Factoring X: Women continue to make strides in the workforce, though few have made it to the pinnacle in Southeast Missouri

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Build-A-Bears awaited nominees for achievement award nominees at the Zonta Club of Cape Girardeau's annual luncheon in October. The Zonta Club is Cape Girardeau's only club devoted to business and professional women, providing opportunities for civic service and networking. (Kit Doyle)

The question of whether women are making strides in the business world is, in part, a matter of perspective.

The latest figures on business ownership from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Center for Women's Business Research are encouraging. The number of privately held firms owned by women, either as majority stakeholders or equal partners, is at its highest level ever and is beginning to approach equality with male-controlled firms. Over the last decade, the number of such firms grew 42 percent, according to the Center for Women's Business Research, almost double the rate for all businesses.

Many of those businesses, however, are extremely small. While the number of women-controlled firms grew by 42 percent, the number of people employed at women-owned firms grew by less than 1 percent from 1997 to 2006.

Pay issues remain, with women continuing to earn about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. And landing a coveted job can often come down to quality networking rather than pure qualifications, some women said.

The upper echelon of business, either locally or globally, remains overwhelmingly male. Of the companies on the Fortune 500, only 13 have women at the helm, with only one -- Angela Braly of WellPoint -- leading a company in the top 50 firms.

And, as women with years on the local business scene point out, there are no women bank presidents, only two women have served as chair of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors and very few other major employers are led by women.

"You will find very few women who have the very top position," said Mary Spell, former marketing director for Saint Francis Medical Center. "At the risk of irking some people, it is a lot of the old boy thing yet, but that is a kind of crude way of putting it."

But Spell, 69, sees vast changes from the time she entered the workforce. "At the time I went into business, women could be teachers or nurses. Those were the choices given to us."

Young women now account for more than half of the students at Southeast Missouri State University's Harrison College of Business. And 55 percent of the students enrolled in Southeast's MBA program are women, said Dr. Gerald McDougall, dean of the college.

"Females are no longer limited to nursing and education," McDougall said. "Every academic discipline, every program, is actively recruiting females -- business, law, medicine, the whole set of opportunities is out there now for women and they are succeeding."

Women, for example, lead two of the three student business organizations on campus. Mary Mangan, president of Alpha Kappa Psi, said she believes the future is bright for her and other young women embarking on business careers.

"To be honest, I feel like I sound naive, or way too optimistic, but I feel there are no barriers," Mangan said.

There have been times, however, where Mangan said she feels her leadership was questioned, at least in part, because of her gender. Without giving specifics, she said there was an instance where several members wanted to expel an offending fellow member, but she wanted to give the person a second chance.

"They questioned me in an appropriate manner, and it was appropriate for them to do so, but it took me a while to prove my tactics work and it wasn't just a girl feeling sorry for someone," Mangan said.

Most women in business have worked in male-dominated offices. Evelyn Boardman-Wiethop, former Cape Girardeau councilwoman, has been a leader in the Red Cross -- she was European director of volunteers while her late husband was in the military -- and she has owned several businesses in downtown Cape Girardeau. Now, at age 69, she works part-time as client assistance director at Pyramid Home Health Services.

In the Red Cross, she said, military men treated her with respect, but expected results. "I began my working career in a baptism of fire working with men in the Air Force," she said. "I learned how to navigate the system pretty well."

As the creator and operator of the Cafe Madder Rose, St. Avits Gallery and Madder Rose Limited, she forged a partnership with her late husband. "My husband was an architect who wanted to refurbish buildings downtown," she said. "My job was to fill them."

Those businesses were more successful, she said, because of skills she had learned with the Red Cross. Military men "were wonderful teachers with psychology. I saw a macho world and I saw how things worked."

She sold out her last business, Boardman-Wiethop said, when health insurance costs reached $600 a month.

"The thing I like best about working for someone else is not having to worry about the paycheck," Boardman-Wiethop said. "On the other hand, there is a feeling of freedom in having your own business, even though you are tethered to a whole lot of responsibility."

The issues of equal pay are some of the most difficult to overcome, many observers write. The reality of the gap, writes Deborah Kolb, professor of management at the Simmons Graduate School of Management, Carol Frohlinger, founder of Crossell, Inc., a consultancy firm focused on the advancement of women and Judith Williams, founder of a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to women's role in organizational change, is rooted in historical patterns. Their report appears at the womensmedia.com Web site.

Valuing work based on gender, the fact that traditional areas open to women were lower paid and career interruptions for raising children or caring for elderly parents are among the reasons for the pay gap, they found. Attitudes contribute as well, they write, including the continuing belief that many women work because they want to, not because they have to, and a failure of men to take the wage requirements of women seriously.

McDougall said that he sees little difference in the starting salaries of men and women graduating from Southeast who take similar jobs. That changes over time, and the reasons he cites are the same as those cited by Kolb and her cowriters.

"Career paths differ because of cultural reasons and perhaps because of childbearing and rearing," McDougall said. "If you looked at a group of men and a group of women, 20 years after they took their first job in the same area, you likely will find a male with a higher salary than a female."

That higher-paid male also could have made better networking connections, said Kathy Swan, president of JCS/Tel-Link. Swan is a member of the Cape Girardeau Planning and Zoning Commission, chairwoman of the state Coordinating Board for Higher Education and was recently elected governor of District 7 of Zonta International.

JCS/Tel-Link was formed by Swan's father, Clarence Suedekum, in 1959. Swan earned a nursing degree, but was drawn into the business first helping her mother with billing, taking over that role after her mother's death in 1975. Her husband Bill Swan was working full-time for the business, and they purchased her father's remaining interest in the firm in 1984.

With clearly defined roles, she said the business has thrived as a partnership. "As a family business, you are going to be accepted, which may make it easier than being a woman in a large corporation."

Swan is a big believer in the power of networking. There have traditionally been many more male dominated organizations than women, she notes, and that can lead to better opportunities.

"Networking is a stronger determinant in a decision made between two candidates than real qualifications," Swan said.

And while Zonta is the only business service club in Cape Girardeau limited to women members, the main purpose isn't networking, Swan said. "We in Zonta say networking is a benefit, not the reason, for joining. Our mission is advancing the status of women."

The marketing firm used by JCS/Tel-Link was hired in part as a result of networking through Zonta, Swan noted. But if the firm wasn't doing a quality job, she said, it wouldn't have her business.

But the bottom line for Swan, and for most of the women interviewed, is that they want to stand on their merits, not their gender. "We don't ever want to receive something because we are women," Swan said. "We want to receive something because we are qualified."

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