Helping Women on the Rise

Helping Women on the Rise

If more women are to ascend the ranks, more child care options and workplace flexibility are crucial.

Last April, on my second day on the job, I attended the annual Twin Cities Business Women in Leadership event. That ballroom was filled with nearly 500 people—including influential decision-makers and heads of Fortune 500 companies—and served as a powerful welcome to the magazine and our business community. This year, TCB will host our largest group ever for our Women in Leadership event April 23; the highlight promises to be a conversation about progress, decision making, and mentorship that will include, among several trailblazers, our inspiring cover subject, Beth Ford. Her ascension to the top spot at Land O’Lakes has garnered significant national media attention for many symbolic and significant firsts. But in our profile on Ford, Trending editor Liz Fedor goes beyond the easy headline to discover what makes her such an effective leader. (Hint: It’s not her gender or sexual orientation. It’s vision, confidence, collaboration, and really hard work.)

I wish we were at a point where we didn’t need to specially recognize women in leadership. But St. Catherine University’s 2018 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, included in this issue, is a reminder that there’s still so much work to be done. Women hold barely 20 percent of board seats in Minnesota and only slightly more executive officer roles at public companies. At least both numbers are trending in the right direction, up slightly from 2017. And on a positive note, the number of Minnesota Honor Roll companies, with at least 20 percent women corporate directors and officers, rose in 2018 from 19 to 25.

Perhaps progress would come quicker if we figured out how to address a major career impediment that affects women at all levels of employment. I’m talking about child care. There’s not enough quality care available in parts of the state, and with prices that rival college tuition, day care costs prompt many parents to opt out of the workforce—women more often than men.

A first maternity leave marks the beginning of a noticeable and permanent decline in a woman’s earning power and career power, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported last year by Quartz. Men see a dip too, but for mothers it’s almost 20 points more than it is for fathers, and that chasm continues to widen with additional children.

When women do take a career break to be home with their kids, studies show they face steeper career penalties in income and advancement than men do. In the U.S., women’s participation in the labor force peaked in 2000 and has only declined since, while it continues to rise in other wealthy countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave.

I spoke about the child care crisis with Chad Dunkley, CEO of New Horizons and president of the Minnesota Child Care Association. “Minnesota has a workforce shortage,” Dunkley says. “We want everybody who wants to work to be able to stay in the workforce. Minnesota used to be a leader, but child care assistance was cut in 2003 and it hasn’t been repaired since.”

In his proposed 2020–2021 Minnesota budget, Gov. Tim Walz called for a $44 million investment to expand the Child Care Assistance Program, which currently helps 15,000 families pay for child care. The additional funds would be used to increase payments to many child care providers and make an additional 1,000 families eligible for assistance. “It’s a smaller step than some might have expected,” Dunkley says, “but it’s good recognition that we need to do something. Minnesota is out of compliance with even the federal recommendations.”

But better access to affordable child care isn’t the only key to supporting women’s career advancement. We need to encourage flexibility and family-friendly work cultures—creating environments where employees know it’s OK to duck out for a kid’s choir concert or to take a sick parent to the doctor and continue working from home.

It’s encouraging to see corporate leaders expanding benefits. As of January, General Mills tripled full-time paid time off for new birth mothers to 18 to 20 weeks and bumped up parental leave to 12 weeks. General Mills also added a two-week paid leave for the care of immediate family members with a serious health condition and up to four weeks off for employees following the death of an immediate family member. Best Buy recently added a back-up child care program that allows employees up to 10 days of care provided by a certified professional—a savior during the crazy winter we just endured with a record number of weather-related school closures.

As a parent of school-age children, I put a premium on working for a company that values its employees as people—with families and obligations beyond the office. Flexibility begets loyalty. And that leads to better results for everyone.