Count Her In

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a theme bubbled up in many news stories and kitchen table discussions: Women still feel invisible in many aspects of society.

A new comprehensive report on women and girls in Oregon, the first in a generation, aims to remedy that feeling.

Count Her In, a 120-page tour de force of analytics and research has revealed significant gender equity problems in Oregon. The state hasn’t seen much improvement for women since the 1980s, and in some cases, we’ve actually gone backward.

Within two weeks of the report’s release this fall, it was mentioned in four out of five gubernatorial debates. The report will, no doubt, reset the table for policy and lawmaking across the state. And yet, the existence of the report raises the question: Why was it produced by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon and not the state, which is mandated to produce such data?

When the statewide Women’s Foundation of Oregon (WFO) opened its doors in 2014, it wrestled with how it could raise the visibility of women’s issues and make a difference. When the WFO asked the organizations it supports how to move forward, the collective answer was surprising: Instead of more money, the organizations needed information that helped them make a better case for why they needed money. It was from this service-sector plea that the Count Her In report was born.

WFO Executive Director Emily Evans borrowed her family’s RV and hit the road with her team. With majority funding from Meyer Memorial Trust, additional funding from others, and the efforts of local volunteer organizing teams, they traveled to Bend, Burns, Medford, Newport, Pendleton, Ontario and the Umatilla Reservation. They went in-depth in all large urban areas and even relied on Spanish-, Somali- and Russian-speaking translators in Forest Grove, Gresham and parts of Portland to make sure ethnic groups weren’t ignored.

Along the way, the researchers at ECONorthwest crunched the information from more than a thousand interviews, several thousand data points and years of Oregon census data. Then they compared the results to every state in the country.

Here is a small sample of the broad findings.

  • An estimated 1 million women and girls – over half of Oregon’s female population – have experienced some form of sexual or domestic violence.

  • Nearly a quarter say they have been raped.

  • Oregon women have the highest reported incidence of depression in the country and women are twice as likely to attempt suicide as men.

  • Women and girls deliver nearly 2 billion annual hours of caregiving for family members, much of it free and with dramatic impacts on their careers, education and earning trajectories.

  • Nearly one-third of women and girls are struggling to make ends meet: Women earn between 53 and 83 cents on the dollar, depending on race and ethnicity, for every dollar white men in Oregon make.

  • For women of color, the racial wealth gap combines with the gender wealth gap to create a compound negative effect. Sixty percent of all minimum wage workers in Oregon are women.

  • This year, only one of Oregon’s 39 publicly traded companies is led by a woman.

  • There are still some Oregon counties where not a single woman serves in countywide office; this matters because counties are often the biggest providers of services to women and girls.

Of course, the news isn’t all bad: Women vote at higher rates than men in Oregon, commit fewer than 5 percent of violent crimes, comprise more than 70 percent of public educators and 80 percent of health care workers, give of their money and time more than Oregon’s men (and most women nationally), serve in statewide office at some of the highest rates in the country, and met the state’s 2025 goal for college graduation in 2014 — eleven years ahead of schedule.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said after reading the report that although “some could point to our successes, and say, ‘See, it’s not so bad here,’ the data in this report doesn’t lie.”

Advocates say the findings match hard data to an unsettling reality they’ve witnessed for years: Oregon’s women and girls are struggling. According to Elizabeth Nye, executive director of Girls Inc., she spent years feeling like she was shouting into the wind, unable to substantiate what she was saying.

Count Her In changes all that. The report is a wake-up call, a celebration of resilience, and an opportunity to do things differently. And, as the report says, it’s an irrefutable imperative for change. WFO’s Evans says that the goal now isn’t small tweaks or a few more dollars to service providers, but structural and systems change. It’s recognizing that the structural barriers are highly interrelated and that if they’re not recognized and changed, then we’ll see stagnation.

Systemic racism and gender inequity are huge problems in Oregon, meaning women and girls experience disproportionate barriers to success. Today, thanks to the Women’s Foundation of Oregon’s report, progress can no longer be blamed on a lack of clear and compelling data.