How can we lift up women in the workforce? - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

How can we lift up women in the workforce? Boardroom Bias: Parts 1 & 2


Eau Claire (WQOW)- Women make up roughly half of the workforce in the United States, so you might assume that women are well represented in corporate boardrooms. A quick glance at the facts and you may be left blinking in disbelief. 

Today women not only out number men on college campuses, but they're less likely to drop out once they get there. "When I started graduate school it was still unusual for women to be getting doctorates," says Dr. Janice Bogstad, professor and head of library technical services at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. "The remarks people made really puzzled me. For example: Someone told me it was obvious I was not capable of abstract thought. And this was after I'd studied three languages, one of them Chinese."

Now, female graduates earn almost 60 percent of all college degrees. But what happens beyond the borders of campus, behind board room doors, is a stark difference. Women hold only 14 percent of the top jobs in America's biggest companies. "I think we are still raised," reflects Janice, "And especially in the smaller communities around the country, to believe that even now, women have a limited number of roles." 

You need only to flip open the pages of history to shut the book on that type of thinking. 1937: Amelia Earhart disappears during her attempt to show how high women can soar. How about Barbara Walters, the first female anchor on nightly network news? Or soccer champ Mia Hamm, who changed the way a generation of young girls looked at sports. As a presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won more primaries and gathered more delegates than any woman in American history. Taylor Swift is the first female artist to have two debut weeks with album sales topping one million.

But for how far women have come, consider this: Of Wisconsin's 50 largest public companies women make up just 14 percent of directors. That's actually a slight drop over last year.

18 new directors were elected or appointed to board seats between October 2012 and March of this year. Only one of those was a woman. 20 of those 50 companies have zero women executives.

"There are a lot of reasons for that, some of them are institutional. It's just the way that history has gone," offers Pilar Gerasimo.  She's speaking from experience. "I was one of the few female executives on the team." Pilar, the founding editor of Experience Life magazine, now a blogger for the Huffington Post worked for years to make her voice heard in male dominated meetings. "Initially I overworked myself like crazy," she recalls. "I mean my 20's and early 30's were completely workaholic. And I suffered, as a result. I had a rash that I broke out in from stress. I got so freaked out by not getting a project done quickly enough that one day I stamped my foot in frustration and I broke my own foot."

"There is still a reluctance on the part of men to accept women leaders," adds Janice. "I don't believe men sit around saying, 'Well these women aren't good'. I think at some level though, they still believe that they're entitled to more."

"My response to that would be, just like any bias, I would guess that it exists in some places," says Mark Faanes, a well recognized businessman and partner at Wipfli.  "But quite frankly," he continues "at least here in the Chippewa Valley, I haven't seen that. I know several female business people in this community that would be invited on most any board."

As this conversation evolves past 9 to 5 we're learning that striking a balance at the board room table may begin at a very different table --  the kitchen table. "Sometimes the mistake that women make is they lean out of their career as they start to have children," says Pilar. 

"I think so much of that glass ceiling is just us because, we get to that point," adds a new voice, Kim Schafer.  "I got married at 28 which was right when my career was hitting a high point as well. And the decision I made was to try and have it all. And I think some people say, I'm ready now to have a family and stay home." Kim leads the pack at Great Wolf Resorts and she was the first female CEO to be featured on the television show Undercover Boss. "When I did the show (Undercover Boss) I did get some correspondence from people who basically said, 'Oh you know what? It's great that you're successful but you're missing out on your children's lives'." Kim says the criticism came from other women. 

"Our culture is that they're still the caregivers at home, generally. And that takes more time for them than it does the male counterpart in the family," adds Mark. 

Some women have been told diaper bags and business don't mix. "Here's what I think that can happen, that's unfortunate," says Pilar. "People who are managing women, getting ready to go have children, think that they are going to blow off their jobs or never be worthwhile again. They think they'll never be fully dedicated and it's a terrible mistake." Janice offers some perspective on that assumption saying, "When women have weaknesses it defines them. When men have weaknesses it's something to overcome."

Science tells us it takes a woman and a man to start a family. So why then has fatherhood been deemed a more manageable responsibility? At some point, do women have to make a conscious choice: Career or kids?

Mark answers by saying, "In some cases maybe. At our firm (Wipfli) we're hoping to change that."

Some don't think the trend will ever fully disappear. "Females will always lag males because they want to make the decision to stay home, to put their career on hold," says Kim. She poses a question, "Who needs your attention more? The family or the job?"

That question seems to be growing louder. The answer is not clear cut. "This either or stuff is really problematic, too. Not just either a career or a family," adds Janice "but this is the way you solve the problem, the either or way."

"Many women assume that to be leaders they're going to have to give up everything else in their life. That too is what they've seen modeled," chimes in Pilar. "I don't think that that's going to work real well for most women."

When asked about the changes that need to be made, Janice says "The professions themselves need to adjust."  To re-create the culture Pilar adds that it takes women getting into higher positions of power. 

Why should you care about gender diversity in the workplace?  Think about it this way; boards of directors choose CEO's, who make big decisions that can affect you and the place you live. They choose where offices open or close. They decide how much company profit goes back into the community.

Mark says women bring a different perspective to the workplace. "The more people you can have thinking differently and adding thoughts to the pool the better that board generally is."

"For a long time there were really no women inside of the big meetings that we would have, we'd be talking about strategy," chimes in Pilar.  "And one thing that the CEO at Lifetime said is, having more women join the executive ranks really helped the company see their next steps more clearly. It started conversations that otherwise would not have happened. Women who were willing to raise their hands and question decisions that were being made really improved the quality of the strategy at that company."

Kim Schafer says she was always the first one to raise her hand for opportunities. Though, even she admits, she would not be where she is today without help from a man. "My husband stays home and he has for the last 8 years, we made that decision," reveals Kim. "We didn't always have that luxury. We both worked and both had busy jobs. And it was really our daughter who was like 'Ok, you know what? Neither one of you are ever home' and that kind of opened our eyes to the fact that, as a family we wanted to make changes."

"I don't think women have to choose between having a kid and having a career."  Working in the quiet comfort of her Menomonie home Pilar Gerasmio is getting ready to pen her first book. She doesn't have children. "But I do think women have to make thoughtful choices about where they work if they want to do that," she adds.  "In my own team, what I found worked really well, was being as supportive as I could possibly be as a manager -- to the women that I really believed, regardless of how many children they had -- were going to bring enormous creativity and positive energy to the workforce. Even if they decided they wanted to work half-time. Or work as a consultant. I still really wanted them around. "

"Work arrangements that work for them is I think the biggest key," says Mark.  
It's something Eau Claire's Wipfli offers along with programs to attract women and help them climb the ladder internally. "It might be a heavier hour commitment certain times of the year when kids are in school, in the summertime less hours. It might be working more from home than here in the office," he explains. 

Janice believes that we don't have to organize the culture the way we do. "You talk to people in other parts of the world where for example, men and women can get maternity leave for months and months and months. So we actually are supporting them having families," she says. 

"I know what it's like to have to make those decisions and to make those sacrifices," admits Kim. "So we've tried to create a culture where we're all about families.  If your son has a soccer game that you want to go to at 3:30 in the afternoon we work it out. We never want to be the hindrance for that."

Not all women are so lucky, not every job can be that flexible.  But only when women stay and find success in the workplace can they help lead the way for women who do not. Offering up one final suggestion Mark says, "Women need more mentors." Pilar agrees.  "Every time I've said to one of my mentors, 'How can I thank you?' Whether it was a connection or an insight, they've all said the same thing, which is pass it along."

There are hints we are headed in the right direction. Alliant Energy, WE Energies and Manpower Group are companies in Wisconsin all raising the boardroom bar with more than 30 percent of female directors on staff. 

If you'd have ideas on what can be done to help women in the workforce  head to the News 18 Facebook page and join the discussion.






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