Why Red States Are Better at Getting Women Into the Boardroom

Why Red States Are Better at Getting Women Into the Boardroom

Why you should care

Because gender parity has surprising roots.

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Growing up in western Montana, Robyn Sargent never felt discouraged from pursuing a college degree or a career. Her family supported her decision to move nearly 2,000 miles south to attend Texas A&M University. And when she came back to Montana decades later, she returned as a senior associate and environmental department manager at the Billings branch of Terracon, a national consulting engineering firm.

Here, Sargent’s being an executive is hardly out of the ordinary. The state has an impressive proclivity for elevating women, according to DiscoverOrg, a sales and marketing intelligence provider, which mined its database of 45,000 executives — CEOs and those who report to the CEO — to find that:

Montana has the highest percentage of women — 40.9 percent — in the C-suite.

It wasn’t the only red state in the mix. Alaska placed third, with a third of its executives being women, despite having the highest male-to-female ratio in the country. Alabama finished in the top 10, with almost 30 percent of its boardrooms led by women. Yes, some liberal strongholds fared well: The District of Columbia, Vermont and Delaware rounded out the first five. However, other progressive stalwarts like California (21.4 percent), Massachusetts (20.7 percent) and New Jersey (20 percent) were well below the national average of 24.8 percent. The takeaway? Progressive values don’t always result in female leadership. “Just because the politics are there, it doesn’t mean the companies are really encouraging that level of executive- or management-level diversity,” says Katie Bullard, chief growth officer at DiscoverOrg.

Almost a third of the state Legislature is female, one of the highest percentages in the nation, and, generally, more women participate in the workplace here.

Industry makeup, not political leanings, more often dictate the number of women calling the shots, the researchers found. For instance, Montana ranks high in agriculture and tourism — industries that boast more female leadership on average. It also has high growth in the health industry, which averages a whopping 38 percent of female executives, far outstripping other industries. Meanwhile, low-percentage industries (such as manufacturing, oil and gas, IT services, software and finance) drag down the averages of states where those industries are dominant. “It calls on the leaders in those industries to play a bigger role in encouraging executive-level parity,” Bullard says.

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The data could have some blind spots. While Bullard says the database had a representative sample of executives in each state, low-population states did top the list. Their collection mostly consists of companies with 50 or more employees. “There aren’t going to be a lot of mom-and-pops,” Bullard says, and that’s noteworthy considering that small businesses have seen more women in charge in the past few decades, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. States that performed poorly in this study may perform better when including smaller operations.

Still, there’s a distinctly Western feel toward gender parity in the Treasure State. It comes in part from ranching, where men and women work side by side, notes Jen Euell, program director for the Women’s Foundation of Montana. Almost a third of the state Legislature is female, one of the highest percentages in the nation, and, generally, more women participate in the workplace here. Montana has above-average living costs but below-average wages, meaning that dual incomes are often necessary. And a lack of corporate jobs encourages entrepreneurship. “To increase your income in Montana, it doesn’t look like finding a job — it often looks like starting a business,” Euell says. In many cases, it’s women who are leading that charge.

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