Minnesota Working Women Fight for Equality

Photo by Stuart Jenner and Digitalgenetics; Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

It’s almost impossible today to imagine that, just a couple of generations ago, a woman who worked full-time was more the exception than the norm. While few would argue that the battle for full gender equality has been won (look to our culture and politics for ample evidence), women today live against a backdrop of autonomy underpinned by the opportunity to participate and succeed in the workplace.

In Minnesota, a woman is most likely working—66.4 percent claim jobs, in a state with the second highest female workforce participation in the nation. Minnesota also ranks first in the country in percentage of female executives (17.4 percent), and also leads the United States with nearly 22 percent of board seats held by women directors in its Fortune 500 companies. 

So we’re doing something right—but what, exactly? Education is part of the answer (women in Minnesota have higher educational attainment than their peers in most other states), as well as a generally good economic climate and a currently tight labor market that increases the need for workers. There’s also something less tangible but no less crucial: a statewide culture reflected in female-friendly workplaces that values diversity and more voices at the table. These businesses have realized that more participation means more perspectives, more utilized strengths, and more opportunity to grow in talent and productivity.

With this in mind, we’ve interviewed three successful women in typically male-dominated fields (the restaurant kitchen, corporate leadership, and law enforcement) to share their experiences and perspectives. And our glasses are by no means exclusively rose-tinted—we also talked to three (anonymous) women about the gender-based challenges they face in their careers and their workplace. 

What follows is a snapshot, an encouraging picture that still has plenty of room for improvement. Still, it’s one that we would have loved to share with women a couple of generations ago whose lives were lived with fewer options. It’s their memory, in part, that drives us every day. 

Join us for Conversations on Tap at LynLake Brewery on October 13 for a panel discussion on women’s equality in the workplace. Tickets and information is available at mnmo.com/conversations

Success Stories

Three women leaders on how they’ve thrived in male-dominated roles

Lisa Carlson

Executive Chef and Restaurateur, Chef ShackLisa Carlson

Lisa Carlson cooked at several high-end New York City restaurants before returning to her native Twin Cities and becoming the first executive chef of Barbette. She and her business-and-life partner, pastry chef Carrie Summer, pioneered the local food-truck scene and today own two restaurants and three mobile kitchens under the Chef Shack moniker.

“I actually felt like I was at an advantage being a gay woman because I didn’t care what anyone thought. I didn’t concern myself whether or not people ‘liked’ me. …Just the fact that I passed other men up in the kitchen would have been hard for anyone, but being pretty much the only woman in the kitchen I think had its own challenges. Not caring was helpful. You have a goal in mind. We have that in common: If Carrie wants something she gets it. You have to have a lot of determination when things are challenging, but when you need help, you have to ask for it.”

“I do believe that Carrie and I being the chefs made things relatively easy for people to think, Well it’s women doing it, how hard can it be? If they could do it, I could do it better. Many chefs came to the truck to ‘size it up.’ People see the line at Mill City and see the success, but there’s a two-day build up, you have to clean the truck on your hands and knees. It’s nowhere near glamorous or easy.”

“We are all self financed, which makes our decisions, nine times out of ten based on whether we can afford to grow larger…I have spoken to other female chefs and read articles related to [women entrepreneurs] having difficulty getting money to grow. Without mentioning names, I think you’d be surprised by those having challenges getting a loan. When we first started at the farmers market we didn’t have money to buy a donut machine, which was $2,600. To me, it was a big deal, a lot of money. I turned to Carrie and said, This better work! I bought it and she still hasn’t paid me back. [Laughing]”

Photo by TJ Turner


Janeé Harteau

Chief, Minneapolis Police Department

Duluth native Janeé Harteau dreamed of being a singer before deciding to pursue a career in law enforcement. After moving to the Twin Cities and taking a job with the Minneapolis Police Department, she and her then–patrol partner Holly Keegel experienced sexual harassment and discrimination that interfered with their work and led to a complaint with the state Human Rights Department. Today, with 28 years under her duty belt, Harteau heads the MPD as one of only a handful of female police chiefs of a major metropolis.

“I’m driven by my values of character and integrity for starters, but probably one of the most important attributes that any leader can have is empathy…I think humility goes a long way, as does being authentic. So many people say, You seem genuine—well, what you see is what you get. I do have a ‘work face’ but I’m still very real.” 

“When I started, women were not police officers, there was that struggle for power. … It was unusual to see a female officer—and [Holly Keegel and I] worked together, which really threw people off. Back then, law enforcement was about law enforcement, about how strong and tall you were. We didn’t talk about building community relationships as much as making arrests.” 

“I absolutely didn’t want to be different. I didn’t participate in any [women’s professional groups]. I wanted to blend in and be a chameleon. I did a lot on my own that I didn’t have to do.”

“When is the last time you saw a female officer make national news for excessive force or wrongdoing? The ability to communicate and have empathy and build teams and partnerships and relationships are exactly what’s needed in policing…There is a certain amount of automatic institutional credibility given to certain men in this profession. I could say the same thing and people aren’t paying as much attention
when I say it.” 

“If you focus on being promoted, then you fail at the position you have; but you also shouldn’t wait for the title to act like you should have it. I didn’t wait to be the chief to act like the chief.” 

“It’s a rare occurrence that an officer in a police department would go through what I did and later become the chief. It speaks volumes about our department and the city.”

Photo by Alex Steinberg

Penny-WheelerPenny Wheeler

CEO, Allina Health

Penny Wheeler’s connections to Minnesota medicine run deep: She was born at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, now the largest hospital in the Allina Health system. In January of this year, Wheeler became that company’s first female CEO after serving as chief clinical officer since 2006.

“I practiced for 20 years as an ob-gyn, and I’ve been in a leadership role for nine years. My greatest lessons were from the patients that I served. They hone your empathy, and in my field you develop very long-term relationships with them. A year and a half ago I saw eight patients in a single afternoon, and when I counted it up I realized that I had seen them for a total of 124 years.”

“We Minnesotans never say we have a talent for anything, but I sure have a passion for [being CEO]. I was also the first female doctor leader with this organization as well. There’s a paucity of female CEOs in general, but a greater lack of female physician CEOs in health care.”

“This has been more in my consciousness because of all the comments—you’re getting missives and emails and texts from people saying, Congratulations, it’s so important to have a woman in this role. You just stop for a second and say, Whoa. I have a privilege and a responsibility here.”

“I tell women sometimes we have to balance the need to drive in these positions with the need to be liked and be nice. How do you balance this with the need for gravitas? The way to work through that dichotomy is through passion. If I think something we’re doing is putting patients in harm’s way, I can be pretty driven about it. One time there was an outbreak of a hospital-acquired infection and we needed to look at all of our hospitals to reduce it—I was told we could get everybody together in two months. I had to say, Why can’t we do it next week?”

“Our job is to relieve human suffering—and you can work through the reluctance to seem driven as a female if you do it for mission or passion. I can go through my Norwegian nature to my inner Italian! In driving to make people’s lives better, you can push yourself in ways that haven’t been socially acceptable in the past. As long as it’s for the greater good.”

Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

Strong Stats

  • Female Business Leaders*: In 2012, Minnesota companies ranked 1st in the percentage of women executive officers (17.4%) and in the percentage of its Fortune 500 company board seats held by women directors (21.9%).
  • State Employment and Earnings Composite Index for Women**: Minnesota’s Rank is 10.
  • Female Labor Force Participation: 66.4% (Rank 2)
  • Median Annual Income for Women: $40,000 (Rank 13)
  • Earnings Ratio Between Women/Men: 80% (Rank 19)
  • Percent of All Employed Women in Professional or Managerial Occupations: 41.5% (Rank 14)
    *Source: Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership
    Source: 2013 data from The Institute of Women’s Policy research; income represents those with full-time, year-round employment


Gender-Based Issues

Even women faring well in their careers aren’t immune to unequal treatment; three Minnesota women share their stories of workplace challenges.

The Glass Ceiling

While women have made substantial gains in middle management and executive positions, the starkest gender gap is found in the highest ranks, the most exclusive club at the top, where the leadership pipeline slows to a trickle. 

“I have been working for Minnesota Fortune 500 companies for the last 16 years.

In a previous job, I had the experience of higher-ups giving me feedback about ‘executive presence’ in performance appraisals: the combination of how you present yourself in meetings in terms of being authoritative and prepared, but also how you dress and conduct yourself overall, which is extremely subjective. 

The women like me who had more of an ‘off’ and informal interpersonal style were told to tone it down. The sentiment was that it’s okay for a guy to be the joker, but it’s not okay for a woman. With women, the perception is that she’s just playing around and she’s not serious, so we wouldn’t give her important business.

This feedback that you should be more formal in your meetings, and you should dress for the job you wanted to have—the guys didn’t get that message. Otherwise the young ones would be walking around in suits instead of polo shirts with the company logo.

My supervisor didn’t tell me to dress differently. That kind of feedback usually came from higher-up women. The glass ceiling keeps being protected by women: It gets thicker when the women above aren’t bringing others along.

You look around and see all those women executives who are dressed sharper than you, and you just assume, ‘I guess that’s how it goes.’ So you adapt. I changed my entire wardrobe. I spent a lot of money. I saw people lose their style. It felt unfair—and not just unfair but also kind of a waste of time. I changed how I dressed, but I also refused to change the humor and this fun side that I have. That was a compromise I wasn’t willing to make.

My current boss, who is a traditional male, says that when I’m funny in meetings, people don’t think that I can get the job done. I tell him that I’m not going to be less funny. He says he doesn’t know women with my style who would be advanced. He says he would advocate for me, but this isn’t how other women who are getting ahead behave. 

The warm women are advanced in human resources or the company’s foundation. A warm female head of finance—I’m looking for one of those in any organization, and I haven’t seen that.

The reality is our organizations in Minnesota are still very traditional. The C-suite is occupied by older males. Many of those guys don’t know how to deal with women who work outside the house because their wives don’t have to. Now their daughters are entering the workplace, and I think that’s having an impact. The businessman who told his daughter that she can be what she wants when she grows up—well those women are coming to work, and so people are starting to think differently.”  –Anonymous

Balancing Work With Caregiving

Though Minnesota has one of the highest rates of mothers in the workforce who have young children, and has been ranked among the best states for working moms, women also tend to spend more time caregiving than men. Whether for their own children or other friends and family members, it competes with time devoted to paid work. 

“Being a mother and being a member of the workforce is a dual career choice. I feel extreme guilt for not being present at my work all of the time. Both careers require 100% of my attention. If I falter, my husband, kids, and coworkers appear to be very disappointed. At work, I am expected to pretend I am not a mother. At home, I am expected to pretend I do not work. The mother and workforce spheres cannot even touch because that would cause somebody to erupt emotionally. 

My husband can rely on me to take the kids, and I can rely on my husband to do the same. However, my husband’s work earns more money and is more demanding. My job is more flexible and earns less money, so my work takes a backseat most of the time. 

My husband may also feel parental pressure’s effect on his career, although he is doing well because he is good at making space for himself to do well. Also, because I am a mother, I am socially expected to be the primary parent to my kids so I am not as present at work. As a result, I do not have a chance to advance in the same way I could if I didn’t have kids. 

I don’t want to see myself as different from other workers, but in actuality, anyone who does not identify as a man is treated differently in the workplace. Of course, I could choose to spend less time with my kids. But why should I have to choose?”  –Anonymous

Sexual Harassment

Sometimes it’s subtle, other times it’s overt; in either case, most victims of sexual harassment at work do not report the behavior due to the risk of repercussions, or a perception that it won’t do any good. 

“As a web developer for a local ad agency, I had to work on a long-term project with a male contractor who would be physically close to me all of the time when we worked together. It was so claustrophobic and weird. If I had to talk to him about a problem he’d be behind me and would get really close. Sometimes he would put his hands on my shoulders. There was never a point where he wasn’t too close unless we were in a crowd. He may have called me pretty at one point—but not in front of other people. 

It took a long time for me to realize that his behavior wasn’t okay. I still did my job just fine. But every time I needed to work with him, I was really stressed out.

I called a friend and asked, ‘Is this weird?’ and my friend confirmed that his behavior was weird.

After that, I went to my boss. I was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to do anything; or that she would listen to his side and believe what he said; or that she would blow it off, especially because his behavior wasn’t overt.

My boss was receptive. She said she would talk to him, and she did. I don’t know what she said. She didn’t let him go; that’s because the agency needed him.

Later, when this person would pass me in the hall, he would literally squeeze his body against the wall and put his hands in the air. He wouldn’t say anything. He clearly got the message, but he was overly dramatic. His overreaction made me feel like I was overreacting to have even said anything.

I feel lucky that my boss listened and did something without me having to jump through flaming hoops of proof. It helped that my boss was female. Other male bosses I’d had before wouldn’t have known how to handle it.”  –Anonymous

Toward Equality

Programs promoting opportunity and fair treatment

Women & Family-Friendly Companies

At General Mills, women have access to extensive networking and mentoring circles. The company offers six weeks of paid maternity leave and up to $10,000 in adoption aid. The Golden Valley headquarters boasts an on-site daycare center and offers discounts for nearby child-care facilities.

Target offers a maternity support program, as well as adoption assistance. Target’s LifeResources program also offers counseling for managing life issues to its team members and their families, and the retailer also provides a flexible spending account for qualifying daycare and eldercare expenses.

Minneapolis digital strategy agency Clockwork Active Media allows employees to bring their children along to work any time—to an office where hours are flexible and vacation and sick days are unlimited. Each month, employees have a Lab Day, where they can come into the office to work on non-work-related projects.

Allianz Life offers a Women’s Leadership Exchange mentoring and professional-development program. It also has an elder caregiver network, college-scholarship program, and additional paid leave days for families facing personal hardships. The Golden Valley headquarters also offers a child-care center, parenting courses, and take-home family dinners prepared by the office cafeteria staff.   

(Photo courtesy of Allianz Life.)

Developing Young Leaders

Since 1997, the Ann Bancroft Foundation, led by the polar explorer herself, has provided mentorship and money to more than 3,000 Minnesota girls to help them pursue their dreams. The organization gives girls in need of financial support Dare to Dream grants to fund artistic, cultural, leadership, educational, and wilderness experiences, and Let Me Play grants for athletic endeavors and their associated equipment costs and participation fees. One girl with an interest in marine biology received a grant to take SCUBA diving lessons to prepare her for underwater research. Another girl, a competitive downhill skier, used the funds that she was given to compete internationally and is now setting her sights on the Olympics. 

(Photo courtesy of the Ann Bancroft Foundation.)


Creating a Culture of Respect

“Just ignore it” was the standard mantra for street harassment until Lindsey, a Minneapolis attorney, launched Cards Against Harassment, sheets of downloadable cards for women to hand out when they receive an unwanted comment (cardsagainstharassment.com). Each design shares the harassment victim’s perspective—“The reputation is ‘Minnesota Nice,’ not ‘Minnesota Random Men Commenting on How I Look and Making Me Feel Weird.’”—for example, followed by the phrase “It’s not a compliment. It’s harassment.” The cards allow women to assert themselves while avoiding a verbal confrontation that could escalate to a potentially dangerous situation. Recipients get a quick wake-up call and a suggestion for a better approach: “Next time, just say ‘hello.’” 


Editor’s Letter: Women’s Success