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Photo illustration/Staff File Photo by Dan Henry/thinkstock photo

Although women account for more than half of the population of Tennessee, you won't see this reflected in our local political chambers or boardrooms. Out of the nine Chattanooga City Council members, only one is a woman and there was not a single woman on the Hamilton County Commission for almost a decade (2005 to 2014).

The heads of the top 18 major employers in Chattanooga are all men, mirroring what we see across the globe. When analyzing Fortune 500 companies, only 14.3 percent of the top CEO spots are held by women and women hold just 16.9 percent of board appointments to the most influential businesses in the private sector.

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JoAnne Favors and Dr. Carol Berz

And in our top executive political positions, not one woman has served as the mayor of Chattanooga or Hamilton County. Tennessee has never elected a woman to the top spot of governor, nor have we elected a woman to represent Tennessee in the United States Senate. Not one.

While women make up more than 51.3 percent of the population of our state (and 52.4 percent of our city), we are woefully underrepresented and our leadership, underestimated.

In 1998, the Tennessee Economic Council on Women was formed by the General Assembly to address the economic needs of Tennessee women. At that time, we proudly served together to develop and advocate for solutions that would address the economic needs of Tennessee women. We studied employment policies, educational needs and opportunities, child care, property rights, health care, domestic violence, and the effect of federal and state laws on women.

Unfortunately, just this past March, the Tennessee Economic Council on Women was under attack from members of the General Assembly. Presumably, female voices were already being heard loud and clear, represented in each policy decision made by our elected officials.

Hardly.

While women's issues are loudly and ferociously used for political fodder, the actual work has been quietly swept under the rug. If you are a woman, who is representing your voice, your needs, your vision for the future? If you are a man, who is representing the voice, needs, and vision of your mother, wife, sister, daughter?

There are important questions that must be answered and issues that must be analyzed for our communities to realize the economic and social worth of all women. When Mayor Andy Berke asked us to co-chair a new group to advocate for the social and economic advancement of women, we gladly accepted. It makes all of our lives better — including men — when women can grow wealth in our city, exchange bold community ideas and contribute to strong families.

Mayor Berke put it this way when announcing his Council for Women during the Chattanooga 2015 State of the City Address: "To have a thriving City, we must capitalize on all of our assets, and unleash the potential of everyone in our community. It is critical that we stand together as a community — united to empower and embolden women of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities."

With a grassroots coalition of more than 75 women, we have quickly gone to work. Over a series of collaborative meetings, we've focused our work on six critical areas: education, health care, childcare, justice, leadership, and economic opportunity

A quick glance at the Mayor's Council for Women roster reveals a diverse range of backgrounds and expertise, because we know a one-dimensional approach won't do. Instead, we are melding the voices of many — and giving each equal weight in the equation.

We've held several meetings so far, each one building upon the last. We've heard experiences from women across Chattanooga. One participant told us about starting her first business using a $4,000 loan on her car as collateral. Years later, after being a successful business owner and applying for an loan substantially more than four grand, she told us about the insecurity she felt "walking into a bank and asking someone to invest in my business."

Another female entrepreneur relayed she took her husband with her to the bank when applying for a loan, because she "wanted to be taken seriously."

The fact that women starting their own businesses and acting as economic drivers in our community aren't being treated seriously is a disgrace. And so are the words used to describe women when they expect to be taken seriously: aggressive, nagging, shrill, cold, emotional.

The question "Who hasn't been called pushy around this table?" was asked at a recent Mayor's Council for Women meeting. Every woman around the table laughed, a reaction that belies the sting each of us has felt.

We can change it together. A frank, open discussion about the barriers women face and the steps all of us can take to overcome them benefits our entire city. Then we can truly say the private sector, government, and nonprofits are unified in their desire to fulfill the potential of every female in our area.

It's about time.

State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-29, and Chattanooga City Council Chairwoman Carol Berz are co-chairwomen of the Mayor's Council for Women.

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