Iowa women in leadership
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Good morning, happy Monday and welcome to the very first edition of Fearless! My name is Emily Blobaum and I am so excited to lead this initiative as the contributing editor. You can read more about me and my intentions for Fearless here and more about the initiative here. But for now, let’s jump right into it. This month we’re focusing on the topic of leadership. In this edition you'll learn about where Iowa stands in terms of women in leadership positions (hint: it's not great), you'll meet the publisher of the Marshalltown Times-Republican and you'll find a few new and revamped features of the newsletter, including a weekly survey we encourage you to participate in. Have a great week!
Representation of women in leadership positions in Iowa is far from equal. Here’s what we can do about it.
Thirty percent. That’s roughly the proportion of executive-level leadership positions in Iowa that are held by women. This statistic is perhaps important not because it’s new, but because it's NOT new.
So why are we bringing it up now? One of the main intentions for Fearless is to continue bringing issues like these to the forefront so we can talk about them. And besides, in our current news cycle, where staying up to date with what’s going on feels like the “I Love Lucy” chocolate factory scene, it’s easy for things to get pushed aside. So let’s take this opportunity to refresh where we are at and what we need to do.

For this story, I looked at data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which can be found here. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC requires periodic reports from public and private employers across the country about the composition of their workforces in terms of sex and race/ethnicity. Specifically, I analyzed the report about private companies with 100 or more employees and federal contractors with 50 or more employees.
Graphics by Lauren Burt
Women have consistently made up 46% to 47% of the private-sector workforce in Iowa. However, when it comes to women in leadership positions, that rate drops significantly.

Currently, women hold about 40% of positions in the midlevel management division. At the executive level, that number is 30%. The EEOC defines executive-level positions as people who create strategies for the entire organization, with positions including CEOs and CFOs. Midlevel managers report to those in the executive-level positions.

Note: The EEOC keeps records on its website dating back to the 1990s. However, from 2006 and earlier, the executive and midlevel management categories were combined. By using that metric, the percentage of women in those roles has only risen 7% in 20 years, from 31% to 38%.

There is an even greater disparity when it comes to representation of women of color in leadership positions.

Women of color make up about 18% of women in Iowa’s workforce but only 3% of leaders at the executive level and 8% at the midlevel manager level.

In 2018, of the 2,287 women in executive-level leadership positions, 15 were Black, 21 were hispanic, 22 were Asian, and nine were two or more races. There was no representation of American Indian or Hawaiian women.

To further conceptualize this data, I examined members of the Iowa Business Council, which consist of the 22 largest employers in the state.

Of the information that was readily available, women make up 39 out of 113 board of directors positions, or 34%, across these companies. In executive-level leadership positions, women represent 78 out of 244 positions, or 32%.

Leadership information from the Kent Corp., Fareway and Vermeer was not made available. Data for the other companies was compiled using information on their websites.

Tara Widner, assistant teaching professor at Iowa State University, and Sarika Bhakta, president of Nikeya Diversity Consulting.
So what can we do about this?

Sarika Bhakta, president of Nikeya Diversity Consulting, and Tara Widner, assistant teaching professor in the leadership studies program at Iowa State University, agree that in Iowa, the road to progress has been long.

“We have a lot of work to do from a visible diversity perspective, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity per se,” Bhakta said. “It’s the notion of Iowa nice. We are not aware of the biases that come into play because we inherently feel that we are very welcoming and hospitable.”

Widner says the first step to change is acknowledgement.

“We have to admit to ourselves that there might be implicit biases that are built into us through society that we have to address on our own. Acknowledging them doesn’t make them a weakness, it gives you an opportunity to find where you can have growth.”

  • Individual level:
    • Widner: Learn negotiation tactics. “We need to be working with folks about how to negotiate for yourself.”
    • Bhakta: Understand that leadership styles differ across gender, race and ethnic identities. “For example, when you have a manager that has a basic understanding of Indian culture, they can understand that as a woman, you did not grow up boasting about your achievements, being in a patriarchal culture. … How does that translate in a Western workplace? If you don’t share your achievements, you don’t get the credit. But in [other cultures,] you were looked down upon if you were boasting.”
    • Widner: If you’re in a position of power, leverage that to be a productive ally. “Address gender, race and ethnicity stereotypes, do cultural competency training for your entire organization.”

  • Interpersonal level:
    • Widner: Work on decreasing stereotypes. “The only way you do that is through intentional self-work on cultural competencies.”
    • Widner: Talk about salaries. “Making salaries a taboo subject is part of what’s causing women to not reach parity on gender equality and salary.”

  • Organizational level:
    • Widner: Work with employees to examine implicit biases. “Acknowledging that racism exists isn’t something that we should be hiding. … There’s the idea of people saying that ‘I don’t see color.’ They see that as the right answer, but it’s actually like, if you can’t see color, then you can’t see the struggle that comes with being a person of color. It’s that idea that it’s better to ignore it. But it’s not better.”
    • Widner: Practice inclusion by listening to different perspectives. “It’s one thing to have folks at the table. It’s another thing to give them a voice you’re actually going to listen to.”
    • Bhakta: Give women the same developmental opportunities by creating intentional mentoring programs. “I think women also need to ask questions about what it means for them to be a part of those developmental opportunities, like ‘What do you want to do with me once you’ve developed me?’ Am I on a track to being an executive, a partner or on a board?”
    • Bhakta: There needs to be accountability at the top to make it a priority. “Companies need to have their executive pay linked to equity, diversity and inclusion efforts. Create goals around metrics about saying that in five years, we’re aiming to have X number of women in management positions.”  
    • Bhakta: Don’t fill seats just to meet a quota. “If you have a glass of milk and you pour chocolate syrup into it, that’s diversity right there. But what happens if you don’t do anything to it? The chocolate is all the way at the bottom. You have to stir it up. You can’t have diversity for the sake of diversity. It can’t just be about representation. The individual has to have a voice and has to feel valued and have a sense of belonging and that they feel that they can make a difference.”
    • Bhakta: Look at the younger generations that are entering the workforce. What are their values? Generation Z is both more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations. “Individuals are going to look for companies that value diversity. Even existing talent, they’re looking at what your leadership looks like. If they don’t see someone that looks like them at the leadership level, are you going to be able to retain them? Probably not.”

  • Societal level:
    • Widner: Pass paid parental leave and equal pay laws. “[From a policy perspective], we need to think about gender equity and domestic responsibilities.”
    • Bhakta: Redefine what leadership success looks like. “I think we really need to explore other pathways for leadership trajectory in corporate America that go beyond the traditional management track. … Why can’t you have a different technical track?
    • Bhakta: Understand that women are not a monolith. “The most important thing to remember is that when you’re thinking about women, is that women are not monolithic. Especially if their intersectionalities they identify with makes them members of other underrepresented groups as well. It just simply compounds.”

Note: As part of our goals to highlight diverse perspectives from across the state, we will be reaching out to women to share their views in guest opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a piece, email
Lessons of resiliency through two natural disasters, a career change and a divorce
This time I made it home before the storm hit. Living with two years of motherly guilt for being at work and not by my son’s side during an EF-3 tornado, I was relieved to delegate office safety during the August derecho.
There was something significant about the comfort of home during the destruction. We were stuck. There was nothing to do for about an hour except stay together in the dark and unknown. The totality would soon be revealed, but these moments were filled with fear and togetherness.

I was grateful for the shared experience because for the next seven days, I would rarely see my son with brief glances up from my laptop and by the glow of a flashlight.

When I moved to Marshalltown in June 2018 to take the role of publisher at the Times-Republican, I was eager to return to the beloved city where I had served as editor for five years. I’d long ago fallen in love with Marshalltown, its character and its people.  

Thrilled with the opportunity and new beginning, I also ached with loss amid a divorce and relocation from a community in which I’d lived for a decade.

When a tornado ripped through the heart of Marshalltown right after the move, I was devastated. But the recovery kept me buried in work and gave me purpose alongside learning an entirely new job and acclimating to my new life. The experience, the solidarity with community and the beautiful progress that has been made since that summer day are a part of me now. While I am boundlessly appreciative for what unfolded, the reality of my role as a leader nearly claimed my entire life.

I came across a quote and decided to adopt it: “Life is tough, my darling, but so are you.” I added this to a ridiculous arsenal of beliefs:  I am supermom, I can do it all, I will not fail.

With ideals like these, I suffered deeply. I eventually had to come to terms with my humanness, which meant more reliance on my faith and the people in my life.

Perhaps the largest lesson I learned that year was asking for and accepting help. I readily sought support from colleagues, family, friends, spiritual mentors and paid professionals. Once I did, the loneliness to which I had subjected myself vanished. The people rooting for me in my professional and home life seemed to multiply. Suddenly, the people rallying around me came into sharp focus, the encouragement palpable. They helped me believe in myself again.

Before long, though, was a beatdown in form of a global pandemic that impacted all areas of life. Our business, and my life, were no exceptions. My ability to rely on faith and on others was tested again.

On Aug. 10, as I took in all of the destruction, I wondered, why me?
Later, I would amend that question, why not me? For a third time in my short tenure in Marshalltown, I would lead my team, both personally and professionally, through the catastrophe. There was nobody more experienced or prepared for this job. Nobody had a better network of people to rely on.

We moved forward without hesitation. Shaking off the shock, we got boots on the ground and started reporting the best we could without power or the internet (again). As days passed, things improved just like they did after the tornado. We’re getting through it, with plenty of help. Experiencing disasters doesn’t make you resilient. What makes you resilient is what you do with the disaster, what lessons you gain and who you learn you can count on. Even if they’ve been there all along.

Abigail Pelzer is the Marshalltown Times-Republican publisher, the first woman to hold the position. She was previously the editor of the Newton Daily News and the Times-Republican. She is actively involved in the city, serving on the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce board, among other commitments, and also serves in several capacities with the Iowa Newspaper Association. You can reach her at

Left to right: Sydney Barber, Janet Godwin and Mary Mendenhall-Core.
In the headlines
  • President-elect Joe Biden has pledged for his administration to “actually look like America.” USA Today compiled a list of front-runners for cabinet positions, which include more than 20 women.  
  • The U.S. Naval Academy named its first Black female brigade commander, Sydney Barber, who will lead 4,400 of her fellow midshipmen.
  • The Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a new report detailing actions that must be taken to ensure an equitable recovery from the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the report here.
  • President-elect Joe Biden named 13 doctors and health experts to his COVID-19 advisory board. Thirty-eight percent are female, and 69% are Black, Latino, Asian or other underrepresented minorities.
  • Janet Godwin has been named permanent CEO of Iowa City-based testing organization ACT.
  • Mary Mendenhall-Core was named as the new director of advancement at Anawin Housing, which is the largest provider of permanent supportive housing in the state.
  • The World Food Prize Foundation announced that Joi Latson has joined its staff as a program coordinator for the Global Youth Institute.
Worth consuming
Now is a good time to take care of ourselves (HBR Women at Work podcast). League of Women Voters president: ‘Women have the power of the vote and women do power the vote’ (Yahoo Finance). Stacey Abrams’ role in turning Georgia blue (The 19th). White women had doubts. They voted for Trump anyway (The 19th). Sixty years after becoming the first Black student to attend an elementary school in New Orleans, Ruby Bridges has written a children’s book (NPR). While the rest of the country was focused on the election results, one woman was making history free-climbing El Capitan (USA Today). Jill Biden will be the only first lady to have a job outside the White House (The Lily). A documentary about women remaking America (PBS). Meet the Ebony Anglers, five Black women catching fish and stares (NYT).
What actions need to be taken to achieve gender parity among women in leadership in Iowa?
Three weeks ago, we asked you to share your ideas. Here are a few of your responses.

Flexible work schedules! While we can't do it all, we can come much closer to managing life's obligations with a little flexibility.

From my experience, it is not the fact women are not willing to step up, it's the challenges faced from men who are blind to the fact women are actually willing and ready.

Recruitment needs to be thoughtful to ensure a diverse pool, and hiring managers must be trained to avoid letting their unconscious bias impact their hiring decisions. Hiring 'more of me' is never going to lead to an equitable and innovative workforce.

We need to help companies that are already struggling with capacity to help rethink what the workplace culture looks like so we can address some of the underlying issues that are leading to burnout and mass exiting of women from their careers.

For women to feel capable and confident about taking on leadership roles in the workplace and our community, their partners need to step up at home. More stress at work has to be countered in some way for it to be sustainable; it's otherwise very difficult to justify taking on more, more and more!

Link executive pay to diversity, inclusion and gender parity goals.

Reinforce the message that language matters. The way we talk about women matters. Harmful rhetoric should be addressed.

True pay equity at all levels.

This leads us to our next question: What's the best way for men to support women in the workforce? Please respond using this form.
For more information about women in leadership, check out these resources:
  • This discussion guide from the 2020 Women Lead Change Central Iowa Conference.
  • The 16personalities test is a great way to help identify key leadership styles.
  • Take some time with this series of implicit bias tests from Harvard University.
  • Curious about the leadership labyrinth that Tara Widner mentioned in the extended version of the above story? Read more about it here.
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