Women don’t need to “lean in” to see the difference in their careers, compared to careers of men with a similar background.

Income disparity between the sexes is well-documented. The National Center for Education Statistics released a study from 2011 that compared educational level with income level. At the highest level, those who made $100,000 or more, women were represented less frequently than men of an equal educational level.

Roughly the same percentage of men and women with bachelor’s degrees landed in the $50,000 to $74,999 bracket (24 percent and 22.3 percent respectively) but, at the top level, the gap widened. Approximately 22 percent of men earned more than $100,000, compared to 7.9 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees. With professional degrees, the difference stretched almost 20 percentage points.

That more women than men seek higher education makes the National Center for Education Statistics more sobering.

Between summer 2012 and spring 2013, 469 females received a certificate or degree at an undergraduate or graduate level from Missouri Western State University. University data show only 321 men received a certificate or degree.

The most recent census data show women in St. Joseph own less than a quarter, 24.1 percent, of the city’s small business firms.

Gender divide

Local boardrooms show the gender divide, too. Rebecca Evans, director of the St. Joseph Technology & Business Development Center, has seen it.

Ms. Evans owned a couple of businesses and now helps other organizations with their marketing plans and business models. In the past, she said she served on boards of directors that were predominantly male. Sometimes she’d only find one other woman in a group of 20 board members.

“That is a little different experience, when you walk in and take notice that there’s only one other female in the room,” she said. “I just kind of take a deep breath and go, ‘Oh well,’ and move on. But I do notice it.”

St. Joseph is not unique in that regard. A study by the nonprofit group Catalyst Census found 16.6 percent of women in Fortune 500 companies had positions on their company’s board of directors. Only 14.3 percent of Fortune 500 company chief executives officers were female.

Experts in the field have struggled to define why so few women hold leadership roles.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, suggested women need to be more proactive in their careers in her bestseller, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” Women are getting passed over for the promotions they deserve, Ms. Sandberg writes, because they’re not sitting at the table when important decisions happen.

Susan Adams, the senior director for Bentley University Center of Women and Business in Waltham, Mass., sees the same pattern.

“I was a little surprised at a company last week to find out that women at senior levels just hadn’t asked for a few things they should have,” Ms. Adams said in a phone conversation with the News-Press. “The men were very happy to accommodate them. They just didn’t realize that’s what (the women) needed.”

Making assumptions

Women in the company expressed concern that they were not represented in a meeting on succession planning. The men in the company immediately acquiesced and said women would be, Ms. Adams said.

Though gender discrimination exists, Ms. Adams said more often than not, companies aren’t aware of what policies or business practices may exclude women.

Assumptions can play a part in why women aren’t in higher-up positions.

“Sometimes people will assume you don’t want to take on a more challenging position because you want to get home to your kids. Frankly, a lot of women know how to get around that by getting extra help,” Ms. Adams said.

Ms. Evans said she hasn’t come across assumptions about her gender. She has, however, come across preconceived ideas about her age.

“Even when I was in my late 20s or early 30s, people asked me if I was old enough to give advice or, ‘Are you out of school yet?’ just because I looked younger than I was.”

She holds a master’s of business administration, but Ms. Evans said her age might have raised questions for some people about her business savvy.

Annetta Heckman, an accounting/benefits manager at Murphy-Watson-Burr Eye Center, feels the biggest challenge to female advancement in St. Joseph lies with lack of opportunity. The community’s size and its economy make moving up in companies tough, she said. Turnover is low, which makes job opportunities limited.

“If you’re really wanting to make a huge leap in your career, you’re probably going to have to go to a bigger city,” Ms. Heckman said. “The pay scale just isn’t here for big advancements.”

Changing times

But the future for women in the work force looks bright.

Outside pressure has caused companies to look at boardroom diversity. In Canada, 50 percent of board seats at state-owned companies must be reserved for women, according to figures collected by the International Finance Corporation.

Ms. Adams doesn’t see quotas like that happening in the United States, but more and more investors are asking businesses to put women on the board.

“The stereotypes are changing,” Ms. Adams said. “It’ll be more about positions than gender. Eventually.”

Jennifer Gordon can be reached at jennifer.gordon@newspressnow.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SJNPGordon.

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