Before one of my older relatives entered college, in North Dakota in the 1960s, she met with the school’s guidance counselor. When she expressed an interest in pursuing sociology, he nodded slowly and said, “You know, there are a lot of numbers in that….How about elementary education?” The mentality back then, at least in small towns in the Midwest, was that career women hewed to teaching or nursing. Or, of course, the MRS degree. Another relative, then a secretary in Minneapolis, looked around her office and saw marriage as the only path to financial security, her golden ticket out of the typing pool.
At mid-century, about a third of all American women worked outside the home; today that number has nearly doubled. Here in Minnesota, we have the second-highest rate of female labor-force participation in the country. A generally good economy has led to relatively strong salaries and high percentages of women in professional positions, facts that drove us to explore the successes of Minnesota’s working women for this month’s cover story, “The Fight for Equality“.
While there is much progress to tout, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality at work, especially for women in the lower wage strata and women of color, who, even in relatively well-off Minnesota, experience a wage gap with white males roughly twice that of white women. And it’s worth pointing out that our “best” rankings still aren’t anywhere near equal. Minnesota companies may boast the highest percentage of women executive officers in the country, but 17 percent is a long way from 50.
Even women who are doing very well at work still encounter gender-related obstacles to a greater degree than men. The recent resignation of University of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague suggests that a place in the highest ranks can’t protect women from inappropriate groping and lewd text messages. When sexual harassment allegations surfaced, U president Eric Kaler initially blamed Teague’s bad behavior on his having been “overserved”—language Kaler later said he very much regretted, fortunately, because, really? It’s hard to believe Teague lacked any control over his actions unless senior leadership retreats involve waterboarding attendees with vodka.
Despite the obstacles working women face, we’ve come such a long way, relatively speaking. The U.S. labor department expects that, if progress continues at its current rate, the disparity between women’s and men’s earnings will close in 2058. Our hope is that by raising awareness and building on our successes, Minnesota can lead the way in reaching that milestone faster.