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Tuesday, March 31, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Women’s Business Center helps ideas bloom

Charlene Anderson knows exactly what she wants – to own an mixed martial arts and weightlifting gym for women.

The idea came to Anderson six months ago, watching her sister-in-law care for her nephew who has neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer. She wanted to give her sister-in-law – and women like her – an temporary outlet for when they are spending long hours in a hospital with their child.

“My sister-in-law has no time for herself at all,” Anderson said. “My ultimate goal is to actually have a moving truck of some sort, with a gym in it and take these women from the hospital into the gym and just give them an hour to themselves.”

Anderson can picture the way she wants the gym to look in her mind, but to get to that point, she needed help. Her day job is as a pharmacy technician didn’t give the background she needed to start her own business, so she asked around, which led her to the Women’s Business Center.

“It’s not a question of ‘Can I do this?’ because I know I’m going to do it,” Anderson said. “It’s just how is it all going to transpire, the timeline and everything like that.”

That prompted Anderson to send an email to Nicolle Hansen, Women’s Business Center manager. A program through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, there are 112 Women’s Business Centers throughout the country, with three locations in Washington. Hansen works for the location out of the East Central Community Center, which has been around for seven years.

But that’s not where Anderson met with Hansen, Women’s Business Center manager, and Harry Birak, Women’s Business Center technician, on late Friday morning. Hansen and Birak were at the U.S. Bank on Appleway Boulevard, demonstrating the center’s new e-learning platform, “Access!” which was made possible through a $50,000 grant from U.S. Bank.

The federal governement created the Women’s Business Center program in 1988, in conjunction with the federal law that allowed women to apply for business loans without a male co-signer. Women’s Business Centers provide clients with the tools and resources to start their own business, including writing a business plan and making a loan application. In the past five years, the Spokane location has helped start 200 businesses. Though 63% of its clients are female, anyone can sign up.

Hansen said the point of the new e-learning component is to increase that accessibility. Parents who would otherwise have to arrange for child care can now view the content from the comfort of their home. The Women’s Business Center coverage area stretches from Yakima to North Idaho, and another accessibility issue is that many rural communities struggle to have reliable access to high speed internet, Hansen said.

“We found a platform that would adjust the view and delivery based on the Wi-Fi speed,” Hansen said. “It also allows the clients to download the modules where they have Wi-Fi access, and then they can go home and complete them.”

There are numerous learning modules already available on the “Access!” platform, and Hansen had planned to hold off on live webinars until June. But since COVID-19 is driving more people out of the public sphere, she plans to host the first webinar sometime this week.

Anderson said she had not encountered the gender pay gap in her field, but Hansen said for some women, starting their own business has been the way they address inequality in pay. In Spokane, women make 77 cents to the dollar that a man makes, and the number is significantly lower in the case of woman of color.

Kevin Henrickson, Gonzaga University economics professor, said that since the data behind “77 cents” is aggregated, it’s hard to even know the full scale of the problem.

“What we would really like to know is do two people with the same level of experience, the same education, but one’s female and one’s male, are they paid differently?” Henrickson said. “That’s really for economists been the dream data set, but it’s really hard to come by because private firms tend to be pretty secretive about their pay information.”

Henrickson said requiring private companies to have pay transparency could not only give everyone a better idea of the problem, but also be a tool in bridging the gap. He said Gonzaga has pay transparency, and because of that, very little gender pay gap exists.

Sherri Lynch, assistant director of training and development at Gonzaga’s School of Leadership Studies, is the organizer behind “Women LEAD,” an annual conference that takes place in Spokane, as well as in Seattle and Napa Valley, California. The conference starts with a main speaker who delivers the basic facts on women in the workplace that year.

“What that does is in most people, it kind of lights a little bit of a fire in their belly, where they’re like, ‘Oh, man, that doesn’t seem right, how can this be happening?’ And it makes them want to do something,” Lynch said. “Following that, we send them to workshops … to learn skills that will help change those statistics that they just learned about.”

This year’s conference, which has about 350 attendees, is being postponed to June 17 because of COVID-19.

Jessi Willis, Eastern Washington University Women’s and Gender Studies Program professor, said most of their students are surprised to hear that the gender pay gap exists.

“The data itself sometimes becomes disheartening to the college students that I work with, because there they are getting their undergraduate degrees thinking that, in fact, this is going to lead to some kind of economic security, when in fact, education in and of itself doesn’t address the gender wage gap,” Willis said.

Willis said the gender wage gap affects women’s pay not only in the beginning of their working life, but across the trajectory of their careers.

“There are huge benefits to businesses and to society to eradicate the gender wage gap,” Willis said. “A lot of it has to do with changing the ways that people value and interpret women’s roles in the world.”

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