In this pop-up episode of She Thinks, Patrice Onwuka, director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at IWF, speaks with Jeanette Duffy, Chief Program Officer at Dress for Success Worldwide. They discuss labor market trends, including women transitioning back into the workforce, upskilling American workers, and how this global nonprofit is empowering women for economic success in their professional endeavors — starting with their wardrobes. They also discuss a new initiative with Uber for gig economy workers.
Hey everyone, it’s Beverly Hallberg. Welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women’s Forum, where we talk with women and sometimes men about the policy issues that impact you, and the people you care about most. Enjoy.
Hi, and welcome to this pop-up episode of She Thinks. I’m Patrice Onwuka, the director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Now, today’s topic is about women and work clothes. Well, kind of. We’re not talking about post-pandemic office fashion, but rather, we’re talking about empowering women for economic success in their professional endeavors. And that does include their wardrobe. So, today… Jeanette Duffy with Dress for Success. Dress for Success, worldwide. She joined as the chief program officer in 2019. She is a program and engagement expert bringing storytelling, human-centered design, and a solutions-oriented outlook to every effort. With this approach, Jeanette creates experiences, products, and programs that allow Dress for Success clients around the world to successfully navigate the world of work. This is a critical time to be talking to Jeanette. As we know with the labor force and changes, the number of women who’ve left the workforce. So we’re going to get into what Dress for Success is doing to empower women. Jeannette, welcome to She Thinks.
Thank you so much, Patrice. I’m happy to be here, especially at this time.
Terrific. Well, before we get into what’s going on in the working world, tell us about Dress for Success and about how you became involved with the organization.
Yeah, gladly. So Dress for Success is the only global organization that’s focusing on helping women navigate the world of work, ultimately with the goal of making sure all women can reach financial independence. We have affiliates in 144 cities and in 25 countries. And our job is really focused on helping anyone who lives and works as a woman to be able to reach career milestones, milestones like getting hired, getting a promotion, or getting a raise. Now navigating work looks very different, no matter where you are in the world. So we trust each of our affiliates to be the experts in understanding the needs of women and providing the services that are most relevant, wherever it is they are. But no matter where you go in the world, you will see some signature things and some signature program…success what is so recognizable. Firstly, of course, is our signature suiting program.
With Dress for Success, we’re focused on giving women the clothing and the competence they need to nail their interview and land that first job. But we know it takes so much more than that to get women to that final milestone of financial independence. So we’re not just about the clothing; we do offer career coaching, one-on-one guidance to help women make sure they’re up to date in best practices with their resumes, with their interviewing and their personal branding and, ultimately, we strive to be that network of support, that professional group that every woman needs to succeed. Women that we serve, many of them are from vulnerable populations. So we know that they cannot afford to pay to be part of professional groups. They might not live, they might not have gone to school, they might not work where there are strong networks of women. So we really want to democratize networking and between our staff, our volunteers, and our alumni clients who have gone on to success, really be that professional network that women need to succeed throughout their career.
Wow. Fantastic. And I will just say, disclaimer, I actually volunteered with a Dress for Success chapter in the Washington, DC, area some years ago. And I was literally just putting clothing on hangers and being an extra pair of hands to the staff, but it was so rewarding when I saw a client come in and getting all of the items that she needed for — not just for her interview, but for that first week, maybe first couple of weeks of work — having not really had any professional clothing to suit the atmosphere that she was going to be in. So kudos to you guys for what you’re doing. And one of the words that really stuck out to me that you mentioned is independence and empowering women to be independent and financially secure. So just thinking about the kinds of clients you serve, tell me more about them.
Yeah, absolutely. So even though we are all around the world, there are some things that really tie our clients together that all of these women have in common. A vast majority of them are working parents, single mothers, and very often the head of household. So it is on them to not only be supporting the entire family financially, but most often they are also the ones thinking about the caretaking need for the family. Our clients are multi-generational. We’re helping women who are 18, maybe even just under 18, thinking about their first steps into a career, and we also have women who are over 50. A lot of our community partnerships means that women are being referred to us, coming to our affiliates, really experiencing a lot of challenges. They might be someone who is recently incarcerated, they could be a woman who has had to take a long extended break from work in order to be a caretaker for others.
So we know that there are those that really are going to need the support in order to understand the current landscape of work, understand the skills that it takes to stand out and to be relevant. And over 70% of the women that we serve are BIPOC identifying. So it is really women of color who we are trying to help navigate the world of work and have them be as successful as possible. We’re incredibly conscious that, when women come through our doors, they are really experiencing so many challenges other than just needing work, and so that is why we really do focus in those early minutes with them to give them confidence. We have years with women staying with us in Dress for Success to really work on their professional development. But it is all about really in that moment, when they have so much going on, to let them know that they can do it, they can land the interview, they can start that job. And that’ll be just the first step they’re taking on their way to financial independence.
So let’s dive a little bit into the policy world just a little bit. I’m curious to see what you’re seeing when it comes to the labor market right now and the economy. Now I will get some of the numbers every month, and we know we’ve got close to 11 million open positions right now in the United States. Yet we have millions of workers who not only are unemployed, but are sitting on the sidelines. And I think everyone wants to know: how do we get workers back into the workplace, especially considering that the shortage of workers across so many industries, from retail to services, hotels, and obviously manufacturing and some of those supply chain industries?
There’s a shortage of workers, and we have so many women. Maybe many of them want to get back into the workplace. So what are you seeing when it comes to the broader economy, but also the people who are… Are you guys able to attract? Are you inviting people who may have been out of the workforce for a while to come back in and then offering them those wraparound services that you talked about?
One of the great benefits of our organization being global is that the women that we serve are this incredibly robust data set that’s allowing us to really have our finger on the pulse and hear firsthand and hear real-time what’s going on with women and work. And so everything that you were saying about why women had to leave the workforce, the jobs that aren’t working for them, is absolutely resonating with our women. One additional and interesting trend that we have seen is a dramatic increase in the number and persona of woman that is looking for our services. With so many women impacted financially by the pandemic, we have even had a significant number of women who used to volunteer with us, finding themselves at a different place in their career journey, and now coming back to explore some of those services that we provide. And to your point, often it is not necessarily about jobs available, but it is about those jobs being able to meet the needs of women.
The number one thing we are hearing globally from the women we serve is that they need flexibility. These jobs that are available, they are not the ones that accommodate women as caretakers. And as I share, the women that we serve are primarily the caretakers in their family. They need jobs that are going to allow them to be able to take on that role, and especially now, as they continue to take on that role as the world reopened somewhat but things still remain closed from the pandemic, and caretaking is something that is so much more critical. We’re also seeing that these women really need to have relevant and 21st-century skill sets so that they can return to work, but also do so in ways that puts them on management track. We’re all about helping women to get to financial independence, so we want to make sure that this huge exodus that we’re seeing of women from the workforce is not getting in the way of their trajectory to be future leaders in work.
And the 21st-century workplace, it has really sped up. It has really been something that is even more relevant post-COVID because of how quickly everyone has had to learn to work differently. There’s so many more roles now that are hybrid and are remote and those are the roles that our women are interested in because those are the roles that give them the flexibility to be engaged caretakers. But those are roles that also require skill sets that might not be ones that our women naturally have, right?
21st-century workplace does not mean things solely associated with STEM and engineering. It does mean the ability to work creatively. It does mean the ability to have some tech literacy. So we are working with our partners and we are working with our affiliates to make sure that that is, first and foremost, in the support, that we are giving women access to all of those services and trainings that will help them be 21st-century workers.
Well, Jeanette, you hit some really key points here, and I’m just going to pick up on that second one. Well, you mentioned the F word flexibility. That is huge at Independent Women’s Forum because we recognize that, survey after survey in anecdotes, women are looking for flexibility. And I do think you’re right: the pandemic has exposed how many jobs can actually be done remotely, giving women and men the ability to balance all of those other responsibilities at home, or even their side hustles and their entrepreneurial pursuits while they’re earning a paycheck. So that F word is great, but then you talked about upskilling, and I’d love to just spend a moment there diving a little bit more into what you guys are doing, what that looks like. But I do think that as we think long-term with the economy and the labor force, you’re right.
I think a lot of these jobs that are unfilled may remain unfilled and maybe in five, 10 years, they disappear as automation replaces those positions. And so that means, though, that we do need to have a workforce that is upskilled and able to meet this 21st-century workplace that you talk about. But when we talk about technology and upskilling in that area, are you also talking about increased educational levels? I mean, are you thinking that workers are going to have to have a four-year college degree? What does upskilling and preparation for the 21st workplace look like in your eyes?
So, for our women, we know that many of them do not have that formal college degree. And as we are in conversation with so many of our partners and our corporate partners that make our work possible, we are hearing that there is acknowledgement and there is an appetite for recognizing that formal college education is not necessarily what makes the best-equipped workers. And we do hope that there is more of an embracing of that, because we know that is something that will make it easier for our women to enter the workforce in the roles that are more desirable and fit for them. So if the solution isn’t always going to be a formal college education, we do want to make sure women are, like you said, re-skilled, up to date with what it’s going to take to be relevant in that workforce. And not everyone is going to need to be an engineer, as I said, but there are other skill sets that will be relevant.
The idea of being able to project manage and co-work and collaborate in spaces where automation is happening, for instance. So we consider ourselves experts in what women need. We consider ourselves experts in bringing women together, and we consider ourselves the organization that is making sure women have access to resources that they might not otherwise have, that might not find them in the communities where they are living. So to do that, we make sure that we’re working with partners that are going to give them the relevant skills that they need. Two examples would be our partner with Grow With Google. We are making sure that our women all have access to Grow With Google resources, which really are targeted on making sure that there is a strong baseline of tech literacy, and then also providing additional certifications and support for data, for example, or entrepreneurship, so that our women can have up-to-date information in what it takes to be relevant in those fields.
And another partnership we’re excited about is with Merit America. And this is an organization that provides flexible training and job placement specifically in IT and technology fields. So in that way, we’re making sure our women have everything that they need to be first in line and at the forefront, to be getting these jobs that we know in the future are going to be the best paying and also the most flexible, and those that are going to continue to put them on a leadership trajectory, so that all of these women who have had to leave work will not miss a beat and hopefully still be there and be the future leaders in work in years to come.
I love that. I love that you’re not only just providing the here and now skills and resources that are needed, but also helping to put women on that trajectory. And it gives them the choice, right? They have the choice, hey, if they want to move into the C suite, if they want to move into management, they can do that. If they like a different track or they want to start their own entrepreneurial enterprise using the skills and talents that they now have, then they could do that too. So one other partnership and I want to round out our conversation, but one other partnership is an exciting new partnership that you have with Uber. So I’m curious to hear more about what you guys are doing with Uber.
Yeah. So Uber is a fantastic partner to work with because, just like Dress for Success, they very much understand the importance of meeting women where they are. It’s about ensuring that women have support and opportunities that are most relevant to them, based on their current situation and their current needs. For Uber, over the past year especially, that’s meant seeing a dramatic increase in the number of female drivers and deliverers that they have. Back to that F word you were talking about because of the flexibility that the gig economy brings, and that being an Uber driver or an Uber deliverer can have, so many women were seeing that as their way to continue to support their family, even when things were closed and they had to take on more responsibilities as caretakers. Uber recognizes though that being an Uber driver or deliverer isn’t necessarily the best long-term career trajectory for some of these women, even though they enjoyed the flexibility that they had in the short term and through the pandemic, it might not be something that aligns with their long term goals.
So specifically because of that, Uber came to us about a partnership to ensure that with Dress for Success, the women that are currently working in their app and may have aspirations to transition to a new career, could know about Dress for Success and take advantage of all of the resources that we have to support women through a career change. Even if there is a woman who finds that Uber is something that is absolutely meeting her career goals and her family’s needs, we also are eager to work with her so that we can continue to have Dress for Success be that professional network of support, to make sure that she has everything that she needs. And with global footprints that Dress for Success has, we’re really excited and eager and positive that we can be there. We are in the communities where most Uber female drivers are and whether they’re starting a new job search or preparing for a job interview, they’ll be able to access that local and professional network of support that they need.
And in addition to that, one of the great things that allows us, as Dress for Success, to serve our women, is that the corporate partners that we work with are very eager to bring their own expertise and resources to the table. And that’s exactly what is happening with Uber in November. We’re very excited to have them helping sponsor and bring to life an entire month of programs and services. We’re going to be focusing specifically on strategies and best practices for those that are working in the gig economy, working in those flexible roles. And we’re going to have conversations and resources to talk through what it looks like if you want to transition into a different chapter of your career, or how to best manage it if that’s where you want to stay. So we’re really excited for Uber. That’s helping us bring to light the work that we do on the local level and really thinking proactively about the women that they work with, and making sure that they have the career support that they need.
Well, that sounds fantastic, Jeanette. I mean, I think what you guys are trying to accomplish here is really what we love about the private sector. Really thinking creatively, coming together with some innovative solutions and helping people. And at Independent Women’s Forum, we look at the policy side of it and where government regulations can either help or hamper the individual’s growth. But it’s also just as exciting when we can highlight where private sector solutions are coming together to deal with problems and saying, “We have a unique community that needs help. We’ve got women who want to transition, are looking to move into a different career, or maybe trying to make the most of the career that they’re in and the jobs that they’re in.” And so I love to see how you guys are working together to advance that goal. Well Jeanette, last final question. What would you like to leave with our She Thinks listeners? What message would you like to leave with them?
Well, we are all about making sure that we’re democratizing networking for the women that we serve at Dress for Success. And we do that with our staff, we do that with our partners like Uber, but we also do it with our volunteers. Patrice, you shared your experience at Dress for Success years ago where you were helping on the clothing side. But we’ve evolved so much more since then and helping the women that we serve is really about opening up your network, being responsive to the fact that sometimes it’s having that leg up and having that connection that makes all the difference to place women in jobs.
So for listeners, I would just encourage you to think about your connections through that lens. Think about that random woman that might connect to you on LinkedIn that you might not know, but then revisit it and think, “Well, maybe opening up my network to her could make the difference in getting her that job that she wants.” Or getting her that next career stuff that she wants. So it’s hopefully a small step that all the listeners can take. At Dress for Success, we describe our work as helping women navigate the challenges of the world as is, especially those gender-based challenges. While the work that you do is all about helping those decision-makers realize how the world needs to change. So hopefully, as individuals, everyone can step up and really just look out for the women in their network and make sure that they are getting the support that they need.
That is fantastic. I think that’s a really great message to end on. Jeanette, thank you so much for your time, and thank you for sharing what you’re doing at Dress for Success, and just your insight and wisdom into what we’re seeing in the workforce.
Thank you so much for having me.
All right. Terrific. Well, thank you everyone for listening and tuning into today’s She Thinks pop-up episode. To learn more about Dress for Success, feel free to go to their website — I believe it’s dressforsuccess.org — and also check out our website at iwf.org to learn more about just the economy and the labor market and women in the workforce. Please like and share She Thinks if you like this episode of the podcast, and don’t be a stranger. Listen in to the next episode, hosted by Beverly Hallberg. Thank you so much, everyone.