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Report finds women’s voices, leadership lacking in Iowa

The proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy


In 1869, Iowa made history when Arabella Mansfield was admitted to the state bar, making her the first female lawyer in the United States.

Mansfield, a strong advocate for gender equality, chaired the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1870, but sadly, she died nine years before women won the right to vote.

She would probably be pleased to hear that the most recent numbers show that 75 percent of Iowa women are registered to vote, compared with 70 percent of men. Likewise, 70 percent of registered female voters actually made it to the polls during the 2008 election, compared with 64 percent of males.

However, she likely wouldn’t be happy to find out that the state, along with Mississippi, has never elected a female as governor or to the United States Congress. Or that since 1838, only two female justices have been appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

So what happened to women’s progress? That’s exactly what the Nexus Executive Women’s Alliance wanted to know.

The group recently released the results of the 2012 Nexus Index, which identifies and measures gender equality indicators in Iowa. Unfortunately, it found that not much has changed in the eight years since the first index was completed.

“Iowa had the first female journalism professor, and had the first female lawyer. We had so many good things. What happened to that?” said Linda Kinman, a member of the group, which began in 1978 to provide professional, business and personal support among its members.

Girls and young women in Iowa consistently perform in the top percentage of 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 showed.

Women’s voices are often lacking in government, education and business, which doesn’t make much sense considering that women make up more than half of the population, said Kinman, one of the report’s researchers who is also the public policy analyst for Des Moines Water Works.

Women are succeeding in school, earning advanced degrees and entering the work force in higher percentages than ever before, but somewhere along the way, they get stuck in the pipeline, Kinman said.

She pointed to the educational field as an example. In 2010, 75 percent of Iowa teachers were female, but that large percentage doesn’t carry over to higher positions in school districts, where only 37 percent of principals and 14 percent of superintendents were women. Those numbers are little changed from eight years ago, when 36 percent of principals and 11 percent of superintendents were women.

“That means they’re either not pursuing these positions or they’re being completely overlooked,” Kinman said.

Kinman cited a 2010 McKinsey Quarterly report that had similar findings. The report found that “despite the sincere efforts of major corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy. Overall, this picture has not improved for years.”

A look at Iowa’s 11 largest companies proves this finding to be true.

In 2010, 16 percent of members on the companies’ boards of directors were women. Principal Financial Group Inc. had the largest share of female board members, with 40 percent. However, several companies, such as Heartland Express Inc., Sauer-Danfoss Inc. and Winnebago Industries Inc., had no female board members in 2010 or 2004, when the group first conducted the study.

Women aren’t faring well in small business either. Female business owners trail their male counterparts in entrepreneurial activity, revenues and patents. And with only 26 percent of the state’s small businesses being owned by women, Iowa lags behind the national average of 34 percent.

Becky Greenwald, a regional advocate for the U.S. Small Business Administration, said informing women about their opportunities and resources is the best way to combat these numbers.

“Are we not getting the word out or are they having trouble accessing capital or putting together a business plan?” said Greenwald, who is also a Nexus member and contributed to the report. “What can we do to further assist women in the business world?”

There was one bright spot in the report: The percentage of female shareholders, partners and members at Central Iowa law firms has increased. Kinman said that after the first report was published in 2004, law firms reached out to Nexus members and said they planned to make a change, which is exactly what the group hopes to achieve.

But the improvements stop there.

Since the group first compiled the Nexus Index in 2004, the percentage of female legislators has hovered between 20 and 23 percent. In 2012, the state ranks 33rd among the 50 states, with 21.3 percent of Iowa legislators being women. Currently, there are no women on the state’s Supreme Court.

In fact, Kinman said these dire numbers have inspired one Nexus member to run for the state legislature. It’s actions like these that Kinman and Greenwald hope the report will continue to produce. The group wants to work with other women’s groups to find answers, spur debate and hopefully ignite change.

“Women have a lot to contribute,” Kinman said. “If the state wants to grow, economically and innovatively, then it needs to use all the tools it has.”

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