by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

When Dress for Success Indianapolis started serving its first clients in 2000, a polished professional women’s suit became closely tied to the nonprofit’s mission of equipping jobless women for the workforce. It became integral to the brand.

During the past two years, in the wake of the pandemic, Dress for Success is now working to shake up that image and address a mix of challenges that prevent women from finding job satisfaction and pay equity. A recent Facebook post stated, “So, there’s a myth that we only have business suits. That’s FALSE. We do have suits, but we also have scrubs, uniform wear and even jeans …”

Dress for Success quickly realized that it needed to change its focus — particularly after actively listening to the women attending their online programs during periods of pandemic shutdowns and social distancing, said Shayla Pinner, director of marketing and development. 

The organization’s clients were confronted with myriad challenges and opportunities, including navigating childcare while working from home, adapting to flexible and hybrid work schedules, and researching ways to further their careers.

Also, Dress for Success increasingly realized that their typical client was no longer typical.

“We’ve always been the place for women who are looking to either enter or re-enter the workforce,” Pinner said. “But over the last two years, we’ve seen more than 50 percent of the women coming in are actually employed. They already have a job but they’re either looking for a better job or a career job. We are trying to continue to meet the needs of women in that space. And a lot of women are just having a hard time with the obligations of life plus work.”

Pandemic paving the way to more opportunities

Although women were struggling to find work-life balance as a result of school and daycare closures following the pandemic, it also proved to be a catalyst for women to assess what they truly want for their careers, Pinner said.

“The pandemic has changed the workplace. There are a ton of opportunities for growth, especially for women who want to do something different,” she said. “Women are starting to re-evaluate things and asking questions like, ‘What do I want to do?’ ‘Where do I want to be?’ and ‘What are my needs?’ As women, we’re starting to advocate for ourselves more. We’re starting to say, ‘OK, this does not work for me.’”

As the workforce evolves, Dress for Success will continue to find ways to meet the needs of women who continue to face inequities, according to Julie Petr, CEO of the organization.

“We strive to give women the tools that they need to thrive in business and in life,” she said. “In five years, it would be our hope that access to professional opportunities is more equitable for all women and that the gender wage gap is reduced.”

Supporting all women in an evolving workforce

Throughout its history, Dress for Success has evolved to address the complex challenges women face in obtaining gainful employment, including offering programs focused on interviewing skills, identifying their clients’ strengths through a Strengths Finder certification course, career assessments, and goal setting.

Over the years, the approach has become increasingly comprehensive, Pinner said. “We recently hired a success coach who is a licensed social worker to work with women in overcoming barriers to employment, such as transportation, housing, food, stable childcare and other barriers to stable employment. We’ve really evolved in trying to meet women through holistic wrap-around services so that we are the one-stop shop for women who are looking to either enter the workforce or level up in the workforce.”

Dress for Success, which will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its signature fundraiser, Stepping Out in Style, on Sept. 16 at JW Marriott, also has had to consistently dismantle misconceptions about its mission, according to Pinner. 

With an increasing number of women seeking career advice from the organization, it appears that the team is making inroads with that goal. 

“One of the major misconceptions is that we only serve a particular group of women — low income, disadvantaged or lack of education,” Pinner said. “That’s not true. A lot of our women are high school graduates and college graduates. We also have some with master’s degrees. They want help to succeed and move up in the workplace and they don’t know how to do it.”

Dress for Success also has expanded its programming to include topics that help women negotiate for higher salaries, more PTO, and flexible and hybrid schedules, Pinner said.

“Those are things that we didn’t talk about much before the pandemic but now we’re starting to see an increased need,” she said. “The pandemic has given employees more power and more confidence to ask for what they want in a workplace and from an employee. Women have often accepted things as they are. We don’t typically push or ask for things.”

Envisioning an equitable future for women in the workforce

Dress for Success will continue to explore ways to support women as the job market evolves, Pinner said.

“Over the next five years, I think the workplace is going to change rapidly,” she said. “I would love to see women be paid equally as their counterparts, but also play big. I hope women continue to advocate for themselves, to get to where they want to be, explore all opportunities, and have a network of support as they go after those opportunities.”

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