Dress for Success CEO Sees Changes With Women in the Workforce
Dress for Success is an international not-for-profit organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.
Since starting operations in 1997, Dress for Success (DFS) has expanded to almost 150 cities in 20 countries and has helped more than 850,000 women work towards self-sufficiency.
Joi Gordon has been part of DFS for 18 of the organization’s 19-year existence – first as a donor, then board member, head of the New York office and eventually rising to CEO.
FedEx has been a longtime supporter of DFS. We recently caught up with Gordon to talk about what she’s seen over the years regarding women and the workforce.
FedEx: What commonalities have you seen among DFS clients over the years?
Gordon: I would say in the first decade of DFS, the women were more common than not. 2008 interrupted our model greatly. DFS became an organization for all women, not just one segment of the population, not women who self-identify as disadvantaged or maybe have been on generational welfare. That’s really how the organization started – it was a welfare-to-work program for the most part. Today it’s very much an organization that any woman – unemployed – can come to. And so the common thread among the women that walk through our door is that they’ve come to a place in their life in which they are willing to ask for help.
FedEx: From your vantage point, is it fair to say that the economic problems of 2008 had a particularly critical impact on women?
Gordon: Absolutely! A large majority our clientele are single moms, so the direct impact to her is not only financial, but it has the ability to dramatically change her life overnight. She is not only the caretaker for herself, but often it’s for her immediate family and sometimes her entire family. She sometimes is the first person in the family to have graduated from high school or college, gotten a job, and then lost a job. She loses her way and then everybody that relies upon her – the circle just spirals completely out of control. The impact is great, and we saw it in 2008. We saw it largely affect single moms who walk through our door. They were on the verge of losing it all. And through that they’ve lost their self-esteem, they lost their self-confidence and the spiral was happening very quickly.
FedEx: Having to ask for help is often a huge mindset change for a lot of women.
Gordon: Absolutely. I mean women have walked through our doors over the last 4 or 5 years who’ve said to us: ‘I remember when I was at ABC Company, and I was always the one who organized the suit drives for DFS.’ Or ‘I was a senior manager at XYZ Bank, and I’ve been unemployed for 18 months, and I’m on the verge of losing my home, on the verge of homelessness, foreclosure… and I finally realized what I need is the organization that I used to give to.’ It took a lot of courage to get to that place, to be able to make that kind of call in your life.
FedEx: What have you seen in terms of the jobs that are available for women?
Gordon: What happens in many cases, women who have gone through some sort of struggle, or obstacles – you find a lot of women wanting to get into the non-profit sector oddly enough. They want to be in the helping profession. In many cases, it’s the non-profit sector that helped them, and they feel a connection to that kind of work.
The other thing that we find interesting is that our population is tending to skew older. It used to be that it was more common than not that the typical woman who walked into Dress for Success was about 25 to 35 years old – 40 max. We’re seeing a much older woman coming through our doors now, which is saying a couple of things: That ageism is real – it’s a struggle for women of a certain age, of a certain maturity to find their footing in the job market. And I think it’s different for men. Age for men gets interpreted as wisdom and strength. For women it comes across very different. It seems outdated, antiquated, so it’s a struggle for older women to reenter the workplace, especially when they’re interviewing with millennials who don’t get them.
I think we need to be more fair and realize that it’s going to become an issue as the boomer population now comes of age. It’s a real issue, and we’ve got to hit it head on. Women are leaving jobs and not being able to live on social security and small pensions, so they’re going to continue to be in the market. We’ve got to have jobs for them.
FedEx: What are your thoughts about future employment opportunities for women?
Gordon: I think it’s the Human Resources teams across the many sectors, both corporate, non-profit, academia – they just have to be more welcoming to people and both their age and experience, but sometimes even lack of experience and instability in the market, because we’ve had instability in the workforce. I think people just have to be a little bit more forgiving to folks’ interruptions in their lives. Given an opportunity, you will find no more loyal of an employee, if you give somebody the opportunity to walk through the door and soar.
They want to work, and they want to work in a place that they can grow in and so sometimes we just have to remove whatever biases we’re bringing to the table and realize ‘If given the opportunity, could this person add value?’ and I would say they could.
FedEx supports Dress for Success through philanthropic donations, in-kind shipping and hands-on team member engagement. FedEx not only helps Dress for Success collect clothing, shoes and other items, but we also support programs focused on helping women train for and enter the workforce.
The Women’s Network at FedEx supports Dress for Success through local fundraising efforts, clothing drives and by sharing their expertise via the organization’s Professional Women’s Group. In addition, FedEx senior leaders have volunteered time and expertise and have served on local Dress for Success boards of directors.
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