Michigan Women's Commission still going strong after nearly 50 years



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A recent meeting of the Michigan Women's Commission (MWC) at the Van Andel Institute underscored the commission’s unwavering commitment to improving the lives of women in the state.
In 2012, when the group met in Muskegon, the MWC had just embarked on a strategy that included: raising awareness of human trafficking,; determining and working on the issues faced by women veterans; and increasing the participation of women on corporate boards and visibility of women in business. The MWC continues to make progress in those three areas.

The 15 volunteer members, all appointed or reappointed Anne K. (Brooke) Thompson, LCDR USN, Ret., Vice-Chair Chris Etienne; Joanne Dawley, BA, DDS, Meg Derrer of Aquinas College, Bobbie Gaunt, Renee Haley, Krista Haroutunian, Cathleen Knauf, Jayashree Kommareddi, Deidre Lambert-Bounds, Alyssa Martina, Janice Nearon, Kathleen Vogelsang of the Van Andel Institute, Mary Whiteford, and Carol Zimmer. Executive Director Susy Avery has been with the MWC for four years, since Gov. Snyder took office and appointed her; she has years of experience in governmental positions. Elizabeth Thompson is the Director of Program.

Gov. George Romney signed into law the statute creating the commission, which was Public Act 1 of 1968. The act charged the MWC with “stimulating and encouraging” study about the status of women, including surveying; “strengthen[ing] home life;” making recommendations on how to overcome discrimination against women; promoting effective skill development, education and training of women; surveying and creating special advisory committees in a list of fields, which included the language “not limited to;” and recognizing women’s accomplishments and contributions to Michigan.

Since that time almost 50 years ago, the status of women has changed and some challenges women face have become more subtle and complex.

The most recent iteration of the commission, after Avery came on board, eliminates a previous focus on lobbying, but the commission is still engaged in “directing attention to critical problems confronting women,” as the website puts it, and continues to recommend and study ways to overcome discrimination.

The first speaker at Monday’s meeting, after a welcome by Van Andel Institute’s Chief Operations Officer Jana Hall, was Cindy Miranti, Ph.D., An association Professor in the Center for Cancer and Cell Biology at the Institute.

The Harvard-educated Miranti is also head of the  Integrin Signaling and Tumorigenesis Laboratory at Van Andel Research Institute, one of three branches of the Institute (along with the main umbrella institute or VAI, and the Van Andel Education Institute).

She talked about the startup of a very deliberate and intentional program to encourage the advancement and retention of women at VARI and at VAI overall called WISER, Women in Science Education and Research. The need for such programs is clear:?while the numbers of men and women are approximately equal through the postdoctoral phase of biomedical science careers,  the numbers drop precipitously at the professorship or equivalent levels. Women make up about 25-30% at the assistant level but less than 20% at the full professor/dean/chair level.

The WISER board, which Miranti chairs, brought in expert Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of MD Anderson Cancer Center to help formulate their programming. The current focus is on networking, metering, and sponsoring; making sure women serve on internal committees; educating and engaging male colleagues; professional development; and ensuring gender equity among speakers and symposium presenters.

Following Miranti, Special Attorney General Colleen Pero discussed the state’s Human Trafficking Commission. She will act as Project Manager for the commission, which has not yet met.

The intention of the new commission is to pull together the numerous entities around the state concerned about human trafficking activities. “One of the first charges is to identify sources for grants and funding, and apply for those when appropriate. This is key because so many people have great ideas about getting things done, but funding is key.” The commission will be housed within the Attorney General’s office.

Another Attorney General project, OK2SAY, was the subject of the next report by Mary Drew. OK2SAY is a program where students who suspect bullying or dangerous activities such as drug and alcohol abuse may report them confidentially, by phone, email,or text.

The committees devoted to the three focus areas reported to the full commission. Those committees had met earlier in the day, and the human trafficking committee said they were particularly excited about the existence of the new commission and Pero’s involvement.

The committee looking at the needs of women veterans had put out a survey, and reported that there is a very broad interest in the results. Responses are
currently being developed into a report by a professional firm, but are expected soon.