Helping women to the top by starting at the bottom

Most days this blog is about women at the top of their careers − chief executives, other C-suiters and the challenges they faced as they climbed up the corporate ladder. Today, however, I would like to focus on an extraordinary organisation that helps women at the bottom of the ladder.

Dress for Success started in a church basement in New York City in 1996. Its initial aspirations were modest: to help disadvantaged women get jobs by providing them with appropriate clothes to wear to job interviews. It set out to solve the Catch-22 of unemployment: without a job, how can you afford a suit? But without a suit, how can you get a job?

Today, Dress for Success is located in 114 cities across 11 countries. Through corporate and private donations, it gives its clients one suit for a job interview and additional apparel − shoes, scarves and jewellery − when they become employed.

Its mission has expanded over the years. Through an extensive network of career centres, Dress for Success now also provides women with internet-accessible computer labs, job search assistance, mentoring and professional training.

More than 50,000 disadvantaged women walk through its doors every year. “These are women who have lost their way,” says Joi Gordon, chief executive.

“Many of the women we help are overcoming big obstacles. They’re getting out of prison or out of a recovery programme, and many of them have lived in a shelter. They are often single moms. But they still have the wherewithal to ask for help,” she says. “What’s gratifying for me is that I see them evolve into respected members of their communities and achieve a level of success they didn’t think possible.”

The economic downturn has noticeably increased demand for the company’s services.

“The women we work with tend to have lower-paying jobs, and when you’re in a lower-paying job, you have less of a cushion. So when you lose your job, you lose your way. Because of the vulnerability [of these women], they are susceptible to sliding really far down the ladder,” says Gordon.

“During the height of the recession, there were a lot of women in middle management who lost their jobs or were downsized, and they started to volunteer with us. They were extremely helpful. It was during their dark time, but they wanted to give back and help other women.”

Gordon dismisses research that shows women are often loath to support other women because it somehow diminishes their own efforts.

The chief executive herself is a rarity in the non-profit world: while women hold the vast majority of staff jobs in the non-profit sector in the US, they account for only 38 per cent of leadership positions, according to the recent national Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey.

“For me, being a woman at the top is lonely unless I can pull up other women to be here with me. You practise what you preach. It’s a common theme that women aren’t as supportive or encouraging of other women. But that’s not my experience. I believe that most women who are in a position to help pull someone else up, do.”

Gordon admits, however, that sometimes she feels discouraged.

“A few years ago, I went to a leadership conference for women. I was expecting to walk away feeling recharged, motivated and inspired. But instead I felt saddened. I felt that the conference just perpetuated the disparity between haves and have-nots,” she says.

“So I decided that we needed to create our own leadership summit for our women − to give the women we work with an all-expenses-paid day to help them develop their own careers and leadership skills. The difference between advantaged and disadvantaged is opportunity.”

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