Going to Washington to Help Girls Succeed

Kim Leary '82 Growing up female in this country can mean facing obstacles and disadvantages ranging from domestic violence to unplanned pregnancies to limited employment opportunities.

Many of these problems are compounded for girls and women of color. Kim Leary’82 has spent two years working with the Obama administration to find solutions.

In 2014 Leary — who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a master’s in public administration — temporarily left her faculty position at Harvard and her work as chief psychologist at the Cambridge Health Alliance to begin a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship. After “policy boot camp” at the National Academy of Medicine, she started working with the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Founded by executive order, the Council works to ensure that government agencies and lawmakers address “the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, [and] the legislation they support.”

Leary’s focus is on equity for women and girls of color. “We wanted to look, in a data-driven way, at the intersectional challenges that girls and young women of color face,” she says (speaking in a personal capacity and not for the White House). She and colleagues settled on five areas in which “data told us there was a problem” and in which the government and private sector could make a measurable difference:

“Girls of color are suspended and expelled from school at rates that far exceed their white peers,” Leary says. So the Departments of Justice and Education have been encouraging schools to use disciplinary alternatives that keep students in the classroom.

Misbehavior in school, truancy and criminal activity are often signs that physical or sexual violence. “Our goal has been to try to promote more trauma-informed care in our schools, our child welfare institutions and also in juvenile justice,” says Leary.

Women of color are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math. “We’ve been working with our Offi ce of Science and Technology Policy, as well as external collaborators like Arizona State University,” Leary says, to identify and encourage STEM teaching practices that engage female and minority students.

Pregnancy is much more common among teens of color than among white teens. Adolescent mothers “are much less likely to complete their high school educations, and they and their children are more likely to have much reduced economic earning power,” Leary says. The Council and several federal agencies are working to expand preventative care and sex education.

“Significant wage disparities exist for women in the workforce as compared to men, and very significant wage disparities exist for women of color,” says Leary. “Women of color tend to be concentrated in low-wage sectors.”

New sick-leave and parentalleave policies and tax credits will help working families, Leary says. And the Council has secured $100 million from women’s foundations for job training and $18 million from educational institutions to expand research both by and about women of color.

When Leary returns to the classroom this winter, she intends to impress upon her students what the fellowship has taught her about the importance of data in formulating and evaluating public policy:

“It’s not just big ideas and good ideas; it’s also ideas that we can demonstrate have impact.”