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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 21, 2018

Women in leadership and women-owned businesses worse in Iowa than many other states

By Erin Jordan, Matthew Patane and Michaela Ramm, The Gazette | Sep 18, 2017

Working at Best Buy, a world of jumbo flat screens, GPS devices, game systems and computers, Meegan Hofmeister was the only woman on the sales floor.

“A lot of the male customers doubted I could understand electronics,” said Hofmeister, 32, of Cedar Rapids. “One day, I was literally asked to find another sales person.”

Instead of complaining about sexism, Hofmeister laughed it off.

“I knew I was good at sales,” she recalled. “It made me more determined to prove them wrong.”

Iowa women have been proving themselves in the workplace for decades. But they still face challenges including one of the nation’s largest gender pay gaps, few women leading Corridor companies and near worst-in-the-nation status for women-owned businesses.

So why is Iowa so bad for working women?


Gender Pay Gap

Only 15 states have a larger pay gap than Iowa — where median earnings of full-time, year-round female workers in 2015 were 77 percent of male earnings, according to an American Association of University Women review of U.S. Census data. Iowa is not only below the national average, but behind Midwestern states that include Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Even when men and women are performing similar jobs in upper management, Iowa women make less money.

Among nine Iowa companies that responded to an October 2016 survey by Iowa Women Lead Change (IWLC), women who were executive/senior level mangers made an average $113,444 a year compared to $135,571 for men.

Data collected from individuals at least 25 years old with earnings in the past year and does not account for discrepancies that may arise as a result of working part-time or full-time, among other factors. Source: U.S. Census Bureau

“That does not surprise me,” said Tiffany O’Donnell, 48, chief executive officer for IWLC, the Cedar Rapids-based not-for-profit that promotes women’s leadership. “Women are not always negotiating for the best salaries.”

O’Donnell, who spent 25 years as a reporter and anchor at Iowa television stations, including CBS2/Fox 28 in Cedar Rapids, remembers the shock she felt when a male colleague departing the profession told her how much money he was making.

“Despite being at the station longer, and possibly having better name recognition, I was compensated significantly less,” she recalled.

Iowa is among 35 states without a pay-transparency law prohibiting private employers from requiring employees to keep quiet about their salaries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This means private employers can fire or discipline employees for disclosing their salaries, which equal-pay advocates say perpetuates the gender pay gap.

Men and women starting their careers today often do so at comparable salaries, said Mary Noonan, a University of Iowa associate sociology professor who studies gender pay disparities. But for women who start families, the pay gap can become a chasm.

“The wage gap now is predominantly a motherhood penalty,” Noonan said.

A maternity leave of six to 10 weeks likely won’t hurt a woman’s long-term earning potential, Noonan said. But “when it turns into six months, unpaid, she will have a hard time finding another job.”

“It could be her employer looks at her as someone who might be slowing down at the job,” Noonan added.

Iowa’s agricultural heritage may be one reason for Iowa’s larger-than-average gender pay gap.

Only 14 percent of America’s 2.1 million farms in 2012 were run by women, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Census. An even smaller share — 12.5 percent — of Iowa farms had female principal operators.

Male farm ownership spurs Iowa’s relatively high share of women in the workforce, said Colin Gordon a UI history professor and research consultant with the Iowa Policy Project.

“The predominance of agriculture tends to drive up women in the labor force because women are looking for jobs that provide health insurance,” Gordon said.

Those flexible jobs with good benefits sought by farm wives may be as teachers, public workers or nurses — often lower-paying professions.

Gordon said Iowa’s gender pay gap is worse than some of our Midwestern neighbors because Iowa has a larger share of rural communities with low median salaries for female-dominated professions. New limits to collective bargaining passed by the Iowa Legislature may further reduce teachers’ and nurses’ opportunities to raise wages, he added.

In a state where 97 percent of companies are classified as small businesses — anything fewer than 500 employees — 33 percent of Iowa’s were female-owned while 13 percent were equally male and female owned, the SBDC report shows.



Even though data shows Iowa has a ways to go for women in business, female leaders said change is happening.

Daly pointed to girl- and women-centric organizations focused on leadership development. And IEDA’s Durham said her department recently revamped Iowa’s Targeted Small Business program, which supports businesses run by women and minorities. She also cited FIN Capital, an female investor group in Des Moines, as an example of progress.

Initiatives such as the EPIC Corporate Challenge, in which companies commit to boosting women leaders, also will help, even if it just by exposing the problem.

“For there to be substantive change, it must be meaningful and measured,” said Diane Ramsey, founder of IWLC and co-chair of the challenge.

Iowa companies and the state can do more to aid women who may take time off work to raise a family, women said. Flexible benefits — such as paid family leave — would help working mothers as well as fathers.

Joining states that include California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana and Michigan with pay-transparency laws would give Iowans the freedom to compare salaries without fear of being fired. Women also need help learning how to negotiate for higher pay.

“When somebody wants you for a position, that’s your best opportunity,” Daly said. “If you miss that opportunity, then overall your wages will be lower.”

Ramsey encourages women to speak up for what they want.

“There are great opportunities and we should go after them,” she said.

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