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An occasional series by Minnesota authors • • •
J. Brian Atwood is dean of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Who owns the future? Men or women? That question was on some minds last week as a provocative report on the status of women in Minnesota was released by the Minnesota Women's Foundation and the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute's Center for Women and Public Policy. Television satirist Stephen Colbert even got into the act, interviewing the author of this month's lead story in the Atlantic magazine, "The End of Men."
Headline writers and magazine editors want to get your attention. They got it this time, not only with headlines, but with some facts showing that clearly women are on the ascendancy. The Atlantic revealed that "earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce" and "for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same."
This sounds good for women and girls until you read the new report on their status in our state. Women and girls are doing better -- getting good educations, playing team sports (thanks to Title IX) and competing for professional jobs. But, as a group, they are still being treated unfairly and even abused by their male counterparts.
Women make less money in salaried jobs of all kinds, but the gap widens for educated women. A woman with a professional degree can expect to make some $2 million less than a male over a career. Credible management studies will show that performance over time is affected by inequities of this kind. Then there is the matter of selection for leadership positions. It seems to be an accepted axiom that women have to perform better than men just to be considered for leadership positions. And yet the record in progressive Minnesota is not a good one. There are very few women serving on corporate boards or in senior management positions in our Fortune 500 companies. A notable exception is the Carlson Companies' Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who has not only been a leader but also has made impressive efforts to help other women up the ladder.
In a previous life, I led a government agency charged with helping other nations develop their economic, political and social systems. Perhaps the greatest challenge we faced related to girls and women. Only about a third of girls received a primary education in many of the poor countries in which we operated. There were many factors at play, some cultural, some related to child labor, some related to security, some related to the distance one had to travel (or walk) to school.
There wasn't much dispute that a nation would fail to fulfill its potential if girls and women were left out of the equation. In the 1970s, a "Women and Development" office was created at the agency to assure that development strategies included efforts to educate and otherwise involve women and girls in society. One of the first directors of that office was Minnesota's Arvonne Fraser.
One of the worst manifestations of poverty, ignorance and the absence of dignity in men is the abuse of women. This is a major problem in developing countries, but, sadly, it is also a problem right here in Minnesota. According to the Women's Foundation/Humphrey study, one out of five women in Minnesota will fall victim to some form of violent sexual abuse in her lifetime. Some of us will want to chalk this horrible statistic up to the bad behavior of people we wouldn't want to have as neighbors. That would be a very big mistake, because it absolves society at large of its responsibilities.
Policies and conditions influence behavior. If we are not educating young people who come from a less-than-optimal home environment before they get to kindergarten, they will start behind their peers and stay behind. If we accept high employment rates and do nothing for the unemployed, we will create hopelessness, more domestic abuse and higher crime rates.
I could go on, but my point is that here in Minnesota, treating women fairly in public and private organizations will make those organizations more successful. The status of women and the disturbing evidence that too many are abused can be mitigated by enlightened policies in both the public and private arenas.
A healthy society should not have to debate whether the future is going to be better for women or men. A healthy society should be addressing the conditions of life that either deny or enable every person to fulfill his or her potential.