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Sherri Richards, Published July 07 2012

InDepth: Workplace equality | Creating a career

To read past InDepth topics on mental illness, eating disorder, and infertility, go to the SheSays section of Inforum.com and click on the InDepth tab.

FARGO - JoAnne Halvorson says she was one of those kids who never should have made anything of herself.

She came from a broken home, was placed in foster care, and was on her own at an early age.

She didn’t get a college degree. She divorced and worked odd jobs to provide for her three children.

“Me and the kids always struggled and went without a lot of things,” Halvorson says.

Her oldest had a baby at age 14. Halvorson started managing apartment buildings as a way to be near her children while working. At other jobs, like cashiering, she couldn’t just take time off if her kids needed her.

“It’s hard to be out there paying the bills and be emotionally available to your kids,” she says.

But it frustrated Halvorson to see the property’s maintenance man get paid 50 percent more per hour for doing the same tasks, such as painting or shoveling snow.

That’s why she decided to start a cleaning business with her daughter in 2008. Within a year, she quit property management, and this summer, Dirt Divas Cleaning Co. will have its own office space.

“Now life is starting to settle down. I do own my own business. I do have more flexibility. I have more money to give to my kids so they don’t have to go without,” says Halvorson, 46.

It was important for her to make her daughter Amelia Gomez, 26, a partner in the business, Halvorson says.

“She’s not going to have to struggle,” she says. “Women know if you’re going to make the big bucks, you’re going to have to be self-employed. That’s what I think.”

Anecdotes like Halvorson’s and local and national statistics show that working women, especially mothers, face unique challenges. This summer is a touchstone moment for issues surrounding women in the workplace.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed the U.S. Senate, brought fresh attention to the issue of wage disparity by gender. An essay in the July/August issue of The Atlantic reopened the debate as to whether American professional women really can “have it all.”

As national director of local chapters for the National Association of Professional Women, Cindy Burns hears concerns from professional women across the country.

“The biggest challenge sometimes is to be taken seriously in certain aspects, and to have the nerve to speak up,” Burns says. “I hear that from a lot of members.”

Burns, with the NAPW, also hears from mothers that the unexpected obligations of parenthood can interrupt work. “For some reason, mothers are the go-to person,” Burns says.

And while issues facing women in the workforce are at the forefront of media and conversation today, many members of NAPW’s 310 U.S. chapters tell Burns they feel they will always face issues. They key is personal time management, planning and balance, including taking time for oneself, she says.


Issues affecting working women are particularly important in North Dakota, which boasts a high percentage of working women and mothers, says Karen Olson, information specialist with North Dakota State University.

Olson says North Dakota has ranked second nationally (behind South Dakota) for the proportion of mothers in the workforce, and third (behind South Dakota and Iowa) for the proportion of mothers of young children in the workforce.

According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey for 2008-2010, almost 75 percent of North Dakota women with children younger than 6 are employed.

The same survey found North Dakota women who work full-time, year-round had a median income of $31,384, compared with $43,712 for men.

Overall wages for men in North Dakota were $32,346 for men compared with $19,292 for women.

North Dakota women are more likely to work fewer hours per week than men, with 57.4 percent of women usually working 35 or more hours per week compared with 76.3 percent of men, the Census Bureau reports.

More than twice as many North Dakota women than men usually work part-time, according to a 2011 report by Job Service titled “The Balancing Act: Challenges for Today’s Working Women.”

Of 42,000 N.D. women who work part time, 30.9 percent said it was because they had other family or personal obligations and 2.3 percent listed child care problems. Of the 20,000 male part-time workers, 5 percent had other family or personal obligations, while child care problems were not listed because the data set was too small.

Securing child care does seem to rest squarely with the working mom in most cases.

Linda Lembke, director of Lakes and Prairie Child Care Resource and Referral, says that of people who have contacted the agency since January 2011, 84 percent were mothers.

“While I’m not saying it’s not a partnership, mom’s doing the legwork, up-front anyway,” Lembke says. “That may carry into other parts of choosing and using child care.”


Mothers in particular face economic challenges and disparity, though whether this is a factor of discrimination or personal choice is debated.

Statistics provided by MomsRising.org state that women without children make 90 cents to a man’s dollar, mothers make 73 cents to a man’s dollar, and single moms make about 60 cents to a man’s dollar.

The group cites another study that with identical resumes and job experiences, mothers were offered $11,000 lower starting salaries than non-mothers.

A journal article by sociologists from The Pennsylvania State University and University of Minnesota published in February found that mothers “paid a 6 percent penalty to their hourly wages per child.” The authors state that work interruptions and breaks in schooling help explain the wage gap.

A study by Cornell University found that women with advanced degrees in math-intensive academic fields drop out of fast-track research careers primarily because they want children. It described motherhood as “detrimental” to women’s scientific careers.

In her essay in The Atlantic, Ann-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the State Department and mother of two teens, wrote that while generations of women have clung to the credo that women can “have it all,” it’s not possible “with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.” She points to a devalued importance of family life, as well as the “time macho” workplace culture.

“(T)he minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be – at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence,” Slaughter wrote.


Amy Anderson, a West Fargo veterinarian, agrees the biggest challenge facing working women is balancing family life.

“I frequently feel as though I am neglecting one when I am with the other,” she says.

She points out that while far more women are entering the veterinary profession, the majority of veterinary practice owner are still men, a fact that’s often discussed in her field.

“There are a lot of women out there who think they don’t want to add that extra responsibility into everything else they already have to do,” Anderson says.

However, as co-owner of West Fargo Animal Hospital, Anderson finds it easier to achieve that balance.

“As an employee, when I had a sick child and had to take an unexpected day off, I always felt like I was letting my boss and co-workers down. Now, I can bring my children to work, if needed, or juggle my schedule a bit without having to ask permission and worry that my boss will think I am neglecting my work duties,” she says. “As an owner, the guilt is my own, not put on me by anyone else (perceived or not).”

With all female employees, Anderson says she and her business partner, Carrie Summerfield, have tried to be as flexible as possible and try not to put any of that guilt on the employees. She describes it as a whole different management style. And she believes the ranks of clinic owners will become more occupied by women.

“I think a woman is hardwired to feel that strong bond and obligation to family structure and harmony, but we also want to get out there and make a place in the world of business as well. It is a great feeling to be a successful business owner, wife and mother, but being equally great at all three is hard.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556