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updated: 12/16/2019 8:44 AM

How Influential Women in Business face challenges in a male-dominated world

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While women continue to climb to reach top leadership positions in business, the progress is slow, experts say.

Women continue to be underrepresented at every level, according to a McKinsey & Company study. We often talk about the "glass ceiling" that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager, according to the study. "Fixing this 'broken rung' is key to achieving parity," the report states.

While the majority of Americans would like to see more women in top leadership positions, most adults also believe that men have an easier time climbing the corporate ladder, according to a recent Pew Research Center report on women and leadership.

The Daily Herald Business Ledger recently recognized 21 local women who have had success in climbing that ladder. We asked honorees of the 22nd annual Influential Women in Business Awards to share the challenges they faced along the way and advice for future female leaders.

Q: As a female leader, what is a challenge you encountered and how did you persevere?

• Staying professionally relevant while raising a family is something that many working moms can relate to. This was my biggest challenge as I started having children right when I was hitting my stride in my banking career. Navigating that balance between career and family was challenging and I was able to do it with the help of supportive managers along the way.

-- Anne Doligale, senior vice president Signature Bank

• The biggest challenge I have had to overcome is related to change. Our company experienced substantial change in a very short period of time about 4 years back. Life is ultimately a series of choices and we are all faced with an option to leave or learn how to adapt. I chose to stay and learned how to adapt.

-- Ann Berberich, VP of practices and talent Paradigm Technology

• I challenged emotional stress related to having children and my business. Many gave me a hard time and still do on occasion because they feel I should choose one path and commit fully to either raising a family or growing a business. I've found time management, effective leadership and a strong support system is crucial to my ability to enjoy both role as family leader and business leader. I feel all parents, not just females, should work to find the support and balance necessary to have a meaningful contribution at work and home if that is their calling.

-- Grace Rizza, president, Identity Dental Marketing

• I'm often asked about my experiences of being a woman in a predominantly male industry. I share a story from several years ago. My two older brothers were seated on either side of me. I turned to them and told them I owed them a lot of "thanks." I went on to remind them of the many times they allowed me to play football in the backyard with them and their friends. They would both serve as captains of their teams and always pick me first or second. One brother quickly responded, "I didn't pick you first because you were my sister, I picked you because you could catch the ball." My other brother equally quickly chimed in, "I didn't pick you because you are a girl, I picked you because you were fast."

I then smiled and shared, "Exactly, that's why I owe you thanks. I knew there was no pity party for me. You selected me for my ability and qualifications. That is a lesson which has served me very well."

-- Rosemary Swierk, president Direct Steel and Construction

• My biggest adversity in my career was working through sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation at a company that I had admired and loved working for during my first few years there. It was a trying 18 month period during my professional career, and in the end, it was the basis for a book I wrote highlighting this experience while also providing recommendations to senior leaders on how to develop and create an inclusive environment in the workplace. My book is "Retaliation at the Highest Level: Why CEO's, Boards of Directors and HR Need to Change the Culture."

I persevered through the challenge of sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on my belief in God, and my support provided by my husband, family and friends.

-- Judy Foley, CEO and founder Culture of Trust and Navigate Transformation

Q: What is your perspective on why there is a lack of women in C-level positions?

• It is not because women are not qualified or capable of being successful in C-level positions; and, I do believe that most people, also believe this to be true. It's a process, and the more we see a greater number of successful women moving through their managerial careers, the more likely we will naturally see a greater number of women progressing into C-level positions. We continue to move ever closer to women breaking through both politically and in the corporate world.

-- Peggy Sarason, CFO and VP business operations, Comcast

• When it comes to career advancement, the barriers are much higher for women. From the onset, you need to be able to clearly state what you do and what you want to achieve. You also need the willingness to fearlessly defend your abilities and ideas. Building a network of trustworthy, supportive peers, mentors and colleagues -- especially with other women -- is essential to extending your influence and finding "champions" that can lead to promotions.

-- Cherilyn G. Murer, president and CEO, CGM Advisory Group

• C-level roles are typically demanding in nature and often require travel and long hours. There is a prevalent perception that women need jobs with less travel and responsibility to meet their family obligations.

Throughout my career, I recall many times in the recruitment process where a male leader mentioned a candidate's family as a "negative" in regards to their ability to get the job done. For example, "She mentioned she has three kids under ten years old! We need this person to work 60+ hours per week. How will she make that happen?" Or, "We need a young, single male with no children. They will be able to work the hours required!" In these situations I advise that we need to stop stereotyping. If the applicant has the qualifications we are looking for, it's up to HER to determine how she will manage her work/life balance, with our support. We can set the expectation in regards to the role's responsibility level and hours required, but we cannot assume or even insinuate that based on gender stereotypes she will be unable to be successful. In my opinion, this is not only wrong, it's illegal discrimination based on gender and it has to stop.

-- Sarah Brown, director of HR Hilton Oak Brook Hills Resort

• A great deal of investigation has been done to understand the "why." I concur with that overwhelming research that shows that issues like gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and resistant to women's leadership contribute to keeping many talented women out of C-level positions. I would add that we must also change our attitude in thinking that providing opportunities on boards alone is enough. Companies need to develop the pipeline for female executive leaders. Positions such as COO or CFO, and other jobs with profit-and-loss responsibilities serve as stepping stones to the C-Suite but are scares for women. As a result, only 9% of women occupy positions in the Russell 3000. We, the women leaders, must remain proactive in seeking those positions specifically, and be vigilant about pay equity.

-- Macarena Tamayo-Calabrese, president and CEO Naper Settlement

Q: What advice would you give the next generation of female leaders?

• Don't wait for permission. Pursue your vision even when you're the only one who sees it. Make sacrifices and throw yourself 100% into what you love and want to see in the world. Whether you succeed or fail, the journey will be worth it.

-- Kyra Cavanaugh, president, 15Be Inc.

• Don't be afraid to say 'yes' to something just outside your comfort zone. When you 'nail it,' it empowers you to take on that next challenge. That's how you grow in your career.

-- Arlene Levin, partner, Wipfli LLP

• Do not be intimidated by failure or disappointment. If anything, let that be a lesson to succeed.

-- Whitney McDaniel, director and vice president, High Conflict Mediation Institute

• Don't make it about anything other than hard work. Look at yourself, what your results are, what your attitude is, what you can bring to the table, and stay positive because it will take you far.

-- Devan Hines, vice president recruiting, LaSalle Network

• Be true to yourself but understand that sometimes it's essential to compromise and negotiate to get things done. I don't mean to compromise your ethics or your moral values but be willing to listen and think differently about how you get things done. Don't hesitate to ask for help when you need it. In my opinion, it doesn't make you less of a leader to ask for help, but rather a better leader.

-- Sara J. Mikuta, partner, Wipfli

• Get educated. Earn those post baccalaureate degrees. Get confident and believe in yourself! Your demeanor and attitude determines the way you will be treated.

-- Joanne Bratta, executive director, St. Mary's Services