How can Allen County improve its economy and talent prospects while also supporting its families and neighborhoods?
As a female leader in Fort Wayne, Alison Gerardot knows firsthand that a key factor underpinning Northeast Indiana’s success is its ability to create greater access, equity, and opportunities for local women, in particular. Gerardot
Why women? Because they make up more than 51 percent of Allen County’s population, yet they are facing significant data-based disparities here, ranging from the number of women who have experienced violence in Allen County (70 percent) to the median annual earnings of women ($15,590 less than men).
And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic and “shecession
“If any majority population was facing adversity to the extent that women are, I would hope we would pay attention to that and help them succeed,” Gerardot says.
In recent months and years, Gerardot’s efforts as Vice President of Philanthropic Services for the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne
have been geared toward doing just that.
Gerardot speaks to a socially distant crowd at the launch of the Women's Fund of Greater Fort Wayne.
In August 2020, the Community Foundation revealed the results of its Women & Girls Study
, which was conducted pre-pandemic with the Community Research Institute at Purdue Fort Wayne
. It launched its Women’s Fund of Greater Fort Wayne
the same day to start turning the study’s findings into actionable priorities.
Gerardot assumed the role of Coordinator for the Women’s Fund, leading a 13-member Advisory Committee that delves into the deeper reasons behind gender disparities in Allen County and how to move the needle on them.
While Gerardot is naturally passionate about this work, she also knows there are a few stereotypes that might come to mind at the mention of a “Women’s Fund.” Part of her job is helping the public understand what the fund is, what its priorities are, and why these priorities should matter to everyone in Allen County.
Mayor Tom Henry addresses guests at the launch of the Women's Fund.
First, and most broadly, you might assume the Women’s Fund only involves and affects women. After all, women’s issues tend to become “either/or” conversations in the U.S.—pitting genders and political parties against one another.
“But it’s not really a matter of ‘either/or,’” Gerardot says. “It’s an ‘and.’”
Data shows that when you support women in a community, you’re ultimately supporting everyone in that community, by extension. For example, the World Bank found
that every 1 percent increase in the population of girls educated in a country correlates to a .3 percent increase in that country’s GDP.
So investing in equity for women isn’t necessarily a political—or purely charitable—decision; it’s a matter of smart economics
A socially distant crowd gathers at the launch of the Women's Fund in downtown Fort Wayne.
Another stereotype that might come to mind at the mention of a Women’s Fund is the assumption that the fund is a functional country club for wealthy white women in Allen County.
Gerardot says that throughout the creation of the fund, her team has been taking a hard look at traditional fundraising models and how they tend to disenfranchise women of color, transgendered women, or women of lower income levels.
“We’ve been trying to be very intentional about allowing the fund to be accessible to everyone, and at the same time, honoring those women who are contributing a lot of money without making it exclusive to them,” she says.
Denita Washington speaks at the launch of the Women's Fund in downtown Fort Wayne.
After all, disparities that hold women back as a gender, also disproportionately affect women of color or other minorities. So creating diversity and equity within the fund itself (and its Advisory Committee) are critical elements of its success.
On the flip side, Gerardot sees the Women’s Fund as an opportunity for women and men in Allen County who are privileged to use their resources for a powerful purpose.
That brings to mind the third, most fundamental, assumption you might make about the Women’s Fund: Believing it’s a grantmaking body that awards money to women’s causes. That’s not the case either, Gerardot says—at least, not yet.
Instead, the Advisory Committee is devoting its first five years to honing in on the key issues holding women back in Allen County through research, education, and advocacy. It’s taking a longer-term, more preventative approach to systemic challenges, which starts with better defining and understanding their root causes.
After reviewing data from the Community Foundation’s Women & Girls Study, the Women’s Fund Advisory Committee has identified three key priorities to shift the paradigm for women and girls in Allen County.
1. Economic Security: Addressing issues that impede women and girls from reaching their full economic potential.
2. Personal Safety: Promoting programs, policies, and systems that ensure women and girls' safety.
3. Young Women and Girls: Listening to and amplifying the voices of young women and girls so they know they are supported and celebrated.
Investing in equity for women isn’t necessarily a political—or purely charitable—decision; it’s a matter of smart economics.
In a March 2021 Journal Gazette op-ed
, Gerardot points out how the pandemic is exacerbating these issues, in particular, for women locally and across the country.
The U.S. economy lost a net 140,000 jobs at the end of 2020, and women accounted for 156,000 lost jobs—while men gained 16,000 jobs.
The number of women nationally and locally able to seek help for sexual assault and domestic abuse has also drastically decreased during the pandemic’s shutdown and ongoing isolation.
Even before the pandemic, young women had been contemplating suicide and facing consistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness at higher rates than men in Allen County, too.
While the reasons to support the Women’s Fund of Greater Fort Wayne are many, for Gerardot, it’s really about engaging and educating residents on the opportunity to strengthen families and communities, at large.
It’s about moving Northeast Indiana, as a whole, toward greater equity and access for all.
“We want to educate people on the issues and what’s really happening here with women,” Gerardot says. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know.”
You can access the full summary of the Community Foundation’s Women & Girls Study on its website.
The Women’s Fund of Greater Fort Wayne is funded by individuals and organizations who are passionate about a more equitable future for girls and women in Allen County. You can make a one-time contribution or a recurring contribution on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. Learn more at womensfundfw.org