As we conclude our celebration of Women’s History Month, it is also a time to reflect on the state of women. In 2019, women reached a new level of parity with equal numbers of college-educated women in the workforce as college-educated men. Minnesota remains on the forefront of gender parity, realizing its largest increase of women elected to corporate board director positions in the past decade. Yet progress for all women is slow, women still make less money than men, and the COVID-19 pandemic threatens gains of years past.
But there is hope. St. Catherine University has more than a century of proven results in advancing women in leadership. We are nearing a new tipping point — where progress and challenges are battling to alter the state of women.
A Record of Progress
The past six months were both historic and symbolic for women, and progress at the highest level of the country’s leadership brings hope for women everywhere:
- In September 2020, women around the world celebrated the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who flourished in the face of adversity and advocated through the nation’s highest court for women’s equality. Her passing brought renewed energy to the conversation around gender parity.
- Just three months later, women again celebrated the first woman of color — from Indian and Jamaican descent — elected as vice president. Many see Kamala Harris’ appointment to vice president as a symbol of significant progress, and undoubtedly, progress does exist.
The past six years have also seen progress for women leading:
- Between January 2015 and January 2020, the number of women in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent.
- Women today lead 167 of the top 3,000 companies, which is only six percent but more than double the number a decade ago.
- Here in Minnesota, four public companies of varying size, industry, and location achieved or exceeded gender parity on their boards in 2019.
- Additionally, this year’s Congress has the highest percentage of women representatives ever.
Numbers are slowly improving but significant inequities still exist, particularly for women who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), who still hold significantly fewer board and executive positions than their white female counterparts.
Barriers Facing Women
Though the number of college-educated women in the workforce is equal to the number of college-educated men, women often land in lower paying service occupations with poor benefits instead of higher paying STEM fields and construction trades. Additionally, men overwhelmingly get head of division, unit, or brand management jobs with responsibility for profit and loss that put them on a track to CEO roles. Women with C-suite jobs, by contrast, fill roles such as head of human resources, legal, or administration.
The pandemic also brought to light how caregiving disproportionately impacts women. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift” — a full day at work followed by caregiving and household responsibilities. COVID-19 disrupted the supports that made this possible, including school and childcare. As a result, more than one in four women are contemplating a pause in their careers. This could lead to nearly two million women taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce, creating a ripple effect of less women in leadership and breaking the pipeline of women in leadership roles.
Research shows that companies can realize nearly 50 percent higher profits and share performance when women are well represented at the top and that senior-level women have a significant impact on a company’s culture. Women are also more likely to mentor and sponsor other women. If women leaders leave the workforce, company performance suffers and women lose allies and champions. Investing in women is vital to any organization’s bottom line and should be part of their growth strategy.
We believe now is the time to harness the momentum we have to accelerate women’s progress and help those impacted by the pandemic recover.
At a Crossroads of Change
St. Catherine University was founded to support women and create opportunities for them through education. As one of only 36 women’s colleges in the nation — down from 230 women’s colleges 60 years ago — our view of the specific challenges women face in the world and the workplace informs how we meet the needs of the time.
In part, that’s why St. Kate’s has the highest rate of economic mobility among Minnesota’s 17 private colleges. The mobility rate captures the share of all students at a college who came from a lower-income family and ended up in a higher-income family. While the average U.S. mobility rate is 1.9 percent, St. Kate’s graduates increase their socioeconomic status at a rate of 11.1 percent.
We see that our nation stands at a crossroads of change. As we collectively consider a post-pandemic future, we cannot ignore the opportunity to consider what our new normal could be. A reset of norms would be an important recognition of the progress made by women in the past six years — and a gesture of faith in what they are capable of when supported for the full scope of their work.
Where do we start? The Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, produced by St. Catherine University’s School of Business, tracks 13 years of research and history into how Minnesota corporations advance women leaders and outlines specific areas for focus to do this in ways to help both women and businesses succeed.