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Virtual Roundtable: Women's Workplace Issues

From Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial book Lean In (which puts the onus on women to “lean in” and empower themselves to achieve leadership roles) to Westchester’s own Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, who recently weighed in on the work-life balance debate saying, “If you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom,” it’s clear that women’s workplace issues are still a hot topic of conversation. So, we asked all of this year’s Women In Business honorees to share their thoughts on these compelling issues.

Here are some key takeaways:

A gender gap, unfortunately, does persist at the executive level.

“Throughout my career at Verizon, there were very few females at the Executive Director, VP and Sr. VP level,” says Kecia Palmer-Cousins, co-owner (with Gay Wheeler-Smith) of G&K Sweet Foods. “However, I did see many female leaders at mid-level management and director-level.” Catherine Marsh, executive director of the Westchester Community Foundation, points to a 2012 study (conducted by the University of Denver and the White House Project) which shows a dearth of female leadership in the nonprofit sector: despite approximately 75 percent of employees at large nonprofits being female, women only hold 21 percent of leadership roles, the report says. But the women do feel the situation is getting better. “The overall gender balance at the executive level is improving,” says Janis Archer, director of strategy management for the New York Power Authority. And some felt no gender gap at all, but admitted it may be because of the specific industry they work in. “Communications has always been a field that women have excelled in. We are intuitive communicators and marketers and typically female leadership roles in these fields cross all industry sectors,” notes Liz Bracken-Thompson, partner of public relations firm Thompson & Bender.

Other interesting gender-gap observations:

• “While there are still many more men in top leadership positions, I do not believe that the gender gap is preventing more women from being leaders in the healthcare profession. There are many realities to the efforts that are required to be in top positions, and time commitment and balance are in my opinion the key issues, as opposed to the acceptance of women leaders.” –Susan Fox, President, White Plains Hospital 

• “Politics is still one of those careers with a glass ceiling. The 113th congress (2013-2015) has only 20 female senators out of 100, and 79 congresswomen out of 435 members of the House.” – Wilson Kimball, Commissioner of Planning and Development for the City of Yonkers.

• “The female leaders that were able to break the “glass ceiling” [during my 25-year career at Verizon] did so by working twice as hard as the men, juggling family, school, and community responsibilities.” –Kecia Palmer-Cousins, Co-owner, G&K Sweet Foods

• “In medicine, women are accepted as equals and are beginning to see promotion to top leadership positions.” –Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, CEO, BFFL Co.

• “I think the non-profit services community is more female-oriented so it does not have the same gender gap as the for profit community. However, that does not mean issues of compensation are equal.” –Patricia Vitelli, Vice President of Finance, Westhab

Companies need to do a better job of developing and recruiting female leaders.

“Leadership and management training within companies is key to developing more female leaders. Also, it’s up to female business leaders to recruit, hire, and promote more women to fill business leadership positions,” says Bracken Thompson. She’s not alone in saying that women who have climbed to the top of the ladder can—and should—help promote the next crop of female leaders. “My favorite quote,” says Chabner Thompson, “comes from Madeline Albright: There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’” Another common point is the need for companies to adapt flexible schedules that are friendly to working moms. “Companies need to be more open-minded… They need to provide work-life balance options such as telecommuting and flexible hours,” says Palmer-Cousins. Erica Breining, mom of two young girls and owner of Bellava MedAesthetics & Plastic Surgery Center, says, “Flexible schedules for working moms are a must and so is a culture that embraces rather than frowns on it.” And Fox adds, “Any additional built-in flexibility in the workday, that truly helps women balance their responsibilities, will be helpful to companies looking to increase the number of females in leadership roles.”

More insight on building female leaders:

• “Companies should keep doors open when women leave for temporary childcare years.  Women can be incredibly capable when pressed for time and [excel at] multi-tasking.”-Elizabeth Chabner Thompson

• “If more companies used and enforced merit or performance-based policies women would naturally rise to their full potential.” –Catherine Marsh

• “We need to mentor people to be the very best they can be. I often find that some of my female employees seem to lack self-esteem but are amazing employees.” – Wilson Kimball

• “We are a global economy with diverse customers. More females need to be hired so that their input can have an imprint on the success of companies. Many female customers like to see female leadership where they are spending their money.” –Kecia Palmer-Cousins

We’ve come a long way on sexism in the workplace. 

Thankfully, most of our women-in-business honorees believe that rampant sexism in the workplace is a thing of the past. “When I started out in the business world more than 30 years ago I did experience sexism in the workplace but today, with legal and workplace ramifications in place to combat sexism on the job, it has thankfully changed dramatically,” says Liz Bracken-Thompson. Looking back on her early career days, Catherine Marsh recalls being questioned on her ability to handle a certain situation, not because she was young, but because she was female. But, she says, “I did handle it, and two years later, when I left, another female was hired.” Progress! For Susan Fox, “there is always that moment, where you walk into a room and a tall male with greyish hair is standing next to you, and all eyes are on him [instead of you]. I have learned to let the conversation progress and have faith that the better ‘candidate’ will be the one who ultimately turns heads.” However, one of our honorees, shared this situation anonymously… And Wilson Kimball remembers being told by someone that she shouldn’t run for office because it’s too hard.  “They suggested I should aim to stay home and raise kids,” she says.

Additional thoughts on workplace sexism:

• “[I only experienced sexism] during my corporate America days. In the small business workplace, things are much more controlled.” –Erica Breining

• “I began my career in Information Systems, which was a young field at the time.  Men and woman came to it at the same time and there was never an opportunity for a sexist culture to take root.” –Janis Archer 

We can have it all. No, we can’t. Wait, maybe we can?

The question of achieving work-life balance seems to be the most polarizing yet. The debate over whether women can or can’t have it all has certainly not been settled by our women in business—they had views all over the map:

• “No one can have it all. Whether it’s your professional or personal life, compromise and making choices is what life is all about.” – Liz Bracken-Thompson  

• “Yes, women certainly can have it all, but only with a good support system! The secret to my success is having a good partner to balance priorities with at home.”-Erica Breining

• “Professional women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Mothers must prioritize goals and aspirations. They must create a project time line for themselves as well as their children.” –Gay Wheeler-Smith

• “Nobody can do it all. Complete myth. Just do your best everyday.”- Elizabeth Chabner Thompson

• “Yes, they can have it all, if that includes a partner who is that mythical person who carries 50 percent of the load.” – Catherine Marsh

• “Yes, I think women can have it all.  But I think women in management is one thing.  Woman in low paying jobs, without adequate day care or a spouse to provide support is another story altogether. Society needs to do more for that group of women.” –Patricia Vitelli 

• “I actually believe the next plateau will be when men are part of the solution. Men’s comfort and social acceptability of taking on “traditional” wife/mom duties will allow women to take more on at work. The women’s movement has done its part, men need to now do their part.” –Susan Fox

• “No you can’t have it all. That’s a myth. No one ever got 100 percent of 10 different things  done at once because there just isn’t enough time in the day. Pick your battles, do what you love and stop trying to please other people because that is a sure-fire way to be unhappy.” – Wilson Kimball

• “I was fortunate enough to have a career in corporate America while having my children but I did so by being flexible. I took on the tougher assignments and executed them flawlessly in exchange for time and flexibility so that I could have quality time with my children.” –Kecia Palmer-Cousins

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