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Minnesota women still struggling to break the corporate glass ceiling

Courtesy of MnDOT
Among Minnesota's top 100 publicly held companies, only 17.4 percent of the senior executives are women.

While Hillary Clinton is well-positioned to shatter the presidential glass ceiling in 2016, Minnesota women are having a tough time gaining entrance to corporate boardrooms and executive suites.

Among Minnesota’s top 100 publicly held companies, only 17.4 percent of the senior executives are women.

That was one of the key findings in a report released Thursday about the 2012 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership.

Shelly Ibach, CEO of Select Comfort, is pictured on the cover of the annual report that is produced by St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

But Ibach and Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith are rarities. Among the women who hold executive officer rank in the business survey, it’s far more common to find women holding the title of senior vice president of human resources.

While women historically have made inroads in the workplace through HR positions, the new survey showed women making some progress in a less traditional area. Sixteen of the top 100 companies had women in the post of chief financial officer. Hormel Foods, Toro and Valspar are among the well-known companies with women in the CFO job.

Pathway to CEO

rautio portrait
Trudy Rautio

The chief financial officer position provides women with an excellent vantage point to understand all aspects of a business. Consequently, it can serve as a pathway to the top job in a major corporation.

At privately-held Carlson, Trudy Rautio was CFO of the international travel and hospitality company when the board selected her last August to succeed Hubert Joly as chief executive. Marilyn Carlson Nelson was board chair when Rautio was chosen and Carlson Nelson herself had served for several years as CEO of the global company that was founded
by her father.

However, the Minnesota women’s census, co-sponsored by the Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable, also showed that women are a long way from gender equity in corporate boardrooms.

Women hold just 14.5 percent of the corporate board seats that govern Minnesota’s 100 largest public companies.

Mary Brainerd, the high-profile CEO of HealthPartners, is one of two women serving on the SurModics board. Four women serve on the Hormel Foods board, including Susan Marvin, president of Marvin Windows and Doors.

The report said that 14.5 percent is the “highest percentage of seats held by women since the study began in 2008, but an increase of only 0.3 percentage points over 2011.”

Glacial progress on boards

At that rate, one could argue that Minnesota women are making glacial progress in gaining board seats.

Yet, Minnesota is doing better than many other areas of the United States. The Minnesota study was done in conjunction with research conducted in 14 other regions. Once all of the statistics were gathered, they showed that Minnesota was first in the percentage of women executives and fifth in the percentage of women board members.

But St. Catherine’s professors Joann Bangs and Rebecca Hawthorne aren’t cheering those rankings.

“The holding pattern of predominantly white, male leadership in most Minnesota public companies places our state’s economic growth at risk,” Bangs and Hawthorne wrote in the Minnesota corporate census report. “Diversifying the face of corporate leadership in Minnesota is a competitive imperative.”

They called on CEOs, board chairs, nominating chairs and executive recruiters to place a greater value on increasing the number of qualified women in executive and board positions.

They also implored shareholders to push for more women in corporate leadership positions. In their pitch to shareholders, they wrote: “Encourage CEOs and board members to develop a goal for board and executive suite diversity, including moving toward the optimum number of three or more women on the board and in executive leadership

‘Lean in’ women’s movement

The annual survey on women in corporate leadership was released shortly after Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg ignited a national debate over her new book “Lean In.”

Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, notes that women are earning about 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of master’s degrees in the United States. Yet she said that women are in a distinct minority when it comes to filling top leadership posts.

“Professional ambition is expected of men but is optional — or worse, sometimes even a negative — for women,” Sandberg wrote in her book. “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty.”

Sandberg is in her 40s, married and the parent of young children, but her wealth separates her from the daily life experiences of many working women in America.

Nonetheless, she’s taken up the cause of advancing the status of women in the workplace, including urging women to reach for the highest rungs on the ladders in their organizations. “If more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women,” she said.

“I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential,” she wrote in her book’s conclusion. “I am hoping that each woman will set her own goals and reach for them with gusto. And I am hoping that each man will do his part to support women in the workplace and in the home, also with gusto. As we start using the talents of the entire population, our institutions will be more productive, our homes will be happier, and the children growing up in those homes will no longer be held back by narrow stereotypes.”

Fedor can be reached at She is on Twitter @LizFedor

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 03/26/2013 - 12:08 pm.

    It takes three parties to help women “lean in”

    As one of the early successful professional women in my agency our regional office was looking for a “cheap” speaker for Federal Women’s day and I was there for the price of a plane ticket.

    While researching what I wanted to say I came across Rose Moss Kanter’s book “Men and Women of the Corporation”, and Anne Wilson Schaef’s book “Women’s Reality”. That coupled with other books and my own research led me to develop a three part hypothesis that seemed to apply to me and may be still applicable today.

    Success in advancing women requires three things:

    1. Well prepared women – both academically qualified (I don’t believe grades come in blue and pink) and good experience

    2. Supervisors willing to take the grief for hiring them, and an ability to evaluate “what is being accomplished” not how as long as it isn’t destructive to the organization. They also have to hold their peers accountable for accepting variations in style. I was never so proud of my boss when he told me a story about lunch with the boss where two of the supervisors happened to complain about the only two professional women in the the organization who had very different styles and his response was “It’s about time you learned to deal with professional women.”

    3. Managers willing to support the supervisors and allow creativity in developing ways for women to get the cross organization opportunities other than on a golf course. i.e. informal opportunities to interact with executives in a casual setting. They must also understand that not everyone in the organization is supportive of women advancing and to weigh their input in that light.

    I would like to think that things have changed since then. I know the agency I worked for now has a women as the chief civilian. It’s one of the women that was promoted when I was the third woman who was “heir apparent” and not get the position because of “special circumstances” and brought it to the attention of senior management through legal action about the pattern of discrimination. These were all good people who just didn’t get that the “coincidences” that led to this pattern of decisions were all being influenced by two senior people who truly did not believe that women should be anything but subordinate. I believe they were invited to retire or seek opportunities elsewhere.

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