Sonoma County commission talks top issues facing women in Petaluma

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To take the Voices of Sonoma County Women survey, visit surveymonkey.com/r/GSRP5V2. The Spanish language version is available here.

There were so many issues marked down by the end of last week’s Voices of Sonoma County Women listening session that two pages of an easel pad had been filled from top to bottom.

The Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, held its second “road show” of the year at the Petaluma Woman’s Club on March 14, asking local women what issues they’re most concerned about as they visit cities throughout the county.

The CSW will be presenting survey results and the high points from its listening sessions in each district to the County Board of Supervisors later this year, with the hope of spurring new policies that could benefit local women.

“We are holding these listening sessions in order to be the voice, the representative of the citizens to our Board of Supervisors, to our statewide boards as well as our national boards,” said Commissioner Jenny Whyte.

Last week’s session was the first city stop since the CSW began the Voices project. Earlier this month, the commission started at Sonoma County Jail to hear what female inmates are struggling with, and what might be possible in terms of public safety policies.

Despite a sparse crowd in Petaluma, the attendees and commissioners outlined an abundance of issues. Most of them were connected to the ongoing changes in the family structure, how affordability and success have changed the way women approach their careers and families, mental health, and traditional gender roles in the Hispanic community.

With the high cost of living and a housing shortage displacing young people in the workforce, the family unit has been affected, said Commissioner Karen Langdon, one of Petaluma’s representatives.

According to a 2016 study by the California Budget & Policy Center, 71 percent of Sonoma County women are part of the labor force, and 40 percent are employed in managerial or professional positions.

That has had a disproportionate impact on aging parents, who struggle to be seen when they retire, Langdon said, and whose children are increasingly unable to care for them due to financial and geographical limitations.

Petaluma resident Stephanie Wilkinson believes many of the issues that affect seniors can be aided by creating policies that benefit young people, so they, too, can age in place and give greater support to their parents.

“All these issues affect them,” said Wilkinson, a retiree advocating on behalf of her two daughters. “I’m not here for myself, and that’s why I’m fighting the administration and doing what I can to make these things different.”

Sonoma County is the fifth-best county in the state in terms of overall well-being for women. Where it lacks, however, is in different health-related areas. More than 1 out of 4 women are receiving inadequate prenatal care, ranked 37th out of 58 counties statewide, according to the California Budget & Policy study.

Nearly 1 out of 10 women in Sonoma County over the age of 18 have experienced serious psychological distress in the past year. In terms of suicide rates and reported incidents of sexual assault, Sonoma County ranks among the bottom half of the state.

During an emotional revelation, CSW Chair Trisha Almond spoke to the reality of how little suicide and mental health gets discussed. Before a last-minute bailout in 2018, county officials explored slashing mental health services to help avert a $19 million budget shortfall.

To take the Voices of Sonoma County Women survey, visit surveymonkey.com/r/GSRP5V2. The Spanish language version is available here.

“Suicide is a topic we avoid talking about,” Almond said as she fought back tears. “This one hits close to home for me – I have a daughter that’s been there, done that. There’s such a stigma that comes with it, and when you think about all these things we’re talking about, that’s a lot of pressure. That puts us in that depressive mode, and we start resorting to suicide. We need to get that issue out in the open.”

In the Hispanic community, traditional values are so entrenched that mental health is stigmatized to the point many residents don’t acknowledge it, said CSW Vice Chair Lorena Barrera.

Commissioner Ariana Diaz de Leon added that many of the cultural norms that put pressures on Latina women to be homemakers, first and foremost, and create less incentives for young women to pursue higher education or successful careers.

“There’s a different expectation growing up,” Diaz de Leon said. “Making sure that all families across different cultures understand the value of women and the ability for girls to succeed just as much as men is something I don’t think always gets across.”

Several women also shared personal experiences related to the #MeToo movement, revealing moments in their career or personal lives where power was exerted to compel sexual favors.

Despite all the coverage in the news, and the cultural shift that’s taking place, women still don’t feel comfortable coming forward and sharing their stories.

“It’s really hard for someone to get the courage to speak up about it,” said Diaz de Leon. “A lot of times they assess their life, look at what they could possibly lose, and decide it’s probably better to walk away ... and they don’t have something to gain by speaking out, unfortunately.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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