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Taking stock: Women in the economy and public life

Women make up 51 percent of the population in America today, but have not yet achieved parity in annual income or political influence.

Hillary Clinton is positioned next year as the likely Democrat candidate for president, the first woman in the nation’s history to do so.
© Brian Snyder / Reuters

Women make up 51 percent of the population in America today, but have not yet achieved parity in annual income or political influence. 

Chuck Slocum

“Today, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” President Barack Obama said last April. “That’s an embarrassment. It is wrong.”

One emerging nuance, however, concludes employment patterns indicate that men are more likely to be lawyers, doctors and business executives while women are more likely to be teachers, nurses and office clerks. This “gender occupational segregation” ought to be a consideration regarding the pay differential, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Women in elected office

A review of elected officials in America is more exacting about leadership changes occurring in America.

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Women’s suffrage, or the legal right of women to vote in America, was established over the course of decades beginning as early as 1840, first in various states and localities, sometimes on a limited basis, and then nationally in 1920.

Currently in Washington, D.C., one in five members of the U.S. Congress are women as are six of the 50 state governors. Among America’s state house and senate members, nearly one in four is a woman. Of the 1,392 U.S. cities of over 30,000 population, one in four have a woman serving as mayor, including Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis.

Hillary Clinton is positioned next year as the likely Democrat candidate for president, the first woman in the nation’s history to do so.

Stassen helped change the political mix

More than five decades ago, former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen was among those who advanced the idea of dual leadership within the political party organization at every level from the precinct to local, county, district and state levels where Republicans elected chairwomen as well as chairmen.

As a young state party chair, I personally and publicly urged President Gerald Ford to select a female as his 1976 presidential running mate, something that Minnesota Democrat Walter Mondale did eight years later when he unsuccessfully ran for president with Geraldine Ferraro.

Fast forward to a recent “Women’s Leadership in the State Legislature” forum sponsored by the Humphrey School and moderated by former eight-year Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a one-time math teacher and farmer from Kenyon. 

Sviggum assembled four women leaders — two from each party — who are each now serving in the Minnesota House and Senate for a wide-ranging and surprisingly civil conversation that found more common ground than political friction.

Shared motivations

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Michelle Benson, a Republican from Ham Lake, recalled running against a Republican incumbent to win her seat in 2010, a strategy that two of the other panelists also used to first win election. 

DFL Senate President Sandra Pappas, an eight-termer from St. Paul, told of her early interest in social issues and ideals concerning civil rights, war and the environment that motivated her to run.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, Rogers, serving her sixth term in office, started working in local campaigns and then for the House caucus when Sviggum was speaker. Peppin became so unhappy with the performance of her predecessor, also a Republican whom she had initially supported, that she defeated him in the 2004 primary; she was elected to her current caucus post last November when Republicans won House control. 

House Counterpart Erin Murphy is a former DFL Majority leader from St. Paul who was first elected in 2006; she is currently Deputy Minority Leader of the House. It was Murphy’s optimism about finding solutions to problems, she said, that motivated her to seek elective office. Backers have urged her to run for mayor of St. Paul, perhaps as early as 2017.  

Leadership qualities of women

Throughout the session, Sviggum probed for qualities of leadership that women demonstrate in elective office.

Among those qualities shared by the group with no apparent disagreement among the four:

  • Ability to look to the next generation
  • Addressing the BIG issues
  • Development of “prevention” strategies
  • Family impact sensibilities
  • Checking egos, not as concerned about getting credit
  • Productive one-on-one talking across the aisle
  • Practice of  listening better and longer
  • Building trust in a nonpartisan manner

Among the major issues of potential collaboration among the women included: senior nursing care, education, health care administration, transportation, sex trafficking.

In the current Minnesota Legislature, many male colleagues do understand the equity issues, said Benson, and things are getting better. Some men are even “deferential at times,” recognizing that there are many women with exceptional backgrounds whose election certificate is equal to any man’s. 

Their advice to young women

In closing, Sviggum referenced a 10-year-old girl in the audience and asked for any advice to young women who may want to consider political office.  Sure enough, advice was forthcoming: Step up, lean in, embrace your passion, get some experience in your chosen field, be comfortable in telling voters who you are, believe in yourself, make friends outside of politics.

Chuck Slocum [Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com ] is the president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. 


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