To honor Women’s Equality Day, Foster Boy sat down with Lyndsey Wilson, CEO of First Star, to discuss the importance of equality for girls and women who are in or have been through the foster system.
Foster Boy: What are some of the inequality-related difficulties you’ve seen women and girls experience in the realm of foster care/foster abuse? Are young women in foster care treated differently?
Lyndsey Wilson: America’s deep roots in women’s inequality drives aspects of the foster care system, most notably how youth are referred and which children remain in the system. Most youth in foster care come from single-parent homes. Women lead most single-parent homes. Women in our society face inequality through a myriad of situations like experiencing higher rates of poverty, sexism, racism, work access, and gender pay gaps. Inequality contributes to the high rates of children in care. And once girls and young ladies are placed in the system, their inequality-related experiences are amplified. Our young ladies in care experience higher rates of teen pregnancy, higher frequency of running away and a greater risk of human trafficking. Young women in care give birth at twice the rate of teens in traditional homes, and by the age of 21, 71% of the young women who had been in foster care had been pregnant, compared with 34% of their peers nationwide. Lack of implicit and explicit bias training and lack of data among those who spend countless hours with our youth – caregivers, group home employees, and sometimes, social workers - help reinforce the stereotypes prevalent in our society for young ladies coming from unstable homes. These disproportionate rates of pregnancy, sex trafficking are derivatives of a system that retraumatizes our young ladies. Child welfare is not designed to raise children; it is designed to remove young people from immediate harm and place them in a setting that is expected to be safe. The kinds of services required by girls and young women who have been placed in the system by no fault of their own are rarely available. Services like understanding coping skills, self-regulation, therapy, family reconciliation exercises are in short supply, but in high demand. Without a transparent support system, our girls suffer at the hands of adults who introduce their bias and knowingly/unknowingly add to the challenges our young ladies feel from low self-esteem and self-worth, compounded with societal peer pressure.
CEO, First Star
Despite these distinct challenges, we should not paint an entirely dire picture of our young ladies. Our young ladies in care persist through school and graduate high school at higher rates than their male counterparts and have higher rates of going on to college and graduating from school than their male peers. We must acknowledge the hard work and determination that many of our girls and young women in the foster care system place on achieving their dreams. Despite being pregnant or having a baby or experiencing sexual violence at the hands of others, they still go on to graduate from high school and go to college. That’s incredibly important to highlight the young ladies that persevere and attain education and career success
FB: How do you think foster care and women’s equality/girl’s equality are connected? How do well-known women’s equality issues (like the wage gap, victim-blaming, or slut-shaming) interact with foster youth?
LW: Foster care and women’s equality are inextricably linked. Young ladies in care fare far worse than their non-foster care counterparts—injustices of sexuality, sexual health, education attainment, and victim-blaming plague their daily experiences. One difficult stat to contend with is that 50% of female foster youth will be pregnant by 19. This begs the questions, “How are our girls being protected from sexual violence? Are they encouraged to seek sexual health advice and support?” If rates of pregnancy are this high, what is being done to protect female bodies? I have listened to countless stories of young women in the system who were assaulted by the people they were told to trust – caregivers and staff at group home/STRTP placements. And due to their past, they are often victim-shamed. This awful cycle of relentless emotional, mental and physical abuse results in higher rates of running away from their foster families or group homes. And unfortunately, many of those young people end up being sex trafficked. All of this comes from belonging to communities unwilling to recognize the historical, systemic inequalities that women face.
FB: Is there a First Star program or experience that you’d like to highlight for Women’s Equality Day?
LW: I would love to highlight that First Star empowers our young ladies. Our expectations for our young ladies in our programs are just as high as our expectations for our other students. As an organization, we review our data on a regular basis to better understand the youth we serve. This exercise puts disproportionality in our organization front and center, and by engaging in these exercises, we combat our implicit biases and adjust our programming. Last year, we started examining our data through an equity lens. Instead of only considering the broad stroke data points, we went granular with our numbers to determine the impact race and gender had on the progress and outcome metrics we capture throughout the school year.
I am proud to lead an organization where women hold the top leadership positions and are affirmed in their roles. Our Academy Directors are fearless leaders and most are women and women of color. They are brave individuals equipped with intelligence, strength, resilience, sticktoitiveness, and passion.
One story to highlight for Women’s Equality Day is about our scholar Ashley. Ashley represents our First Star Arizona State University Academy. She does not know this, but I admire the strength, courage, brilliance, and competence this young lady exudes every time I see her virtually. Ashley shines. She enters conversations with an air of confidence to ensure her voice is heard. I have observed traits in her that I have seen in her director at ASU and qualities of our Student Advisory Committee director. Observing Ashley emulate these exceptional women, embodying their powerful presence, is exhilarating as I see her developing personal agency. She has experienced trauma and, on some levels, and has overcome them. In doing so, she grew her confidence, grabbed hold of her self-worth, and used her voice to remind those in the room that she deserved to be there too! Ashley is one of many First Star young ladies learning from the exceptional women directing their programs. Our First Star young ladies continue to set the bar high and make strides daily to succeed in high school and beyond.
To the women who are our directors, our staff, and our national team, who day in and day out, take on their jobs fearlessly with commitment, with intelligence, with diligence, and accomplish incredible feats, I proudly exclaim, Thank you! Keep doing ya thang! I am proud to be your leader.
FB: your experience as a woman who is the CEO First Star, what are some strides towards equality that you’ve seen in the field? What still needs to change?
LW: Yes, we have made strides towards equality but they are not enough as the data proves inequality continues to drive most work environments in the United States – patriarchy, lack of role models/women in positions of power, sexism, motherhood, and a recent push to normalize misogyny. Society propagates the belief that women are less qualified and competent than men and these bias’s drive workplace policies. I am always baffled when I watch a commercial or other form of advertisement that is misogynistic and feeds into the antiquated narratives about women and their role in society because an entire group of people ok’d the promotion. I suppose my most significant concern is that women are at the ‘table’ and are making important decisions for their companies. It blows my mind that a woman who has traversed a male-dominated society to reach the highest levels of business leadership allows mass commercialism to negate her journey to top leadership. Devaluing women to prop up misogynistic values occurs one commercial, movie, song, tv show, company policy at a time.
For this reason, organizations struggling to hire female leadership must create pipeline programs for women to move into top positions. These programs should bolster the skills and knowledge base necessary to assume leadership roles. The program must also affirm and validate the women taking the course. These pipeline programs should run in parallel with organization-wide classes and professional development on the implicit and explicit biases that undervalue women and women of color in the workplace.
While there are concerted efforts to promote women and acknowledge their value in corporate and non-profit settings, there are still fewer BIPOC women climbing the leadership ladder. Only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women of color take a slither of that pie at 1.2%. These statistics also translate to the wage gap. For every dollar a White man earns, a White woman earns $0.80, a Black woman makes $0.61, and a Hispanic woman earns $0.53. As we work diligently to empower female employees and encourage and motivate others to focus on female talent and their leadership pipeline, we MUST also evaluate our processes to ensure that BIPOC women are proportionally represented and compensated fairly. I am proud to be First Star’s first black woman CEO and work every day to dispel the myths about women in leadership and empower women to excel.