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‘Clearly there’s still a lot of work to do:’ Vermont Works for Women celebrates 35 years

by Jillian Scannell

Vermont Works for Women staff member looks out of the crowd at LUNAFEST, a fundraiser to support VWW's work of advancing gender equity.


This article was originally published by The Essex Reporter. For over 35 years Vermont Works for Women has been working to advance gender equity in Vermont. Through various programs like career exploration summer camps, trades training programs, and career coaching, VWW supports women and youth at every stage of their career journeys.

The Essex Reporter | August 9, 2022

By: Kate Vanni

VERMONT — In an office with framed “Rosie the Riveter” posters, a “Smash the patriarchy” sign taped up and assorted houseplants lining the windowsill, Vermont Works for Women celebrates 35 years.

Rounding the corners of the office, built by those working in it, there are signs hung from various bulletin boards and directly on the soft green walls, detailing information women in the workforce should know.

“The biggest thing with anybody we work with is demonstrating what a positive, motivating work environment should look like,” executive director Rhoni Basden said. “So that way when those things are not happening, you can recognize it and…self advocate which we love to see, or come back to us to help.”

The non-profit organization was founded in 1987 by Ronnie Sandler, back then going by the name Northern New England Tradeswomen, with the goal of promoting economic justice by advancing gender equity and supporting women and youth throughout their career journeys.

Vermont Works for Women focuses on advancing gender equity, not gender equality, and was very intentional when choosing its new tagline, “Equity matters here.”

“Equality is everyone getting the same, everyone is getting what they need across the board, but equity is everybody getting what they need at that moment,” Basden said “We’re not here to provide a one-size-fits-all model. A band-aid is not going to fix everybody’s ailments.”

VWW hosts a variety of different programs, but the two that stand out most to Basden, an Essex resident, is Rosie’s Girls and the Trailblazers program.

Rosie’s Girls is a STEM, trades and career exploration program for middle school girls and gender-expansive youth. The summer day camp and afterschool program allows girls to build their curiosity while using plasma cutters and table saws.

Trailblazers is a free program for women and gender-expansive individuals to gain skills and earn certifications for high-in-demand construction and trade jobs. In 2021, two cohorts of students graduated from the program and were qualified to fill critical job openings.

Vermont Works for Women is not a recruiting or a staffing agency, Basden said.

“Our big goal has never been ‘We want all these women we work with in a job tomorrow,’” she said.

Instead, the organization wants to help women succeed in jobs they find motivating, jobs with equitable pay and jobs that provide opportunities for advancement in their careers.

“But we’ve really tried to raise awareness on [how] career journeys and pathways look very different for every person,” Basden said.

While one woman may want a specific job because it fits into their current life or another woman wants a job because it’s her passion, Vermont Works for Women aims to help both of these women and more.

“What we’re trying to do is open up as many possibilities as we know Vermont has to offer,” Basden said.

The work done by Vermont Works for Women isn’t just for women but the entire economy of Vermont. As the state’s population continues to age, the workforce needs to shift, Basden said.

The first step the organization is taking on this issue is requiring any business it partners with to complete the four gender equity workshops Vermont Works for Women provides. Not just the leadership team, not just the HR employees, but every single person in the business’ workforce.

The workshops focus on busting gender bias, respectful workplaces, microaggressions and other issues that affect women in the workplace.

“So every employee that’s going to be sitting at the lunch table with you [has gone through these workshops],” Basden said.

Though Basden acknowledges their workshops are not a perfect solution so the organization is constantly learning new ways to address issues, she has seen them work well.

In one instance, a woman who worked with VWW really enjoyed the electrical modules she did with the organization and wanted to work at a local electric company in her town.

“It was an older gentleman and a son who owned it, just a two-man team, very typical of what we see across the state,” she said “We got them involved, they were wonderful, but she got in and she realized they had no maternity leave policies; they’ve never had a woman working there.”

After the woman spoke with the two men about their policies, the company implemented new ones specific to women.

“I have to say this company has been phenomenal … I think that example is what we want to see all across is like, yes, we [VWW] as an organization are here to recognize and help support, but we also want to put out all of these incredible individuals who are going to self advocate and do this on their own,” she said.

While Vermont Works for Women is women-focused, they welcome non-binary and gender-expansive individuals.

“But we also say it’s a female-identifying environment, our research is really gender-focused on women’s barriers to employment and a lot of our signage around is going to be female-identified and female-focused,” Basden said.

After over 35 years of serving Vermont women and advancing gender equity in the Vermont community, Basden said there is still work to be done.

“We’ve been around over three decades, we’ve grown and we’ve seen impact but we’re still seeing a lot of the same reasons that we started the organization,” she said.

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