Jen Euell is program director of Women’s Foundation of Montana.

Let's start with good news: women account for nearly 30 percent of the Montana Legislature.

"While that's certainly not 50 percent, it does put us in the top 10 states as far as women in leadership," said Jen Euell, program director of the Women's Foundation of Montana.

The bad news? When it comes to gender equity, take your pick.

Women represent less than 25 percent of elected officials in the U.S. and only a tiny percentage of CEOs of corporations, Euell said.

At the current rate of change, gender parity won't exist in elected leadership in the nation until 2121, according to the foundation. Relatively speaking, pay equity will arrive much sooner, in just 63 years.

Yet when women have financial power, society is better off. The first thing women do is invest in their families, and the second thing they do is spend on community, said Kim Shappee, a financial adviser and member of the foundation's advisory board.

"I think women's agency may be one of the most important challenges that we solve of our coming century," Shappee said.

Back in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed he sought as governor to appoint women to his cabinet and received as a result, "binders full of women."

People mocked him, and a study from the University of Massachusetts showed the number of women holding senior posts in fact dropped under him — and rose after he left office.

But the notion that those in power would select women for boards or executive jobs if only women would throw their names in the hat persists, and there's at least some truth to it.

Euell summed up the story she hears when business leaders in Montana talk about the challenge of bringing women on board: "We believe that women's leadership is important, and we try really hard to create a space that's equal in our workplace. But what we find is women don't apply for the jobs."

In response, the foundation launched a project earlier this month called "Binder of Women" at PowerHouse Montana. Its goal is to advance women by matching them with opportunities in the public and private sectors.

The virtual binder aims to provide qualified lists of candidates to companies seeking new board members or a CEO and also offer strong women candidates to state government for boards and commissions.

PowerHouse Montana is an online network connecting women with mentors and counting, to date, 310 registrants. The foundation just invited its members to sign up for the binder, or identify opportunities they'd accept to run for office or serve on a board. Late last week, 34 people had signed on.

"We want to make the best choice the easiest choice," Euell said.


Montana can claim some high points when it comes to gender equality, Euell said.

It's a pioneer state, and many ancestors built farms and ranches from the ground up using men's and women's labor equally, she said.

"So there is some sense in Montana and in many places of the West of the value of women," Euell said. "We were one of the first states to pass an equal pay law."

But women earn just 67 percent of what men earn in the Treasure State, and Montana is 39th in the country for pay equity, according to Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock's equal pay task force. And Euell said a lot of the high wage jobs in Montana are in extractive industries and not appealing to many women either.

Although the Legislature has a fair share of women, Montana has had only one female governor, Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican elected in 2000. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to Congress, but she's been the only woman elected to Congress from Montana since.

"So I feel like it's kind of a mixed bag," Euell said.

In the Montana University System, women are well represented in some corners, but they're only starting to break into the top ranks.

At least one unit of the University of Montana is split nearly down the middle when it comes to gender balance among faculty. Dean Reed Humphrey of the College of Health Professions & Biomedical Sciences reported the tally in his shop.

The college counts 27 male faculty members and 26 female faculty members, he said — with one outstanding offer going to a female. He said the researchers lean male, and instructors in the health professions lean female, but overall, it's balanced.

"We're about as evenly divided as you can imagine," Humphrey said.

Only recently have women reached the highest levels of leadership in higher education. Montana State University in Bozeman has a female — and Latina — president, Waded Cruzado. Sheila Stearns is temporarily leading the University of Montana as president, and she earlier served as the state's commissioner of higher education.

UM hasn't ever had a permanent female president, and the head of a search committee said most of the people who apply are likely to be white males.

In general, around the world, men are the heavy hitters, Shappee said. She said women are working in service to their communities, but they're not in the top 1 percent echelon.

"I feel like we've moved the dial in so many ways, but it's like cracking those last positions," she said.


Getting women to run for elected office is a challenge too, although the 2016 presidential election that put Donald Trump in office is helping to fuel interest. In a recent investigation, Politico reported that women win races at the same rates that men win, but they're less likely to run in the first place.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Republican from Forsyth, said Democrats are doing a better job of recruiting female candidates to run, possibly because their issues are more aligned. Regardless, she encounters women who are more than skeptical of entering politics.

"They think you're crazy for doing it, for putting yourself through the stress and the scrutiny," Custer said.

Custer ran for the Legislature because she'd served as county clerk and recorder in Rosebud County for 36 years and figured her political experience would come in handy in Helena. But she's a moderate, and in her words, she's been placed in a "timeout" by leaders on the far right.

Custer has experience with taxation, state administration, and local government, and she's expressed interest in those committees, but she doesn't get appointments.

She isn't sensitive to it, but she encounters gender bias as well. Elected leaders seek opinions from the moderates who are male but usually not from the females, she said.

"Some of us have probably more experience politically than they do," Custer said.

She's used to getting things done regardless. Custer works both sides of the aisle, passing five pieces of legislation this year and four in 2015.

"And some of them were tough," she said.

As the first woman elected as clerk and recorder in Rosebud County, she worked for many years with all male commissioners, and she said she learned to "get along with the good ol' boys."

At one point, commissioners liked to buy road graders and heavy equipment, but they ignored the county courthouse's pressing need for a new copy machine until Custer threatened to paint it "Cat yellow."

"We were spending all our time un-jamming it. (But) they weren't the person that were using the copy machines," Custer said.


Custer agrees that Montana has at least one thing going for it when it comes to women in leadership. She grew up on a ranch, where women and men alike get their hands dirty and work, but she said getting women involved needs to start early, with things like student councils.

"They're stepping stones to being a leader later on," she said.

And getting women in the pipeline now will mean a different landscape in the next century, Shappee said. One exciting thing about Montana is it's a smaller ship to turn than, say, California, and she likes to think about the possibilities for the state.

"What does Montana look like in 2050?" Shappee said.

She hopes it's branded as a place that's rich in natural resources and culture and as a leader in STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — and she definitely wants women to help shape the brand.

Men are knocking down barriers for women too and pushing them to higher places as well, she said. Shappee credits Tom Swenson of the Bank of Montana for advocating for her.

"The data is really compelling that this is something we do together," she said.

At the recent launch party for the "Binder of Women," some 80 women appeared, but Shappee said the first thing the hosts did was thank the 12 men who also showed up — to support their wives, daughters, mothers, and communities. 

Euell said focus groups show women don't lack the education to get ahead — in fact, they generally have more education than men — but they don't have the networks, the relationships, the access to power. The goal of the "Binder of Women" is to make those connections.

"We can talk about equality and raise our kids hopefully with the idea of equality, but figuring how to make sure that that plays out in the workplace and in our schools and in all the institutions is a harder and longer process," Euell said.

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