Iowa has a dismally low rate of growth in women-owned businesses compared with the rest of the country, according to a new census-based report released today by American Express OPEN.  Even worse are employment and sales figures from Iowa women-owned businesses, both of which are actually lower now than they were 16 years ago.

The state has an estimated 71,000 women-owned businesses, an increase of 23.4 percent from the 57,527 firms operating in 1997. That places Iowa 49th among the states in growth rate, according to the study. By comparison, the number of women-owned businesses nationally increased by 59.1 percent.

Sales by women-owned firms nationally reached an estimated $1.34 trillion in 2013, a 63.1 percent increase from 1997. However, Iowa women-owned businesses' sales declined by 3.9 percent compared with 1997, putting the state 51st among the states and Washington, D.C., in this measure.

Employment by women-owned firms, another factor measured in the study, actually declined in Iowa during each of the past three five-year intervals measured.  Women-owned companies in Iowa currently employ an estimated 55,600 people, a 22.5 percent decrease from the number employed in 1997. Employment by women-owned firms nationally increased by 9.6 percent during this same period.

Iowa's numbers are "puzzling," said Denise Essman, president and CEO of Essman Research, a market research firm in Des Moines. 

"I think it's surprising," Essman said. "The women business owners I know are doing quite well. I wonder if it has something to do with Iowa's low unemployment rate? Perhaps not as many women are going out on their own." 

Women's leadership groups in Iowa have wrestled with this issue. A report in May 2012 by the Nexus Women's Alliance concluded that girls and young women in Iowa are consistently among the top-performing students at area high schools and the state's three public universities, but that success isn't translating into "positions of peak earning power and leadership," the report said.

The states with the fastest growth in the number of women-owned firms over the past 16 years are Georgia (up 112 percent), Texas (93 percent), North Carolina (91 percent), Louisiana (94 percent) and Nevada (84 percent).

The states with the lowest growth in the number of women-owned firms between 1997 and 2013 are Alaska (12 percent), West Virginia (23 percent), Iowa (23 percent), Ohio, (27 percent) and Kansas (27 percent).