Is Wisconsin Leading the Charge in Workplace Gender Equity?

A century ago, Wisconsin led the charge toward greater gender equality, but today’s women are still fighting for equity in the work place.

It’s an overcast autumn evening, and the clouds hanging around the Wisconsin Club are nearly the same shade of white as the building itself. Many of the roughly 300 people, mostly women, who have gathered in the club’s grand ballroom are wearing white, too. Some have also draped sashes around their shoulders or donned broad-brimmed hats.

Illuminated by a trio of chandeliers that hang from the Gilded Age ballroom’s barrel ceilings, they look like they could be suffragists celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment. And in a way, they are.

One hundred years ago, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to ratify an amendment granting women the right to vote. Now, Rebecca Kleefisch, former lieutenant governor and current executive director of the national Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, has come to the club tonight to speak about the progress women have made over the last century. Standing in front of a gargantuan American flag, Kleefisch talks about the lessons we can learn from suffragists like the Ripon-born teacher and school superintendent Carrie Chapman Catt. Kleefisch’s tone is upbeat, her words uplifting. She acknowledges that the fight for equality isn’t over, but she suggests that it’s one that will inevitably be won. Near the end of her speech, she evokes the words of Chapman Catt’s mentor, famed social reformer Susan B. Anthony: “Failure is impossible.”

It’s easy to imagine, while listening to Kleefisch, that there is no limit to what the women of Wisconsin might accomplish. We live in the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the first state to pass an equal rights bill, the state with the second-highest percentage of women in its workforce. And yet, we haven’t achieved equality yet. Not at home. And certainly not at work, where women are still underpaid and underrepresented.

“I am proud to work for a company that values me as an employee and works to accommodate my needs as a woman and a mother. My company and co-workers have gone out of their way to adjust and flex to make the atmosphere more comfortable for me and now other female employees in my office. I am very grateful!”


Wisconsin’s working women are better off today than they were a century ago, or even a generation ago. Employers can’t fire pregnant workers for requesting time off to care for their newborns. And if they ignore sexual harassment claims, they can be held legally liable for them.

A majority of local workers also feel more comfortable discussing workplace harassment issues now than they did even two years ago, according to the professional women’s group Tempo Milwaukee. Earlier this year, it surveyed 280 women and 103 men, asking them for their thoughts on workplace harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement and found that 36% of female and nearly 50% of male respondents believe that instances of harassment have decreased since the movement gained traction.

But in a 2018 Tempo Milwaukee survey, 68% of female respondents said they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work. And some of them shared frankly horrifying stories of abuse: “At company-sponsored conferences for distributors,” one woman wrote, “several of the distributors were very sexually aggressive, and one tried to drag me into a hotel room. When I reported it to my superior, I was told, ‘You’re young, you’re pretty, and you’ll just have to get used to it.’ When I then raised it with HR, to find out if I really just had to get used to it, my superiors were reprimanded and trained.”

Although the state now prohibits sex-based wage discrimination, that doesn’t mean that women make as much money as men.

According to the Wisconsin Women’s Council (which analyzed the state’s 2017 census records, the most recent available), women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar that men do. And women of color fare significantly worse than their white co-workers. Black and Latina women make just 62% and 56% as much as men, respectively.

Wisconsin’s pay gap is slowly shrinking. But it’s not projected to disappear entirely until 2067, right around the time today’s high school students will begin retiring. And the gap actually has been widening for many women in the service sector. In Milwaukee County, female service workers made $25,733 a year, on average, between 2013 and 2017 while male service workers earned $31,567 over the same period. That’s a difference of $5,834, enough to cover the annual payments on a $100,000 30-year mortgage (at current rates).

Not everyone considers the pay gap a source of concern. Researchers have found that, when comparing workers with the same qualifications and job titles, women actually make about 98% as much as men nationwide. But they earn significantly less overall because of another problem: They’re less likely to land high-powered, high-paying jobs in the first place, for several reasons.

“One instance [of gender bias] that I will always remember involved a conference call with a much older male. He refused to speak with me about the project that I solely engineered. The way he spoke to me made it seem like he didn’t think I could answer any questions. He kept asking to speak to my boss (assuming he was male, which he was). My boss got on the phone and told the guy, ‘Jennifer is the structural engineer for the project, and she knows every detail about the building, from the roof to the foundation. She will answer any questions you have. Thank you.’ And then he handed the phone back to me. Needless to say, my boss had my back!”


Survey Says

FOR A 2002 FEATURE titled “Women & Power,” Milwaukee Magazine surveyed over 100 of our female subscribers. To gauge how local women’s opinions have (or haven’t) changed since then, we invited our female readers to take an updated version of the survey, and we got over 200 responses.

The results show that reader attitudes toward workplace gender dynamics have remained fairly consistent over the last 17 years. But not entirely so. In 2002, 61% of our respondents agreed that it’s up to women to change to fit corporate culture. Only 13% feel the same way now, suggesting that more women believe that companies should adapt to the needs of their female employees.

Male managers are frequently intimidated by or experience difficulties managing women.

↓ 8%

Men have difficulty being supervised by women. 

↑ 3%

Men and women are equally qualified to assume senior-level positions. 

↑ 1%

A significant number of white men in my company are concerned with “reverse discrimination.”

↓ 16%

Having children hinders a woman’s chance to advance

↑ 5%

Providing opportunities for women at the highest levels may men filling an important post with an unprepared individual. 

↑ 6%

Women have difficulty being supervised by women. 

↓ 6%

It is up to women to change to fit corporate culture

↓ 48%

For one thing, women in Wisconsin – and everywhere else, really – still shoulder most child care responsibilities. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that American mothers spent nearly twice as many hours each week on child care as fathers (14 and eight hours, respectively). And while working moms are picking up their kids from school or shepherding them to doctor appointments, their co-workers may be putting in extra hours at work, securing their next promotions.

Studies also show that employers consider working mothers less competent and less dedicated employees than working fathers or childless women, regardless of how many hours they log at work. Johannah Karstedt St. John, CEO of the local women’s organization Professional Dimensions, is well aware of this bias. “At my job before this [a vice president at a project management firm], I was the only person who had kids. I felt like I had to tiptoe around my personal life, and I worried that if I had to leave at 5:30 to pick up my kid that people might be thinking I was less dedicated.” Karstedt St. John loves where she works now, but she knows that corporate culture is still largely unwelcoming to mothers. “There’s a measurable negative impact on women, when they become parents, that men don’t experience.”

Susannah Lago agrees. Two years ago, she was a new mom, struggling to juggle her job and her kids while still maintaining some semblance of a social life. So she founded Working Moms of Milwaukee. Since then, she’s connected with about 2,000 other mothers, and she’s found that employers stand to benefit as much as their employees. Parent-friendly policies help companies attract and retain the hardworking, highly qualified workers that they sorely need. (The Wisconsin Policy Forum found that, in 2017, we lost more highly educated workers between the ages of 31 and 40 than all but seven other states.)

“There’s always more that can be done,” Lago says. She’d like to see more companies provide paid maternity leave and pumping spaces. She also thinks that they should consider permitting their employees to work from home, or on flexible schedules, to make it easier for parents to excel both at the office and at home. “I don’t think employers have to wait for the laws to change to decide to do better,” she says.

Survey Says

IN THE SAME SURVEY that we sent out earlier this fall, we also asked our readers to share how strongly they agreed with the following statements.

Women of color face more career obstacles than white women. 

My company takes sexual harassment allegations seriously. 

Companies should be required to provide their employees with paid parental leave. 

Companies should work hard and invest significant resources to eliminate the gender pay gap.

I’m happy with my work-life balance.

Implementing parent-friendly policies would go a long way toward closing the state’s pay gap and strengthening its workforce. But men still occupy a disproportionately large number of leadership positions here, and even childless women struggle to climb to the top of their career ladders. In a 2002 feature titled “Women & Power,” former MilMag editor Mary Van de Kamp Nohl wrote more than 5,000 words on the subject. “I am sitting here quietly seething … listening to the things men say,” Sister Kathleen O’Brien – who was then the vice president for academic affairs at Alverno College – told Van de Kamp Nohl. “What we have done to women and minorities is say that if they are powerless, it’s their problem. They have to fix it. But power comes from position, and you change the culture from the top.”

According to a 2019 research report by Milwaukee Women Inc., less than a third of Wisconsin’s 50 largest companies have three or more female executives. (Collectively, these companies employed about one female executive for every five male executives.) And less than a quarter of them have three or more female board members. This last statistic is particularly baffling because Milwaukee Women, and many other organizations, have also found that companies that consistently retain three or more female board members outperform those that don’t.

Julia Taylor, then the CEO of the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, also spoke with Van de Kamp Nohl for the 2002 feature. “Until you get a critical mass of women,” she said, “people don’t see that each woman executive is different, like men.” Soon after the story ran, Taylor was named the first female president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a civic organization that had epitomized the worst of boy’s club culture. Now its board of directors is far closer to being gender-balanced than most, and it regularly spearheads initiatives designed to help more women break through the glass ceiling.

Many local businesswomen and entrepreneurs, like Sharon Celek Kevil, are trying to do the same thing. Five years ago, when Kevil was working as a product designer for Kohl’s, she saw some of the best and brightest women in her department get passed over for promotions time after time. So, when she founded her own custom furniture company, Forti, she knew that she wanted to work with other women as much as possible, in
part because it felt like the right thing to do, and in part because it made good business sense.

“Being a woman is an asset,” she says. “We’ve been resourceful enough to find a way into a work culture that wasn’t set up for us to succeed in and has at times been downright hostile.”

“All these issues are side effects of the fact that labor in general is not respected or fairly compensated. We won’t be able to truly solve workplace inequality until we solve class inequality.”


Chief Judge Maxine White

Kevil is also quick to point out that, while all of Wisconsin’s working women have faced obstacles, women of color have overcome the most. “White women need to be aware that we experience discrimination to a far lesser degree than women of color or women with disabilities, and we need to do better in getting doors opened for all women.”

The Honorable Maxine White is well aware of the additional barriers that women of color must break through. Born in rural Mississippi in 1951, she grew up surrounded by people who believed in, and fought to defend, segregation.

White, the daughter of sharecroppers who never graduated from high school, knew the odds of her going on to obtain three degrees were long. And the odds of her becoming the first African American woman to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Wisconsin or as the chief judge of Milwaukee County were even longer. “The obstacles and the challenges were always there,” she says. “When I left the cotton fields of Mississippi, they followed me.”

But she never let them defeat her. While studying law at Marquette University, she read and reread everything her professors gave her until she was sure that she understood it at least as well as her peers.

She also says that she always had other women cheering her on, helping her “every step of the
way.” The most notable among them may have been the late politician and civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips. White first met Phillips in the 1970s and came to see her as a second mother, an older sister and a colleague all rolled into one.

White now keeps a portrait of Phillips hanging in her office. And, when asked whether she thinks Wisconsin women have made progress in the workplace in recent years, she laughingly remembers something Phillips used to call “the NAACP Waltz,” which she described as “two steps forward, a side step and one step backward.”

Not much progress, in other words. But not nothing, either.

“In my experience, diversity of leadership styles creates more inclusive environments. And more inclusive workplace environments create a space that encourages innovation at every level, where everyone’s ideas and creativity are welcome.”


“Women’s Work” appears in the November 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.