Quad-City businesswomen on the rise, fighting to take the lead

Quad-City businesswomen on the rise, fighting to take the lead


There was no clear path for women wanting to enter the technical field in 1994, so Jan Masamoto made her own way.

After moving from California to Rock Island, Masamoto started her own technical publications company, JTM Concepts, at a time when she had few other businesswomen or mentors to turn to for advice. It wasn’t the first time she ran her own company, but her plans were still met with skepticism.

“I’m California born and raised, so coming out to the Midwest was a different experience. It was very difficult as a woman, and as an Asian woman, to come and start a business,” she said. “It was a matter of whether or not I could succeed. I did some manufacturing and government quality work, and the guys really didn’t believe I had any knowledge. I had to prove to them I knew what these machines were and how they operated. You always have to prove yourself.”

Even today, 24 years later, she still feels the pressure to prove her competency and intelligence — to prove that she’s worthy of holding leadership positions historically only held by men. Slowly, that’s been improving. In the Quad-Cities and elsewhere, she’s seen more women enter fields traditionally dominated by men, as well as rise to management positions.

But Iowa is still falling behind, according to Tiffany O’Donnell, CEO of Iowa Women Lead Change, when it comes to women obtaining upper management and executive positions. And the struggles women face in entry-level jobs, such as one of the largest gender wage gaps in the country, persist as women try to climb the corporate ladder.  

Executive positions fall short

In a 2016 report surveying 93 Iowa businesses, Iowa Women Lead Change, or IWLC, found the companies had an average of 43 percent female managers. According to the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce’s diversity report in 2014, out of 29 Quad-City businesses surveyed, more than 48 percent of managers were women.

That’s a sign more opportunities, in schools and workplaces, have been created for women in the past decade, according to O’Donnell. But equality doesn’t always extend to executive positions, she said. In Iowa companies, around 30 percent of women sit on boards of directors, and around 37 percent hold executive positions.

That’s a slight increase from IWLC’s 2014 report, which found, on average, 25 percent of executives in Iowa private for-profit companies were women.

“We don’t really have a shortage of women in entry-level positions. The numbers also show women are reaching levels as managers and supervisors. It’s after that where we see a drop-off,” O’Donnell said. “On one hand you can make the case that there’s a very small group of women who are poised and ready to take on senior level leadership positions. But look at the data and we’re there. We’re in those mid-level supervisory positions; we’re just not breaking through.”

The number of female-owned businesses in Iowa is also one of the lowest in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Iowa Small Business Development Center, which stated 33 percent of Iowa’s small businesses were owned by women. 

Gender wage gap

Iowa’s gender pay gap exists in all fields, on all employee levels, even when males and females hold similar upper management positions.

According to Iowa Workforce Development, in 2016, the median income for women in the state was $39,427. That’s compared to the median income for men in the state of $50,679.

According to the American Association of University Women review of U.S. Census data, females in Iowa earned 77 percent of what males earned in 2015. Only 15 states have a larger pay gap than Iowa.

At the executive level, women who were senior level executives made around $113,400 on average, compared to $135,500 for men.

The numbers are starker for women of color, with African American women being paid 61 cents for every dollar paid to men. Latinas are paid 57 cents, and Asian women are paid 69 cents for every dollar paid to white men, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“There is a persistent wage gap. Even female doctors tend to earn less than male doctors, largely because they tend to go into lower-paying specialties and work less,” Joanna Short, an economics professor at Augustana College, said. “Women still aren’t breaking into STEM fields. There is a leaky pipeline, while women may start out just as interested as men, more of them drop out at each step of the way.”

Short promotes making salaries more public, and said women can use online tools to learn how much they should be making, based on experience and qualifications.

Laurie Greenlees, with MRA — the Management Association, applauded companies, states and municipalities that are doing away with requiring applicants to list current or past salaries during the hiring process. She said that can prevent women from continuously being paid less than male counterparts.

It’s organizational

Last week, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, announced she was leaving the company, bringing the total number of women with top jobs at companies in the S&P 500 stock index to 23. The news opened a dialogue about America’s shortage of female executives, but came as no surprise for several female leaders in the Quad-Cities.

“Yes, the numbers of women in upper leadership positions has been increasing,” said Monica Forret, director of the business administration program at St. Ambrose University. “But the pace has been very slow for a number of reasons. For instance, people who make it to top executive positions tend to have responsibilities for profit loss. Oftentimes, women in organizations end up in more support roles, without that responsibility. But that’s only one factor that can keep them from moving up.”

Historically, women have been tasked with caregiving roles, whether it’s caring for children or aging parents, she said. That means more time away, and a difficult process to reenter the workplace and receive promotions.

Greenlees said more Midwest businesses have been rethinking their internal work cultures, especially when there’s a shortage of females in upper-level positions.

“Organizations are really dealing with workplace structure. If being a CFO in an organization is going to require 60 hours of work each week, it might be difficult to get women to sign up for that,” she said. “But by the same token, the research also shows it will be difficult to get millennials to sign up and do that too. You have to create a structure that encourages and invites women to take on senior level roles.

“Employers are starting to create workplace benefits that are helping females take a leave of absence, or have paid leave, for those responsibilities. They may create job sharing or flexible schedules that they historically were not open to in the past. They’re really working on improving that work/life balance.”

She said offering better benefits, such as paid maternity and paternity leave, is one step toward helping women continue rising up in their careers.

It’s cultural

When Caitlin Russell was growing up, anything her brother or male friends wanted to do was an invitation for her to try it too. That meant she played on an all-male ice hockey team, took up playing the drums, plus went into the construction field.

“Especially in construction, probably 10 to 20 percent of my class were female, if that,” she said. “And still even in our company, probably 20 percent are females in management positions. But one of the things that’s unique with a lot of these females in the field is they don’t put up with the perception this is only a male field.”

Now, she’s senior vice president of Russell Construction in the Quad-Cities, and has been a strong community advocate and leader for years. But her mantra remains the same as when she was a kid, “if a man can do it, I can do it.”

Views of gender roles are formed at the earliest ages, O’Donnell said, and often stick around for a lifetime.

“Women tend to be risk averse; we tend to like to be completely prepared before we even raise our hands,” she said. “Culturally, we value young girls for following the rules, or being quiet and listening. Where young boys, we tend to say, ‘well, that’s just how they are.’”

When it comes to applying for jobs or promotions, O’Donnell said women like to have the majority of the qualifications for a position before they’ll even apply. Male colleagues, she said, tend to apply with significantly fewer qualifications, but still take the risk.

According to Forret, girls are also socialized to accept what they are given, and not ask for what they want.

“Women tend to be socialized to help maintain relationships,” she said. “In terms of the pay gap, they’re not as likely to negotiate their starting salary or ask for as much in negotiation as men would. It’s also other things they don’t negotiate for, like professional development expenses, moving expenses, contributions to retirement plan and other aspects of the work environment. They feel like they might come across as greedy, but it’s not the case.”

She encourages women to apply for jobs in more male-dominated fields, which tend to already have higher starting salaries. But as females move up in their careers, she said society often makes every step of the way more challenging for women.

“Being a manager is high risk for women because when they get into a position like that, everyone notices them. Because there’s not many of us in those positions,” she said. “So if they fail, it gets attributed to them personally. That’s opposed to if a guy fails, it’s just like, ‘oh well, you screwed up.’ It always is more personal.”

For Russell, she focuses on the challenge ahead, and doesn't have time for stereotypes.

“I think everyone should be treated equal and I don’t view a man at any higher regard than me,” she said. “And it’s a mental thing. You can’t create problems for yourself or question yourself. You have to work hard and treat people with respect and show your value.”

From grade school classrooms to college lectures and workplace conferences, O’Donnell said it should be taught that women can choose to be the breadwinners of families and have the skills to take on top leadership roles.

The importance of mentorship

In addition to offering more flexible work hours and benefits, putting women in more positions related to profit management, and lessening the gender wage gap, the female leaders interviewed highlighted the importance of mentors and network groups. Most said that is one of the best ways to create a pipeline for women to rise to senior executive positions.

At the Greater Quad-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Program Director Zenaida Landeros has been working on this for more than six years. The Empowering Latino Leadership Alliance program empowers Latinas to start a business, continue with higher education and take on more important roles in companies.  

“Latinas are starting businesses faster than any other minority group and are also getting more educated. But a lot of times there’s barriers because Latinas are the first ones in their families to take on these endeavors,” Landeros said. “So joining ELLA, they can talk to people who have gone through these barriers and can talk about how to go through these things.”

Even if it’s not a fully female network, O’Donnell said it's important to create one-on-one mentorship and support systems.

“Women who have these goals of rising up in their careers need to be never intentional about achieving them, and that means taking a risk, as well as finding a mentor or a sponsor,” she said. “That’s someone in an organization who is willing to put their credibility and social capital on the line when you’re not in the room.”

“It’s very hard for women to take credit; women don’t tend to do that,” Forret said. “They don’t want to sound boastful. They’re not socialized to do that. So it’s really nice if they have other women or men in the room that can help say those things, and talk people up in their accomplishments.”

For businesses that find they have an unbalanced number of men and women in management and upper-level positions, Greenlees said company leaders need to reevaluate their succession plans.

“Workplaces can take a look at their policies and benefits and conduct an analysis to see if their benefits are family friendly and offer a work/life balance,” she said. “Are they looking internally to see which women have the skillset to move into that position? They need to look at internal programs for succession planning and create a formal plan if they’re lacking women in leadership roles.”

For Masamoto, a lot has changed since she started her Rock Island company 24 years ago. But, she, along with the other female leaders interviewed, hope for policy changes to create greater equality in workplaces, especially in upper-management.

“Women are starting more businesses and playing more important roles in different companies,” Masamoto said. “Women are being more accepted for who they are, and that we do have the knowledge and that command that so many men feel we don’t have. I think it’s going to get easier. And women will keep fighting for it.”


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