Raising the Grade

aking the state a prosperous place for women in business is no small task, but the Lieutenant Governor isn’t shying away from a gender gap that continues to plague us.

It’s the kind of first day on the job nobody wants. Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton had barely settled into her new office at the state Capitol when a batch of discouraging figures hit her desk. It was January 2003, and the “Status of Women in Wisconsin” report had given the state a depressing C-minus.

Determined not to let the news “get a little flare of publicity, then sit on a shelf and not actually inform public policy,” in the months that followed Lawton assembled women leaders from around the state to form what would ultimately become Wisconsin Women = Prosperity, an ambitious think tank cum grassroots lobby created to close the state’s woeful gender equity gap in the workplace. Five years later, the economic initiative has morphed into one of the key programs of her post, now in its second term.

WW=P has grown from a policy brainstorming operation into, in 2006, a privately funded 501(c)3 nonprofit—the first of its kind to be borne out of the office of a sitting lieutenant governor in Wisconsin. Perhaps even more trailbrazing is its structure. WW=P was designed to remain a viable support hub for localized women’s economic growth initiatives regardless of shifting political winds.

“Incorporating was huge,” says Linda Vanden Plas, a former legislator who has served as the council’s president since its inception. “It was a way of saying, ‘We’re not going away.’ You know how politics work in Wisconsin. This could have disappeared with the next election cycle. We’re built now to withstand that.”

With its viable, long-term future firmly in place, WW=P put its mission in motion, establishing a dozen “Regional Solution Networks” across the state, each with its own governing board and responsibility for creating an agenda to tackle baseline women’s economic and political growth issues in their respective geographic areas. Lawton also tapped a wide range of sympathetic academic and professional partners to help convert inequities into what she calls “a very precise diagnostic tool” for prescribing solutions. The results are published on wiwep.org as a series of “Take Action Initiatives” detailing recommended improvement plans in twelve specific areas under broader categories of economic sufficiency, health, safety and well-being, educational achievement, and leadership and political participation.

“These are blueprints for change. They name names, give us base starting points,” says Lawton. “From there, we’ve convened implementation coalitions that take pieces of it and take responsibility for moving forward.”

Despite these early gains, the gender gap in economic equity runs deep and wide, here and everywhere. The organization has expended energy and political capital in an area historically marked by languorously slow, if any, measurable progress.

As WW=P moves through its sixth year, Lawton and the organization’s administrators admit progress has been slow. Leading women’s issues back to center stage and creating regionalized mechanisms to foster real change have been the most tangible strides forward.

“We’ve made some gains,” Lawton says. “We’ve started to reframe the way that we think about (workplace gender issues), and I think quite successfully. We continue to insist this is an economic development issue. It is a great expense (to the state) if we sideline that much talent and don’t bring it into the mainstream.”

“This is a big idea,” says Vanden Plas. “We came out wanting to tackle everything at once, which proved absolutely overwhelming. Now that we’ve got our footing, we’re finding that taking gradual, targeted steps pays off.”

Meanwhile, more research pours in, painting similarly grim pictures. A 2006 study on “The Best and Worst State Economies for Women,” conducted biennially by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, ranks us well below the national average on several key benchmarks. While more than sixty-six percent of women age sixteen and over hold jobs—the fifth highest in the nation in overall female employment—we were in the bottom third in earnings ratio between men and women who work full-time, with women earning on average seventy-five cents to the dollar that men make. Wisconsin also achieved a dubious ranking of forty-sixth in the number of women in managerial and professional positions. Overall, the state received a “C” grade, fractionally better than the C-minus in the 2002 report that jump-started WW=P.

Despite the presence of high-profile women in state government—Lawton, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, to name a few—a 2007 Wisconsin Women’s Council benchmark study revealed women in elected leadership positions weren’t faring much better at just ten percent. In fact, the study noted that “from 2005 to 2007, no progress was made in increasing the number of women holding elected offices in local government in Wisconsin. Statewide, there was a net loss of ten seats held by women across state, county, city and school district elected.”

“That’s probably the most disappointing change we’ve seen,” says Vanden Plas. “And that’s very much become the focus for several of the regional networks. It’s hard to get to a point of economic parity without the necessary legislative support.”

Lawton herself may prove to be a significant catalyst for change in that area—she has admitted her interest in running for governor in 2010 if Jim Doyle does not seek a third term—and she makes no bones that her front-row seat will continue to serve as a bully pulpit in the battle against what she calls “an unacceptable status quo.”

“I find it very frustrating when I see women who have allowed themselves to be badgered into a position where they say gender is no longer an issue,” Lawton says. “Gender is an issue. We can measure that in terms of women’s access to capital, the earnings they make. We’re not whining, we’re not asking for anything. We’re just saying help us get these changes made, or stay out of the way so we can get our work done.”

Ray Anderson is a Mt. Horeb-based writer.