In Mesa County businesses, government and nonprofits, women take charge

Women listen to an auctioneer during a recent luncheon meeting of the Mesa County Women’s Network, an organization of professional women whose number among the leadership of area businesses and institutions is growing.

Grand Junction’s city manager, mayor, interim Mesa County administrator, undersheriff, national monument superintendent and the heads of all major economic development organizations in the valley have two things in common: leadership prowess and two X chromosomes.

Grand Junction has a reputation as a place where business and community leaders are chosen based on merit rather than filling stereotypical gender roles, according to local women in leadership.

Former Mesa County Commissioner Kathy Hall said Grand Junction and the Western states always have been receptive to women working challenging jobs, starting with ranching and farming duties in the frontier days.

“People think of western Colorado as a bunch of hicks, but I’ve always felt there was a lot of respect for women in this community,” Hall said. “It’s always been remarkable to me (that) people even ask about women in leadership because that’s the way it’s always been.”

Even though there was respect, there wasn’t always a slew of women in top roles. Hall remembers being the lone woman on several boards in the 1980s, but she also remembers women serving on the Walker Field Airport Authority Board and becoming mayor before her election to the county commission in 1995, the year Mesa County first had two female commissioners.

By the time Chris Reddin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center, arrived in Grand Junction in 1996, she noticed a crop of prominent women in the community. In 2010, she is relieved to see it is “not the exception” anymore to see a woman in power.

“Now there’s a lot of energy and camaraderie, and it’s comfortable to be a woman in a leadership position,” Reddin said.

Better than average

Of the 25 largest employers in Grand Junction, three are in the health care industry, in which women outnumbered men 3 to 1 nationally in 2009. Two more of the largest local employers are in the community and social-service sector, which employed three women for every two men nationwide in 2009.

The list includes Mesa State College, and School District 51 tops the list. Women occupied 74 percent of education positions in the nation last year.

Four of those top 25 companies in Grand Junction have women in charge. That’s 16 percent, and while it sounds dismal, it’s an improvement over the 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies with female chief executive officers.

The ready availability of women leaders in Grand Junction is still remarkable in the U.S. The 2010 Corporate Gender Gap Report, an annual study by the World Economic Forum, found 38 percent of U.S. businesses surveyed had up to 50 percent of entry-level management jobs filled by women. As for women in senior management positions, 44 percent of businesses surveyed said 20 percent or fewer top jobs were filled by women, and none said women filled more than 40 percent of those positions.

Women are becoming more prominent in leadership and in the overall work force across the country. In 2007, 28.7 percent of all businesses in the U.S. were owned by women, according to census data released earlier this month, up from 26 percent in 1997. Those businesses employed more than 7.6 million people. Women were equal partners with men in owning an additional 17 percent of businesses in 2007.

Pay equity

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has no record of women ever outnumbering men in the work force, but women got closer than ever in October 2009, when women made up just about half the number of nonfarm employees in the U.S. and were outnumbered by just 113,000 men.

Mesa County Workforce Center Director Sue Tuffin predicts the gap eventually may flip, although the U.S. Department of Labor projects women will account for a smaller portion of the work force, 46.9 percent, in 2018.

“I predict we will have more women than men in the workforce. In 60, 70 years we’ve made tremendous advancement,” Tuffin said.

Advancement has been made in women’s pay, but when comparing average salaries and wage earnings for full-time workers age 16 and up, the most women have ever made is 81 cents for every dollar men earned, a peak reached in 2005. The average decreased to 80.2 cents last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On average, women make less than men in the same jobs in all but four of the 134 job categories measured by the bureau in 2009 that have information on whether there’s a difference between male and female wages.

“That’s where we need to focus,” Tuffin said. “As people are hired into the same positions, are they earning equal pay?”

While pay for men increases after they become fathers, according to the bureau, pay is often higher for women without children in the home than it is for mothers with children under the age of 18. In 2008, 71.2 percent of women with children under the age of 18 worked, while 54.3 percent of women without children under the age of 18 worked. The same year, 75.4 percent of all working women usually worked full-time, compared to 88.9 percent of men with jobs.


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