Germany may have a woman chancellor, but more than two-thirds of German businesses have no women in a senior role. It’s not much better in the United States. According to a study by the Grant Thornton International Business Report, of 45 countries, the U.S. ranked ninth from last when it came to women in top managerial positions – well behind Russia, Indonesia, Latvia and Peru.
You might think things are better in Vermont. But of the 99 largest employers in the state, just 15 percent are headed by women.
It’s something a group in Rutland is trying to change, says Kiki McShane. She and several other local business leaders created the Women’s Professional Development Center of Rutland, because they felt too often women’s skills and talents were being overlooked. “Knowing that women are 50 percent of the population and knowing that leaving that very valuable asset on the table hurts everybody, we picked what can we do,” says McShane.
Thanks to a pair of grants from the Vermont Community Foundation, McShane says they were able launch their organization and implement a three-pronged approach to helping professional women climb up the promotional ladder.
"First is to advocate for women," says Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella Waste Systems and one of the group’s board members. "We want to advocate for their skills and strengths, we want to advocate for their opportunities and we want to advocate in the community, to say, 'Look at this issue in the way we’re looking at it,'" he says.
McShane says its also vital for professional women to meet and network, so the center has been holding regular luncheons and seminars featuring prominent speakers like Green Mountain Power’s CEO Mary Powell and former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin.
McShane says the barriers holding women back, like the availability of quality childcare and flexible work schedules, haven’t changed much over the years and she says that’s something they want to address and bring attention to.
For instance, she says she was frustrated listening to pundits debate President Obama's recent State of the Union Address. “They called child care and paid leave social issues," McShane says, shaking her head. “And my first reaction was that just got put in a place of less importance on the ladder of what we want to look at. Another social issue? That’s an economic issue,” she stresses. “If your workforce isn’t able to perform, why is that a social issue?”
Joe Fusco says companies are struggling with incredibly complex issues, and so is the state. He says society can’t afford to overlook the problem-solving abilities of half the population. But he says for women to make gains, both men and women need to change their mindset. “One of the things I notice in listening to women and talking to them at some of our events is that so many women do not feel like they even belong in the room. And they have to get over that own internal barrier first and then we can start teaching them things like negotiations,” says Fusco.
“That said, there is a cultural barrier that we have to erase as well, because an assertive man and assertive woman are treated very differently and that’s a problem,” he admits.
While Fusco and McShane say the Women’s Professional Development Center is trying to help break down the external roadblocks, they explain that women need to remind themselves and each other that they do belong in the room.
The group will hold its next event, a lunch and workshop on public speaking, on Feb. 11 in Rutland.