Workplace gender equality improving, but still not great

Editor’s Note: This month’s Point of View series looks at diversity in the southern Red River Valley. In this installment we take a peek into the gender disparity within certain occupations.

In the early 20th century, just under 20% of women were employed outside the home, and less than 5% were married women, according to a Brookings Institution essay. Now, according to estimates from the Census Bureau, about 45% or 74,173,483 women are employed.

“By the 1970s, women began using Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to call out sex discrimination in workplaces and demand better jobs and better pay,” said Jennifer Pierce, professor of American Studies, University of Minnesota.

With more women entering the workplace every year, the disparity within certain careers has remained relatively similar. Women make up less than 20% of the architectural, engineering and law enforcement careers. Conversely, in most datasets, women make up over 70% of the education and healthcare careers.

“The result has been tremendous change in some occupations and professions since the 1970s, but not so much in others. Put another way, change has been uneven,” Pierce said. “Part of this has to do with the fact that some people consider gender segregation natural and encourage women to take on ‘women’s jobs’ such as nursing or teaching.”

Even though women make up a majority of the educational careers in Richland County, according to the Census, they aren’t as likely to fill leadership/administrative roles such as superintendent, principals or directors. The Wahpeton School District’s staff directory only lists three of the nine school administrators as women, while 74 of the 100 teachers are women.

The imbalance can be seen at the Richland County level, as 74.3% of people employed in educational instruction and libraries are women and 92.1% of healthcare practitioners and technicians are women. While 15.1% of architects and engineers are women and 10.3% of law enforcement are women, according to the 2020 Census. In most cases these numbers only differ from North Dakota data by a few percent. These numbers, especially in smaller populations, have the possibility of larger margins of error for percentage. For example, the arts, design, entertainment, sports and media occupations section in Richland County has 30.9% of the workforce being men, with the margin of error at +/-25.2%.

“Wow, 15%? That’s up from 5% when I started in engineering,” Red Door Art Gallery (RDAG) Business Manager Leslie Enerson, chuckled.

Wyndmere, North Dakota, resident Enerson, the daughter of a feminist activist and a NDSU professor of engineering, had no idea that her career path would lead her into a “man’s world.” She was in advanced math classes throughout high school and then pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in mechanical engineering.

“I didn’t know why people were angry with me. When I did well on tests I was being babied, but when I did poorly it’s because women didn’t belong there,” Enerson said. “I was so naive; I had no idea how sexist the world was.”

After graduating, Enerson was offered a job at Bobcat, a global company in the industry of designing, manufacturing, marketing and distributing compact equipment, where she was the first female engineer to be hired. She has worked in engineering with three other companies including PrimeWood Inc., WCCO Belting and Buhler. At WCCO she worked as the VP of engineering and at Buhler she was the Director of engineering for their Farm King sector.

“I was always the highest ranking female in any of my jobs,” she said. “We couldn’t usually retain women in our offices, but I was still there. Some coworkers would tell me, ‘Well, Leslie you’re not really a woman.’”

Two of Enerson’s four engineering jobs ended specifically due to sexism, she said. She did not wish to share which companies perpetrated this sexism, though.

“I wanted to be recognized for my engineering abilities, I’m really good at what I do,” she said. “Women want to be respected and recognized as women; they don’t secretly want to be men when they work in these careers.”

Enerson recognizes her privilege as a white woman with access to more funds than some. It doesn’t negate the struggles she has had in her career but did make things, like taking care of her children, easier.

She began as the first ever full-time gallery director in 2016 at RDAG. She later left for another engineering position, but has since come back and has no plans to go back into an engineering career.

Native Artist Laura Youngbird, Breckenridge, Minnesota, has faced similar challenges in her career. In high school she took an architectural drawing class and she was the only girl in the class.

“People looked at me weirdly for being in the class,” she said.

Youngbird graduated from a trade school in Glasgow, Montana, with certifications in mechanical drawing. Soon after, she got a position in the engineering field, which she said she enjoyed. However, people often didn’t expect her to be employed there.

“People would often come in and ask about a project, and when I tried to answer, they would ask for someone else,” she said. “My boss would come out and say ‘well she probably knows more than I do.’”

Youngbird said she had the respect of her bosses and coworkers, it was just people such as contractors coming in less often who seemed shocked by a woman in the industry. After people began to know and recognize her, she stopped having those issues.

As she worked, she would take classes here and there, eventually gaining her BFA in drawing and painting from Minnesota State University Moorhead. After changing careers to be an artist like she imagined as a child, Youngbird obtained a Master’s degree and a teaching certification. After getting her Master’s, she had accepted a position at Wahpeton’s Circle of Nations school as a cultural coordinator and then moved into an art teacher position where she worked for 18 years.

While she has had fewer issues working in the arts and education due to her sex, being a woman of color definitely made things harder for her.

“People would say that I only got a certain grant because I was Native, diminishing all the work I have done,” Youngbird said.

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