is what inspired our census guide. Because once disparities are illuminated and understood, we can all use the data to craft effective messages and action plans to combat those inequities,” Siebert says.
JOIN US FOR THE 2021 REPORT EVENT
Women and the Pandemic: Impact, Resilience and Moving Forward
Wednesday, March 31
10 am - 12 pm
To download the Report or to view the event, go to msmu.edu/rswg.