Windows and Mirrors - One of Many - Florence Sprague - September 2023

Not too long ago there was a photo essay in The Atlantic magazine comprised of photos in which there was a single woman in a much larger group of men. The photos were excerpted from the book The Only Woman, by Immy Humes. Humes curates photos that span more than 150 years and crisscross the globe documenting a broad diversity of social, business, educational and cultural settings and reflecting multiple ethnicities, but there is always only one woman among the group of men. 

The book has been described as “…a fresh contribution to visual and cultural history full of unheard stories, courage, achievement, outrage, mystery, fun, and extraordinary women.” I would like to think that the isolation these photos reflect would be solely historical, something that could make us say “Bravo” for the exceptions and, “That was then, but now it is so very different,” for the rule. Then on Sunday, July 23, 2023, the headline for the Star Tribune Business section blared, “A Bumpy Road to Progress,” by Patrick Kennedy and Dee DePass. Focusing on Minnesota’s 50 top-paid executives it highlighted only six women and two persons of color in that group. Not one, but hardly parity. The writers note that C-suite diversity efforts have improved and when a wider selection of companies is reviewed, the percentages improve substantially. Still…

This is an area of competing truths and complex motivations. Individual Minnesota companies may exceed national averages for representation of women and persons of color on their board and in management, but overall Minnesota companies lag behind national averages. The writer of a letter to the editor published August 6, 2023, noted that at his unnamed corporation, upper-level management was highly diverse, both by gender and race, asserting that ultimately, more companies will develop diverse management in order to access “the broadest mix of talent and deeper connections to their… diverse customer” base. Financial realities are more powerful than mere exposure.

Both equity and economics make proactive plans sensible. Programs that seek to identify prospective leaders several rungs down the corporate ladder and ensure that they receive the training necessary to be management-committee ready are beneficial. Mentoring and leadership development must be intentional to overcome the unconscious biases that suffuse institutional customs and traditions and which may serve as barriers to advancement.

In his July 30, 2023, column in the Star Tribune, Myron Medcalf, reflecting on the lists, reminds us that these top positions represent more than personal power. They reflect the corporate cultures that determine opportunity for all those below them. And the ability to rise up the corporate ladder is not just symbolic. Higher level positions enable many to accumulate wealth. Referencing the Harvard Gazette, Medcalf notes that while women working full time now earn 82¢ on the dollar compared to men, they have only 32¢ on the dollar in wealth compared to their male counterparts. Upward mobility matters.

Women are half of the world and persons of color make up about one fifth of the population of Minnesota. Strict numbers never tell the whole story, but 12% is far from half for women and 4% is far from one fifth. There has been some progress, but we can’t stop now.