WILLMAR –– A presentation Wednesday in Willmar by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota was billed as the “road to equality tour.”

But the stark numbers and graphs that laid out the reality of women and girls when it comes to economic, safety, health and leadership equality indicates the road hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

There’s a societal assumption and perception that progress is inevitable and women are continuing toward equality, said Debra Fitzpatrick, director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“But when I sit down with those numbers and re-run them every two years and find that they’re really not moving in the way we perceive them to be moving, I think that that’s the most disheartening thing,” said Fitzpatrick. “That we’re plateaued in progress.”

On the premise that gender equality is a way to create “pathways to prosperity” for women, the Women’s Foundation has been compiling data since 2009 to measure factors that can put roadblocks in that path.

The report indicates the wage gap continues for Minnesota women, who make up 60 percent of low-wage workers in the state who cannot afford housing and quality daycare - Minnesota has the third-highest daycare costs in the country and the highest rental housing rate in the Midwest.

At the same time, a growing number of working Minnesota mothers are now the primary breadwinners in the family, ranging from 46 percent for white mothers to 80 percent for American Indian mothers, and an increasing number of families also have elderly parents living with them.

According to the foundation’s data, from 2000 to 2012 there has been a 64 percent increase in the number of Minnesota families with children living below the poverty line and there are more than twice as many elderly Minnesota women than men living in poverty.

“It’s a little bit of a downer,” Fitzpatrick told the audience.

There wasn’t much good news, either, in the safety component of the study that addressed the reality of violence, including sexual violence, against girls and women.

Based on estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 684,000 Minnesota women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking, the report said Target Field could be filled 17 times with female survivors of violence.

Minnesota women and girls do fare better than other states regarding health issues, but there are disparities when it comes to women of color and those living in rural parts of the state.

The role of women in elected leadership roles is also a factor in gender equality, according to the report, which said increases in women’s political representation have “flat-lined.”

In Minnesota, half of the counties, including Kandiyohi County, have no elected women on the county board and the state’s top companies have very few women on their boards.

According to the report, even when women make up the majority of the workforce in a particular area, such as in nonprofit organizations or schools, more than 70 percent of the top administrators are men.

Looking at the statistics as a whole, “there’s no way you can feel anything but disheartened,” said Mary Beth Hanson, director of communications for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

“We’re moving at a glacial pace for most of us, but we’re getting there,” said Hanson, who highlighted some local successes with programs that receive grants from the foundation, including the Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson that is part of a program to help girls who have been involved with sex trafficking, and the Willmar School District’s “Girl Talk” program that engages girls from East Africa and encourages them to continue their education.

Fitzpatrick said “dramatic steps,” like the Women’s Economic Security Act that was signed into law in Minnesota this spring, are needed to push the equality movement off the plateau.

She said that new law, which addresses a variety of wage, employment and safety issues, is a “tipping point” and the “beginning of a sea change” in true equality for women.

Fitzpatrick said polling indicates women’s economic security will be an issue in the next election.

“That gives us a lot of hope that there is this sort of renewed focus and recognition that this is a problem that we can’t expect will fix itself,” she said. “We all need to figure it out together, as a state, as voters and citizens of the state of Minnesota.”

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