How Two Area Programs Are Taking Different Approaches To Address Inequities For Women

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 women in New Orleans earned, on average, 77.3% compared to men, reflecting not only a persistent wage gap that undermines economic security and financial independence for women, but a gap that’s larger than the national average of 83%.

Moreover, Black and Hispanic women earn just half of what white men earn in New Orleans, and only four-fifths of what Black and Hispanic men make. Women also remain underrepresented in leadership positions, with only a fraction holding executive roles in corporations, government and nonprofit organizations.

One Tool in the Box

Mentorship has long been recognized as a powerful strategy for addressing these challenges and empowering women to overcome barriers to success. By pairing experienced mentors with mentees seeking guidance and support, mentorship programs offer invaluable opportunities for learning, growth and networking.

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Amy Landry, program facilitator and advisor for Women’s Leadership Academy (WLA) at Loyola University New Orleans, said these tools have never been more critical for women than during this time of shifting work environments, workloads and opportunities.

“Women leadership programs provide a safe environment to explore building personal agency and self-clarity, aligning goals with intentions, balancing self-promotion with authenticity, building a strategic network and creating greater work-life balance,” Landry said.

In 2018, Loyola created a much-needed space for women to develop, connect and continue to climb as leaders. Landry has been there since the beginning, serving on the advisory committee that formed the WLA. She said her passion for working with women came after experiencing first-hand the lack of support and resources new mothers encounter when returning from maternity leave.

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“I was a human resources professional at the time and I recognized this was a major problem,” she said. “I began working with women and created a coaching program for new mothers, and I also created training to help women advocate for themselves and negotiate salaries, which led me to speak on equal pay at the state Legislature and multiple other city-wide events. From serving on the advisory committee, I was ultimately hired by Loyola and became one of the driving forces behind the creation and the successful execution of the Women’s Leadership Academy, which is now in its sixth cohort.”

Landry said the WLA has empowered and elevated more than 250 women and has numerous success stories of promotions and businesses started attributed to participation in the academy. The success of the Women’s Leadership Academy also laid the groundwork to extend its reach and impact to even more women across the region with the creation of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA).

In collaboration with New Orleans Councilmember Lesli Harris, Loyola launched Young Women’s Leadership Academy in 2023 with the mission to train and develop the next generation of women leaders throughout the community by providing the opportunity to grow and network with thought leaders in the region and develop tools and strategies to achieve their fullest potential personally and professionally.

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Designed for women ages 18-25, the YWLA is a two-day workshop for young women who want to develop, connect and grow as leaders. It aims to build community amongst young women from diverse backgrounds as they engage in leadership training, peer learning and networking. Throughout the academy, participants work collaboratively to understand their personalities and leadership styles, define their career goals and begin to build their professional networks.

“Each young woman will grow in self-confidence, build strategic relationships, gain clarity on personality strengths and opportunities for improvement and will be challenged by stepping outside of the comfort zone in order to grow,” Landry said.

While women have made progress securing leadership positions, Landry said that women, especially women of color, are drastically underrepresented in the C-suite leadership roles, and all women continue to still face microaggressions in the workplace.

Community Connection

Community-based mentorship programs also play a vital role. Project Butterfly New Orleans is an African-centered “rites of passage” program that works with young women and nonbinary people in New Orleans.

“We support them in helping them to rediscover the power of themselves in their identities and prepare them to transform their lives and lead their communities,” said Michele Seymour, executive director of Project Butterfly New Orleans. Seymour explained that while mentoring is a key aspect, a “rites of passage” program also focuses on “culturally rooted” programming.

“It’s really about basing ourselves in the history, culture and positive identity development of understanding the unique experiences of Black people,” Seymour said. “Our program is very much rooted in practices that have a foundation in community, in knowledge, in service and understanding. It doesn’t just focus on adults working with young people, but also supporting them in building relationships between each other as well.”

Project Butterfly mentors were all once volunteers with the program — some going as far back as its inception in 2009. Every week, they meet at a “chrysalis circle” and share knowledge, information, resources and support about challenges relevant to the group of Black and nonbinary people. The group also volunteers in community-based programming that is open to everyone and helps connect the group members to their communities.

Seymour said one key focus of the group is instilling in mentees that their identities are not a liability.

“Young Black girls and nonbinary young people, their identity is a strength, it is the base of who they are,” Seymour said. “And it’s something that should be uplifted and celebrated, especially given that we live in a society with so many systemic inequities that will make young people feel as if who they are is an issue.”

Much of Project Butterfly’s research-based programming is rooted in positive identity development — helping young people to understand the history and culture that precedes them — but also in the power they have to create the legacies and traditions they want to see in the world.

“We do that programming through intensive sessions that are following a really culturally relevant programming model,” Seymour said.

Groups like Project Butterfly’s emphasis on community-based approaches highlight the fact that the benefits of women’s mentorship programs extend far beyond the individual participants. By empowering women to reach their full potential, these programs have a ripple effect that positively impacts future generations. As women succeed and thrive in their chosen fields, they serve as role models and inspiration for others, especially young girls who aspire to follow in their footsteps

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