Women aim high, look to the future

Past strides don't make equality easier

It’s undeniable women have made strides in business.

Female names make up nearly half the nonfarm payroll population in the United States. They’re the majority at most colleges and earn more degrees than men at every degree level from bachelor’s to doctoral. Women statistically survived the recession better, and the few thriving industries in the current economy, education and health care, are female-dominated.

The feminist movement included women questioning traditional male-female roles in the 1960s, hosting marches and asking not to be sidelined when applying for higher-responsibility jobs in the 1970s, and attempting to balance career and family and “have it all” in the 1980s. Little has been said about feminism since, aside from a few legislative victories on equal pay here and a few milestones there as women keep becoming “firsts” in different roles.

More often than not, the assumption is made that women are so commonplace in the work force and in some leadership roles that talking about equality seems almost silly or naive. That’s a dangerous response to have in regard to modern feminism, Mesa State graduate Ashley Mates said. Mates believes the strides women have made may lead some people to believe women can stop talking about gaining rights, but she’s not convinced.

“I would say it’s more of a problem now because it’s not so overt. As a society, we’re not so actively working toward equality,” Mates said.

For the many steps forward there are still some steps back. The National Football League and Victoria’s Secret recently introduced female fan gear, but the only way women can play televised football is to don items from another section of Victoria’s Secret and join the Lingerie Football League. (Although there is no rule against women in the NFL, few have tried or been able to get on college teams to earn their stripes.)

Or — in a more serious vein — they can try the less-publicized Women’s Professional Football League, but even that league has team names such as the Minnesota Vixens and New York Dazzles.

More women are getting into politics, but just 17 of America’s 100 senators are women, and when one senator tried to become president in 2008, she failed.

Glass ceilings remain to be shattered at the presidential and vice presidential level, although the previous election cycle showed women are getting a bit closer as time goes on. Local women have shattered glass ceilings in government, human service industries, financial and business positions, but have yet to reach the top in every sector, and the oil patches and construction sites of western Colorado may never have an even male-female presence, given how lopsided the ratio has been for years (just 13.3 percent of U.S. mining, quarrying and gas extraction workers in 2009 were women. Women made up 9.5 percent of the construction work force that year).

Women broke a lot of barriers in the 1960s, Mesa County Workforce Center Director Sue Tuffin said. But some barriers remain to be removed, she said, something she hopes today’s generation of young women will accomplish.

“I do think women often have to work a little harder to be in high positions,” Tuffin said.

And when they do get into high positions, avoiding being called the “B” word can be tricky.

“I think even today some people will categorize women in leadership in a negative way,” Tuffin said. “If you take a man and a woman who are both leaders, and they both fight for something they believe in, the woman’s going to get a bad rep, and the man’s not.”

Their experiences vary, but the women profiled for this series agreed that for most of their time in Grand Junction, at least, they haven’t felt targeted because of their gender. Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Diane Schwenke recalls being the first member of the Downtown Rotary Club to ever become pregnant because women were so new to service clubs when she arrived in 1989. She was the city’s first female chamber director and the second CEO in town to go on maternity leave, something she said no one made a fuss about.

“If you were looking for discrimination, you might’ve found it, but I wasn’t looking for it,” she said.

Schwenke said she was warned Grand Junction had a “good ol’ boy network,” but she said she never felt discriminated against. She admits some women slightly before her time could probably tell stories about being asked to get the coffee at meetings where they were supposed to be talking business instead of fetching things, but Schwenke said she never felt left out when networking with men.

Attorney Martelle Daniels had to deal with a judge who consistently called female lawyers “little lady” in front of jurors, but her gender and even her pregnancy at the time didn’t stand in the way of her becoming a District Court magistrate in 1987. One judge expressed concern about appointing her when she would soon be on maternity leave, but in the end his objections didn’t keep her from the job.

“They treated me equally,” Daniels said of her fellow magistrates, who were all men.

Former Hilltop CEO Sally Schaefer said she believes the generations currently dominating the work force are less likely to see gender discrimination and more likely to be promoted based on skill alone. Schaefer said she ran into some people during her 12 years as CEO who hadn’t quite adapted — including a man who thanked “all the girls” at major gatherings for making them possible, lumping her in with secretaries and cooks — but she didn’t take it as an insult.

“I found older bankers and construction workers to be more comfortable working with a man, but they came around. I never saw it as a struggle,” she said.

Some women don’t want to call attention to their sex, but others embrace it. The Mesa County Women’s Network has monthly networking luncheons with 70 to 100 members. A recent past president of the club, Bonnie Heinsma, who is an Arbonne independent consultant, said the group is as much about making business connections as it is about supporting other women in their business pursuits and advising them through their struggles.

“I think men in networking groups a lot of times want to get in there and get things done. Women want to nurture each other more,” Heinsma said.

“Nurture” is not a stand-in word for “weak,” Heinsma said, adding she noticed over the years more and more women being aggressive in their pursuit of a career.

“You see more women wanting to have it all, to have kids and to work. They want to be there for their kids, but they just have a passion for work,” she said.

One of the best things that could happen to women’s advancement now may be to have mentors showing women can have some version of “it all,” according to Christy Whitney, president and CEO of Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado.

“I had female mentors along the way that were extremely helpful,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have had the courage (to succeed) without them.”


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