Expanding Opportunity for Women in the Workforce

Learn more about the challenges facing women in Wichita, and what we can do going forward to ensure equality across every sector of the economy.

Gender equality is a topic that has been dominating conversations across the country in every newspaper, boardroom and home. And that's for good reason. The #MeToo movement, the Women's March and the gender pay chasm actresses are fighting in Hollywood have given us a lot to talk about. But in Wichita, the issue goes deeper than the discriminatory acts of a few.

Watch this short video to learn more about the challenges facing women in this city and what we can do going forward:


When Reach Advisors data analyst James Chung presented his latest findings for Focus Forward, he made it clear that Wichita struggles when it comes to providing equal opportunities between men and women.

For starters, Wichita has a wider pay gap than most other cities. Nationally, women make about 80 cents to every dollar earned by men. In Wichita, they only make about 72 cents.

"There’s an economic consequence to working here," Chung says, which makes working in other cities far more attractive.

What is it about the Wichita environment where this is the market we lost at a greater rate?James Chung

That logic proves true in Chung's data. Between 2010 and 2017, Des Moines netted 32,000 newcomers. Oklahoma City added 52,000. Wichita lost a net total of 18,000. A disproportionate number of those departures are college-educated women under age 45 and minorities with an associate's degree or higher.

"I do ask for us to at least sit back and think about 'What is it about the Wichita environment where this is the market we lost at a greater rate?'" Chung says.

While discrimination is certainly a factor that has historically plagued women in the workforce, the issues facing Wichita's women are oftentimes more nuanced — harder to see and harder to combat. They have to do with lower starting wages, a lack of mentorship opportunities, a culture insisting on traditional family roles and a lack of diversity in our economy.

The younger generation makes it clear that if these issues aren't addressed, they'll find a city where opportunities are more abundant. So, if the future is female, Wichita is at risk of losing the future.


Gloria Farha Flentje graduated from college in 1965, in the middle of a cultural revolution. The Civil Rights Act passed just a year before, making it illegal to discriminate based on gender, race, color, religion or national origin.

Despite the shift in culture, Farha Flentje says finding a career proved difficult.

"I was in Washington, D.C. in the late '60s and people said things to me like, 'We have a management training program, but it's only for men,'" she recalls. "I had some good jobs and some not-so-good jobs, and I made a decision that I had to get what I called a trade — I had to be qualified to do something."

That decision led her to law school, which she completed in 1976. Even after getting her law degree, Farha Flentje struggled to find a job at a firm. They simply weren't hiring women. She started her career at Southwestern Bell before moving to Wichita to work for Foulston Siefkin, which, along with other larger firms, finally began hiring women.

Farha Flentje worked in private practice for 20 years before jumping into the corporate world with Boeing and then Spirit AeroSystems.

Women just didn't do things like that. You stayed home, and you took care of your children.Gloria Farha Flentje

On top of challenges in the work world, Farha Flentje also had to deal with the cultural shift within her traditional immigrant family.

"My parents thought it was absolutely terrible," she says. "Women just didn't do things like that. You stayed home, and you took care of your children."

In many ways, women are still dealing with the aftershocks of this cultural upheaval. Apart from the infamous examples of misogyny and Mad Men-esque sexism — which still happen at an alarming rate — the old way of doing things has stuck around in many nuanced ways.

Farha Flentje says the pay gap, which is experienced by women across the country in almost every sector, is one of those phantom pains of the past.

"If you've got a long-term employee, women didn't get paid as much," she says. "Even when they get promoted, and they get into better jobs, it's really hard to get their salaries to make that giant jump. I think companies are really working at it now, but it, historically, has been very difficult."

Another historical hurdle is the stigma surrounding the different types of jobs. Teaching, nursing and social work have long been dominated by women. Engineering, manufacturing and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs, which tend to have higher pay, have long been dominated by men.

But that's changing.


In a city with an economy based largely on engineering and advanced manufacturing, it's becoming more and more important to integrate women into the STEM workforce, especially with so many open jobs to fill. Gayle Goetz, director of community advancement for WSU Tech, says that's happening.

"The stereotype has disappeared," she says. "It's now culturally acceptable for a woman to be a welder, for a woman to work in sheet metal, for a woman to work in aviation on the line."

Ensuring more opportunities for women in STEM fields could also help Wichita combat the pay gap issue. According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, women working in STEM experience less of a pay gap than men, even though 76 percent of STEM jobs are still held by men.

Educating women about the opportunities in STEM — and offering a diverse range of opportunities outside of STEM — is another challenge altogether.

It's now culturally acceptable for a woman to be a welder, for a woman to work in sheet metal, for a woman to work in aviation on the line.Gayle Goetz

"I think to a large part, the reason there are fewer women in leadership positions within advanced manufacturing and engineering is because there are fewer women who choose to study those fields," says Tonya Sudduth, general manager of Bombardier's Wichita site and the Learjet plant. "I think it's important that we start at a very young age, and we reach out to them and show them all the exciting things that these industries have to offer."

*Since her interview, Sudduth has been appointed to vice president of operations and the Wichita site for Bombardier Business Aircraft.

The equation of men and women in STEM fields isn't the only balance adjustment needed to ensure greater opportunities for Wichita's women. It also comes down to balancing family roles and careers between partners. Goetz says the newest generation is actively seeking out this balance — and are willing to find a new place to support that balance if necessary.

"We tend to do things the way we always have done," she says. "So rather than thinking outside the box in things like flexible work schedules and work from home ... we tend to fit these square pegs into round holes, and it's not working. So we're losing these young people to other communities where it does work."

Young people are making different choices than previous generations — and have asked their employers for the ability to make those choices. Men are taking off work for paternity leave. Women are balancing family life with high-powered careers. Farha Flentje says she sees this difference in her son, who took six weeks off when his daughter was born while working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

"That was totally unheard of when I was having children, and it was all the woman's responsibility," she says. "They just do things differently now, young men and young women. It's a much better balance in many cases."

Goetz says the younger generation is also leading the way when it comes to negotiating for higher pay. She says her daughter who lives in California negotiated for six months for a better starting wage. She says older women aren't necessarily comfortable with that level of advocacy.

"I know that when I took a job 10 years ago, 15 years ago, I didn't negotiate," Goetz says. "They're doing that because of changes in culture."

In Wichita, it seems our culture of change has stagnated. While the younger generation is expecting more from their employers and the business community at large, the leaders within that community are falling short. As a result, more and more women are leaving the Wichita workforce.

How can we ignite the culture change needed to get them to stay?


There's a movement in Wichita trying to force this culture change. Whether it's advocating for overall female empowerment, encouraging entrepreneurship or offering a co-working space specifically for female remote workers, several organizations and conferences are pushing Wichita in a new direction.

Lean In, a national organization founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, helps women by creating peer groups, or circles, for women to learn and advocate alongside each other. Check out the local Wichita circle.

The Know Your Worth Women's Leadership Conference through the Kansas Leadership Center provides insight and professional development in a day of workshops and keynotes.

The Wichita-based Finishing School for Modern Women, founded by Jill Miller, provides learning opportunities for women of all ages on how to claim power in business, finance, communication and life.

The Hive is a Wichita-based co-working space, founded by Andrea Stang, to fill the growing need for a women-centric space for collaboration.

The Tory Burch Foundation is a national organization providing access to capital, education and digital resources to empower women entrepreneurs.

Career Contessa is a career site that allows women to search for jobs and receive free career guidance and support.

The DailyWorth is a national financial media platform that focuses on money and business for an audience of professional women.

To get girls interested in STEM fields, visit sites like STEM4Girls, Girls Who Code or GoldieBlox.

For men and women looking to become advocates for women who have experienced sexual assault, harassment or workforce inequality, visit TimesUpNow.com.

Any and all of these are great opportunities to plug in and learn more about the issues facing women in Wichita. But Farha Flentje, Goetz and Sudduth all agree that finding a mentor is perhaps the best way for women to navigate their careers in Wichita.

If nothing else, it provides an opportunity for us to share stories — share different obstacles that we came across in our careers and different paths to go about solving those things.Tonya Sudduth

"If nothing else, it provides an opportunity for us to share stories," Sudduth says. "Share different obstacles that we came across in our careers and different paths to go about solving those things."

Farha Flentje says female mentors were hard to come by when she started her career, but there are plenty of women — and men — who are more than willing to share their experience and insight today.

"It's really important to have somebody you can ask the hard questions of and not feel embarrassed," she says. "You need to have somebody who will be just really willing to sit down with you and give you information."

Goetz says joining professional networking groups like Young Professionals of Wichita (YPW) or the Rotary Club is also a great start in finding a mentor and taking a stronger position in Wichita's business community.

"If you find someone that you really admire, ask," she says. "All they can say is 'No.'"

But the women themselves are not the only ones who need to create this change. If you think your company is doing enough for women workers in Wichita, think again. Go back to the drawing board. Are you evaluating employee salaries? Are you offering adequate maternity and paternity leave? Are you offering flexible work schedules or on-site childcare? What about professional mentorship?

All of these policies are becoming more and more common in Fortune 100 companies — and for good reason. Vodafone, an international phone company, says their maternity leave policy saves the company $19 billion each year by retaining talented workers who bring value to their company.

But big changes can be incremental, as well. It could be a change in thinking for men in leadership — a shift in the attitudes that likely got us to where we are today in the first place. It could be putting yourself in a pregnant employee's shoes, like in this story about Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg. It could be about changing the subtle gender roles we've created in our heads for decades and generations.

These changes aren't just about biting the bullet, taking the loss and doing the right thing — although it would be the right thing. It's about supporting a culture that values every member of the workforce equally and happens to pay big dividends in the long run by retaining top talent of all genders.


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