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VOL. 7 | NO. 9 | Saturday, February 22, 2014

Breaking Through

Women working hard to shatter glass ceiling locally, nationally

By Don Wade

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If it was just an abstraction or a mere theory, it wouldn’t have a definition in the dictionary or a website. It would simply be another urban myth.

General Motors named Mary Barra as the first female CEO of a major automaker. Barra, along with high-profile names like Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, is among the 23 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They are proof that women are breaking the so-called glass ceiling. 

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

But with a few keystrokes you can go right to www.glassceiling.com. And the dictionary definition of “glass ceiling” is tangible – “an unfair system or set of attitudes that prevents some people (such as women or people of a certain race) from getting the most powerful jobs.” In fact, you can almost see a woman stuck in middle management, briefcase in hand, staring up at that glass ceiling and wondering: Where do I find the ladder that gets me from here to there?

Women account for 51.5 percent of middle-management/professional jobs in the U.S. work force, but only 4.6 percent CEO positions in the Fortune 500, according to a study by Catalyst (www.catalyst.org), a nonprofit with the mission of expanding women’s business opportunities.

There are, however, a few well-known exceptions to the statistical trends. After decades of working her way up at General Motors, Mary Barra recently became the first female CEO of a major automaker. Meg Whitman is CEO at Hewlett-Packard and Marissa Mayer is CEO at Yahoo. In all, 23 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. Which at least means it’s possible for aspiring women to look at those examples, stare into that glass ceiling above and perhaps see themselves in a different way.

“It speaks volumes that, ‘I can, too,’” said Carla Harris, who was recently appointed by President Barack Obama as chairwoman of the National Women’s Business Council, and who was in Memphis earlier this month to speak to employees at Medtronic Inc.

“There are some amazing young women that are in the pipeline, in high school and college and graduate school right now. And there is nothing more motivating than seeing someone who looks like you in a senior position,” said Harris, who also is vice chairwoman of global wealth management, managing director and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley.

“You only have one African-American woman who is CEO of a Fortune 500 company and that’s Ursula Burns (Xerox Corp.),” Harris continued. “But again, this is just exponentially motivating and it says loudly that it can be done.”

Not that this is all about getting to the top of a Fortune 500 company. Many women simply want to have a fair opportunity to reach their career dreams right where they are – whether that’s advancing within a small or large company in Memphis and the Mid-South, or starting their own business.

There are 7.8 million women-owned businesses in the United States, according to the National Women’s Business Council. This reflects a 20.1 percent increase. However, as Harris points out, those numbers are dated – showing the change from 2002 to 2007. In some ways, it’s almost appropriate that the data on women in business is behind. It mirrors the challenge ahead.

Danis Fuelling is CEO of Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment in Memphis. She calls the examples set by Barra and others “phenomenal. It speaks to what women can do,” she said. “They earned the respect of their peers to get to that point.”

Those women would, by any description, be women in “high gear.” Amy Howell, CEO of Howell Marketing Strategies in Memphis, recently co-authored a book with Anne Deeter Gallaher of Pennsylvania, “Women in High Gear: A Guide for Entrepreneurs, On-Rampers, and Aspiring Executives.”

Hewlett-Packard CEO and president Meg Whitman speaks in 2012 at a conference on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. 

(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Just having the drive to get from here to there is not enough, Howell says, adding that women must understand the lay of the land and have a map – a plan – for advancing their careers.

“I talk a lot about the challenges of working in a male-dominated work force,” Howell, 49, said. “The Memphis business landscape is certainly dominated by men. However, that’s not a reason to throw in the towel or give up. Women have to be creative, strategic, smart and, most importantly, they have to recognize and admit that men run the world.

“If they’re OK with that,” Howell said, “they can create great opportunities. You learn to adjust. It’s like anything else – survival of the fittest. You figure out what makes men tick, you watch them, you support them, make them look good and win them over, basically.”

Having it all

Howell, who is married with two children, writes in the book: “My drive to do more was equal to my drive to be a mom. I used to feel guilty about it, but to all young women out there: Don’t feel guilty. You can find that balance with remote work arrangements and huge advances in technology.”

Catalyst research found that both men and women with high career aspirations liked flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and used the FWA options at about the same rate. Women, however, were more likely to telecommute and thus reduce the amount of “face time” in the office.

So there is a notion out there that for women, family must be first, last, everything. Fuelling actually works with her husband, Scott, in the family business. He’s president and handles sales and marketing and in her role as CEO she takes care of the management and financial side of things. They both try to be good parents to their daughters, ages 17 and 22.

“It’s no different for a man than a woman,” she said.

Except that, for some, it clearly is.

“There are women that are not cut out to be in the business world and I say that respectfully,” Howell said. “If a woman chooses to stay home and raise her kids or volunteers for the church or helps in the community, those women are invaluable. We have them in spades in Memphis. The Junior League is a force of nature.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. 

(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Yet, Howell says there is still work to be done with FWAs for those women who do have the same desire to prosper in a career as for being mothers.

“That 8 to 5 is not family friendly,” she said.

Leigh Shockey, CEO at Drexel Chemical Co. and chairwoman of the Greater Memphis Chamber, kept working after she had her son. At the time, she was running her own business with just a few employees. She says women need to look at work and family and envision what they can do, not what they can’t, adding, “Nothing’s holding a woman back other than her own beliefs.”

What do women bring to the table?

It’s a unique set of abilities that literally might make a company more profitable or play a role in preventing poor decisions.

“There are 10 partners in our firm,” said Frank Ricks, one of the founding principals of the Memphis-based LRK Inc. architectural firm. “Everybody looks at the world differently. As designers, we get hung up on the art of it. So it’s great having (partners) Elaine (Covin) and Rebecca (Courtney) at the table. They’ll call us on it if we lose perspective.

“I wouldn’t want nine partners to think like myself. We’d be over in a ditch somewhere.”

Women tend to be more inclusive, Harris says, and that can be a good stimulus for different ideas coming to the fore.

“If you’re in an industry that competes around innovation, it means you have to have great ideas at the table,” she said. “Which means, by definition, you have to have a diversity of ideas at the table. And in order to have diverse ideas at the table you need people with diverse perspectives. That means you’re going to have to have different people around the table.”

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote a story about gender-diverse corporate boards drawing investors, even citing studies that claimed Fortune 500 companies with more gender diversity performed better.

Morgan Stanley Wealth Management created the Parity Portfolio, which holds around two dozen companies that have at least three women on their corporate boards.

“To me, the research is there that shows more diverse boards have stronger financials,” Eve Ellis, a Morgan Stanley financial adviser and co-founder of the portfolio, told the Wall Street Journal.

Whether on the board at a Fortune 500 company or simply at the helm of a smaller company in Memphis, women say they still encounter resistance from men in some instances.

“I’m not gonna lie,” said Fuelling, who works in the audio-visual field. “The industry itself is still a boy’s club. If I make a decision they don’t like, they’ll want to talk to Scott. I’ll politely tell them that I’m the final decision-maker.”

If it sounds like women have to be tough, but not perceived as too tough, that’s about right – even as it’s wrong.

“Women who have ascended to positions of leadership absolutely can make tough decisions,” Harris said. “Now how do you deliver that message? That goes to the person.”

The crucial thing, Howell says, is that the decision gets made devoid of emotional/political clutter.

“In business, you can’t please everybody,” she said. “Sometimes doing the right thing is doing the hard thing. If I ran my business the way the city runs its business, I’d be out of business. I hate to say that, but that’s just the reality.”

Breaking through

So there comes a day, in a perfect world, where the glass ceiling no longer exists and all that is left to remind of how things used to be are so many scattered shards. One way for that to happen is for women to pursue more career paths in greater numbers than what they currently do. At www.glassceiling.com, there is a focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are the emerging fields going forward, professions to find higher pay and growing opportunities.

Angela Vasandani, a licensed architect and a general manager at BHS Consulting Corp., told glassceiling.com that even today only 16 percent of American Institute of Architects’ membership is female. But almost 49 percent of students in architectural schools are women.

“I think it’s mostly the result of stereotyping,” Vasandani said. “Young girls and women see different role models in the media or their communities so they don’t think they can choose science and technology careers and still have balance in their lives.”

Leslie Johnson is assistant director of Hutchison Leads at the Hutchison School in Memphis. Their whole aim is to help young women to dream big, but even Johnson has had a learning curve. She worked in banking for more than a decade and only recently did she see women begin landing executive positions.

“For so long, it was hard place to get to,” she said.

Starting their own businesses is another way for women to abolish the glass ceiling. Women-owned firms make up 28.7 percent of all non-farm businesses across the country and generate more than $1.2 trillion in total receipts. In the health care and social assistance fields, women-owned firms account for 52 percent of all business.

Thus, Harris says, the National Women’s Business Council is focused on addressing issues that inhibit women’s opportunity to get capital to start businesses or restrict their access to markets.

“There are venture capitalists looking for new ideas,” Harris said. “There is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines.”

Shockey’s advice to women is straightforward: If you want in the game, get in the game, but expect some obstacles along the way.

“Everybody’s got some struggle,” she said.

“Men face challenges, too. I’m not going to say it’s easy. But a woman in this country, she’s got every opportunity to choose a path to success.”

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