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Women's work? Striving to move up ladder, shatter stereotypes

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sandy Helwege is a commercial real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Abernathy Realty in Jackson.
(Fred Lynch)
Maybe it's because women are so good at multi-tasking. Or maybe times have changed old-fashioned notions of a woman's place in a so-called man's world.

Whatever the reason, women just aren't fighting that battle as much anymore.

Sandy Helwege sells commercial real estate, traditionally a male domain, and is a full-time real-estate broker. She's a mother of five -- ages 20, 18, 16, 12 and 10 -- and the family has four Yorkies. She and her husband also are involved with property development.

Helwege has learned how to prove herself in her profession. If you're good at what you do, she says, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman.

"I had one guy who said he would not list with me because I'm a woman," Helwege recalled. "I asked him to give me 30 days. And I did it."

Helwege grew up in Jackson and worked in the medical field for several years before she began a family. She was a stay-at-home mom for a few years. And then six years ago, she went into real estate.

One advantage she has in commercial real estate, she says, is that she works alongside her husband, Gary.

"I grew into the business," she said. "It has been successful and it has been great. I control my hours and can be there for my family."

Although commercial real estate can be demanding and challenging, Helwege said the field is open to anyone who takes enough time to learn all about it.

"If you are really going to make it, educate yourself on the product you're trying to sell or promote. Anything you do, do it with a lot of confidence," she said. "Talk to people who are experienced in it and get their input. Talk to people in the business who have been through it and seen the good, the bad and the ugly."

Lydia Dewees has worked her way up from marketing to retail manager at Chartwells, the company that provides food service to Southeast Missouri State University.

Chartwell's seems to have an equal balance of men and women in supervisory positions, Dewees said.

"I would say it's 50-50," she said.

The executive chef is a woman -- traditionally a man's job. Dewees added that the catering director is also a woman, as is the dietitian.

Dewees says it doesn't matter who does the job as long as the job is done well. In her new position, she said she spends less time at her desk than she once did.

"I enjoy my job," she said. "I work a lot of hours, but I enjoy it."

She said she enjoys working with the students and with her colleagues. Sometimes she said she wonders if she really makes a difference, and then "one day comes that really makes up for it, and it's like wow!" she said.

Dewees also has served as president of the Cape Girardeau Jaycees. Until 1984, the Jaycees was a male organization that in some communities had an auxiliary organization for wives of the members. Now she said, couples belong to Jaycees as well as single women, and women such as she hold office.

The world of banking has grown from primarily a male dominated institution to one that encourages women to advance, says Janet Esicar, who has been in banking for more than 30 years, most recently with First Missouri State Bank.

"Historically women were tellers and men were bank officers, " Esicar said. "That has improved drastically over the years."

Today Esicar is vice president at First Missouri State Bank, specializing in consumer and real estate lending.

Banking has changed in the years Esicar has worked in the profession. Women are now offered training and education opportunities once available only to men.

"Women are taken a little more seriously," she said. "We're in officer positions and high-profile positions."

Women are advancing -- but not because anything was simply handed to them.

"I have had to work a little harder because I'm a woman, but it has never stopped me," Esicar said. "I took the approach and attitude that if you can't beat them, join them. I learned to work alongside men and they were the best mentors and role models. I was lucky enough to have worked with enough men over the years and learned to pick my battles."

Esicar advises any woman interested in a banking career to work hard and take the high road. Women in banking are now in a position to be mentors and role models.

"Learn from people you see have been successful and keep a positive attitude," she said.

Esicar is also active in the Chamber of Commerce, and is so far only the second woman to serve as chairman of the chamber board. She is also active in the United Way, Saint Francis Medical Center Foundation and Southeast Missouri State University Booster Club.

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