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Somerville program tackles pay disparities, backs projects creating jobs for women

Mayor Katjana Ballantyne has lunch with constituents at a woman-owned East Somerville restaurant.Somerville OSPCD Office

Taking local aim at a societal problem, Somerville has launched an effort to narrow the gender wage gap in the city.

Under the plan announced by Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, Somerville is providing one-time grants to support initiatives by local nonprofits addressing pay disparities between men and women. The city in particular wants to support projects that create and maintain employment opportunities for low- and moderate-income women, especially women of color.

Ballantyne in December committed $2 million for the program, using part of Somerville’s allocation from the 2021 federal American Rescue Plan Act. Organizations have until Jan. 31 to apply.

“It’s 2023, and women still earn $17 less for every $100 earned by men,” Ballantyne said, highlighting the grant program in her Jan. 3 annual State of the City address. “The gap grows even bigger for mothers and women of color. The gender wage gap threatens not only the economic security of Somerville women, but also their families and children. We must do better to break this cycle, and Somerville will do better with this vital step forward.”

“We are looking for innovative, forward-thinking projects that create not just jobs, but careers, for low and moderate-income Somerville women,” Ballantyne said earlier, in announcing the initiative. “I know our area nonprofits will answer this call with gusto.”

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Women in 2021 nationwide earned 83 cents for each dollar made by men, according to federal data. Massachusetts adopted an equity pay law in 2016, but since then the state’s gender gap has risen by two cents, with women now making 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, the Globe reported in July.

City officials are not aware of another municipality with a local program to tackle the gender gap.

Rachel Nadkarni, Somerville’s acting director of economic development, said recognizing that COVID-19 exacerbated the gender pay gap, city officials saw an opportunity to use ARPA funds — which are intended to address pandemic impacts — “to advance our values and try something new.”

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The grants are for new or existing projects by organizations that serve Somerville residents, according to Jennifer Mancia, the city’s senior planner of economic and workforce development.

Officials are looking for initiatives offering women such services as training in high-demand industries; career navigation; legal assistance in expunging criminal records; digital and financial literacy training; and paid internships for first-generation students. But other ideas are welcome.

“Nonprofit providers see the wage gap problem play out in real time,” Mancia said, “so we are relying on their expertise to guide us in finding the most effective program models.”

To ensure services are accessible to all women, the city is asking agencies to include in their projects stipends and other assistance to eliminate such barriers as lack of transportation, child care, or Internet service.

“I love the idea of Somerville providing direct support to women, who traditionally have been displaced in the economic environment.,” said Gonzalo Puigbo chief executive officer of the Somerville Community Corporation, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing and provides other services to local families.

Puigbo, the corporation’s chief executive officer, said his agency sees gender pay disparities firsthand, noting that the financial information women provide when they are seeking services often shows they are earning below what a man would receive.

“We do see the wage gap,” he said. “I don’t know the reasons why, but I do know it exists.”

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Puigbo said his group will seek a grant to provide women digital literacy training and technical assistance in starting a small business, incorporating those services into an existing agency program that teaches job-seeking skills. It would also host seminars to teach women about gender workplace inequities and ways to counter them in their own lives.

“We want to give women the tools they need to protect themselves and their families, and more important, their livelihoods,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.