CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids-based organization focused on the development of women leaders will put the spotlight on the opposite gender next year.
Iowa Women Lead Change has announced an “And Men” theme for its schedule of conferences next year. The change, IWLC’s chief executive said, is a recognition that men often play a key role in the advancement of women in the workplace, especially as men are still the majority of those in C-level positions.
“You talk to successful women, women who have made it, women in the C-suite, and nine and a half out of 10 will tell you that it was a male ally that helped get them to that spot,” said Tiffany O’Donnell, CEO of IWLC.
O’Donnell emphasized that IWLC is not changing its mission of bolstering women leaders. Instead, the group’s events will include discussions on how men can support, mentor and sponsor their female colleagues.
“We’re not creating programming to develop men into better leaders. We are developing programming that helps them be better advocates for women to become leaders,” O’Donnell said.
For example, IWLC’s 2018 conferences will look at how men can be mentors and advocates for women, and how they can create a culture “where male mentorship is acceptable and expected,” she said.
A Gazette analysis earlier this year found that Iowa has a number of gaps when it comes to women in business. For example, only 15 states have a larger pay gap than Iowa, and few of the largest companies in the state and in the Corridor have women CEOs.
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Men “still, by and large, are the senior leaders in this state. They are the ones who often make the decisions whether or not to support us and our programming,” O’Donnell said.
IWLC’s announcement comes as a new report shows Iowa still is near the bottom for the influence of its women-owned business — but it has made progress.
American Express released its 2017 “State of Women-Owned Businesses” report last week. The report, which American Express has commissioned every year since 2011, estimates changes among women-owned businesses since 1997, such as how many new companies were formed, how much revenue they made and how many people they employed.
It uses those measures to rank states on the “economic clout” of those businesses.
For years, Iowa ranked last or almost last out of the 50 states and District of Columbia.
Changes since 2016, though, show Iowa making progress, said Geri Stengel, the report’s research adviser.
“The 20-year numbers are not good for Iowa, but if you look at the year-to-year number on economic clout, you’re beginning to see not just improvement, but Iowa is a rock star,” she told The Gazette.
Iowa came in 42nd for the economic clout of its woman-owned businesses in the 2017 report, up from 51st in 2015. Iowa’s growth in the number of women-owned companies, their employment and their revenue each outperformed national growth from 2016 to 2017, Stengel said.
In a separate measurement, a new one for “employment vitality,” Iowa ranked 14th, Stengel said. Employment vitality looked at how many employees women-owned companies had in 2017 and the growth in that number during the last two decades.
Those rank increases matter, Stengel said, because they equate to more women have started businesses in the state. More female entrepreneurs means more role models for women who may want to start their own company.
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“Years ago, one of the reasons it was hard for women is they didn’t have role models and mentors. Just the fact that there are more out there, it will help that next generation, the ones that are inspiring to become entrepreneurs,” Stengel said.
O’Donnell also said a lack of available mentors has been an obstacle to growth among women entrepreneurs — one reason IWLC wants to bring more men into the fold.
“It disappoints me because I do see so many women wanting to enter this space, entering the space and then once they’re there, really looking for those networks, those mentors and role models, but there just aren’t many of them,” she said.
Women who want to start a business, O’Donnell said, may also need more encouragement as many grow up in a culture that rewards being risk-averse.
“Women, from a very small age, are rewarded for following the rules, rewarded for doing the right thing, not messing up,” O’Donnell said. “There are real reasons that we have this in our culture, but that does not serve us well when it’s comes to taking a chance on a new business.”
Iowa, O’Donnell said, has made progress in supporting women business owners. She pointed to female-focused venture capital groups and the EPIC Corporate Challenge, in which businesses commit to boosting women leaders, as examples.
The state’s size, she added, makes it nimble enough to successfully address these issues.
“If we really want to draw a line in the sand and Iowa wants to be known as a state that provides not only a capable workforce ... but we’ve got an inclusive workforce as well, if we decided to do that, we could actually do that in relatively short order,” she said.
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