Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Breaking Through: Working Women in Southwest Florida

A telling report on the triumphs and challenges of women in the workplace.

Katie Haas, director of the Boston Red Sox' Florida operations, is a woman working in field dominated by men.

Photography by Erik Kellar

I broke the news of my first pregnancy to my editor shortly after I’d gotten back from a two-week reporting trip.

For the second time in two years, I’d been chosen over the more experienced reporters for an extensive project—an affirmation, at least in my mind, that I really was on my way to the big-city newspapers and national magazines where I imagined my byline.

I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something like, “Well, you won’t be doing this anymore.” He didn’t mean he was going to stop offering opportunities—he was a progressive guy in a newsroom that valued women—but rather that I wasn’t going to want to continue my hard-charging pace up the journalistic ladder. I must have looked crestfallen, because he backpedaled quickly and said he was sure I’d figure out how to make it work.

For a while, I did. Thanks to a sportswriter husband who believes in shared parenting and editors sympathetic to our needs, I kept working important beats and generating front-page headlines. When Hurricane Charley struck, I hauled my six-month-pregnant belly to a devastated Sanibel Island (my idea, not my editors’), my way of defying the idea parenting would inhibit my progress.

But in the last few years, I have found myself circling back to that conversation in my boss’ office and thinking more and more about women, work, our status in the workforce, the opportunities open to us, the barriers that still get in our way and the choices we make—choices that don’t always follow linear trajectories.

Women privately grapple with this stuff all the time. But lately the topics have generated lots of public debate, too: Journalist Hanna Rosin suggests we’re now the dominant sex in The End of Men and the Rise of Women, published last year. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg decries the paucity of women in executive positions, and, in her bestselling Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, challenges us to take bigger roles. In contrast, former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter hurried home after two years in Washington to teenagers who needed her, as she explained in an Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” And Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked weeks’ worth of headlines when she recalled telecommuting employees to the office. Critics called her a traitor to her gender.

As the national debate twists and turns and contradicts itself, my thoughts turned to the status of professional women here in Southwest Florida. Were we limited by glass ceilings and proverbial good ol’ boy networks? Did we hold high-ranking posts and wield influence? Or were we, as I was, re-thinking our relationship with work entirely?

Every woman, every workplace has a different story. Overall, though, I found much reason for optimism—even if we’ve not yet fully “arrived.”


Members of the women’s Fund of Southwest Florida, an organization founded in 2012 by a group of influential Fort Myers women, were already asking the same kinds of questions—and more—as they compiled information that would guide their initiatives and grant-making. The group hired Florida Gulf Coast

University’s Regional Economic Research Institute, which last fall issued a comprehensive report, The Status of Women in Southwest Florida. There’s some positive stuff. Fewer women, for example, are unemployed than men; more young women are heading to college. But I found other numbers disheartening. In Southwest Florida’s five counties, women are:

  • Earning between 79 cents and 88 cents to every $1 men earn (except in Hendry County, where women out-earn men $1.24 for every $1). This is consistent with a national wage gap.
  • Holding 25.5 percent of management jobs in the areas of management, business, science and related occupations, even though more women work in those industries than men.
  • Working far more low-wage and seasonal jobs than men—almost 35 percent of working women earn less than $15,000 a year. About 25 percent of men do so.
  • Gaining ground on board representation. 67 percent of the 21 firms surveyed include women on their board—though we hold a minority of seats, about 10 percent.
  • Minimally represented in business ownership. Women own 26 percent of 31,245 companies.

Now, remember, cautions lead researcher Gary Jackson: These figures, drawn primarily from the 2010 Census,

are a mere snapshot in time. They don’t show trends, they don’t answer “whys,” and they don’t get to specifics, such as: Does a female entry-level engineer make the same amount as a man in the same position?

“If you could look over time, what you may very well see the gap is closing,” Jackson says. “My guess is women gradually are moving into more management positions over time, but it may take time for that gap to change.”

Directors of the Women’s Fund are scratching their heads over that management figure, too, but what really concerns them is the dearth of women-owned businesses.

“We live in an area that is not a major metropolitan area, but rather many of our businesses are small businesses. That’s the bread and butter of our economy,” says Lou Pontius, the fund’s chairwoman.

I’m sitting with her and President Brenda Tate, poring over the study data and talking about the changes they’ve seen in the workplace. They are in their early 60s and I in my 30s, and what they tell me—like how classified ads used to specify if an employer wanted a man or a woman—boggles my mind.

Still, I wondered: Had we come far enough? Were Southwest Florida women hitting glass ceilings?

“We need more glass ceilings,” Tate muses.

She explains: Southwest Florida doesn’t have many big businesses where women, or men, have to climb multiple ranks to reach the top. (To wit, Gulfshore Business magazine lists only 49 companies with revenues exceeding $6 million. Of those, only six are run by women.)

So the fund has made small-business ownership, along with higher education opportunities and home ownership, its primary goal. The group, which is still in the fundraising process, plans to put up $2 for every $1 a woman saves toward those goals. Entrepreneurship, they say, may be our region’s key to advancing women and the community.

“If a business grows, that leads to additional employment opportunities and taxes being paid. It’s just a great ripple effect,” Tate says. “It transforms families, and if you transform families, it transforms communities.”

Adria Starkey, President-Collier County of FineMark National Bank, says she can't believe there are still people questioning women's place in the executive suite.


I’ve been reporting in southwest Florida since 1999 and have run into lots of impressive women running community organizations, corporations and not-for-profits (where, incidentally, women CEOs, such as Kathleen van Bergen at Artis—Naples, Barbara Mainster at R.C.M.A. and Tiffany Kuehner of Hope for Haiti, rule). So I knew not to draw too many conclusions from a single study. I set out to find women from a variety of sectors to see what they had to say about our status. I should say here that I stayed in the world of white-collar, college-educated women. Women getting by on lower-wage jobs face challenges that make handwringing over workplace advancement seem trivial.

I started by visiting the world of finance, once dominated by dark suits and wingtips.

“I’m so over the conversation. I’m surprised we’re still having it,” Adria Starkey says.

Starkey, President-Collier County of FineMark National Bank and Trust, sits in a conference room and shakes her head slightly. She’s familiar with Lean In and the recent hullabaloo over women’s status in the workplace, and it stuns her that there’s still even a question of women’s leadership.

“There are just so many more women in the workplace, and so many more young women coming up in banking and in industries across the board. Just by the sheer numbers, we will have more women rising to the top,” says Starkey, 58.

At least two big banks in Naples are headed by women, Starkey says—Colleen Kvetko of Shamrock Bank and Gerri Moll of Bank of America of Southwest Florida. Beyond her industry, she sees places like Hope Healthcare Services (Samira Beckwith), The News-Press (Mei-Mei Chan) and area law firms run by women. Starkey has no way of scientifically measuring women’s progress—“I’m not sure whether it’s reality or whether it feels different”—but she knows we’ve come a long way.

“Female entrepreneurs down here are starting to figure out they have just as much chance of being successful in the community as everyone else,” says Shelly Osterhout, 47, who founded her technology firm Computer Solutions of America 20 years ago and is president of the Southwest Florida chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Now, there are plenty of places where male board members still outnumber women, but that doesn’t bother Colleen DePasquale, 49, executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. Organizations, she says, choose their boards of directors based on a person’s passion for that industry or cause. Some may skew toward women, some toward men.

I found lots of women in places that were once male dominions.

I visited the executive offices of Scott Fischer Enterprises, the company that runs five Harley Davidson shops in four states. I have to admit my own gender biases—I think Harley, and I think guys. But before me are two women, COO Glorita “Glo” Cuiffi and CFO Kimberly Haskins—half of the senior management team. Haskins had migrated there from the automobile industry, where she’d been a finance executive. Cuiffi landed there unexpectedly after a general manager at the Fort Myers store met her at a Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraiser and offered her a temporary job as a weekend hostess (read: coffee girl). Fast-learning and curious, she impressed that manager and CEO Fischer and landed at the top.

“We don’t really have silos,” says Haskins, 52. “It’s a very open culture. Scott Fischer is just blind to gender. He promotes the best person for the job.”

Meeting these women is encouraging. Where we still need a boost, however, is in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), the industries that’ll determine America’s global competitiveness. We hold just a quarter of all jobs in STEM fields, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study, and lots of Southwest Florida executives, educators, policymakers—and trailblazers like Osterhout—are pushing to change that.

“I think women and men have equal rights and equal capabilities, but I don’t think they are the same. Women think very differently than men. That kind of diversity in an innovative company brings more innovation,” says Paul Woods, CEO of the Bonita Springs-based Algenol Biofuels, an ardent promoter of STEM education and, as the father of two girls, an advocate for women in the sciences.

Teresa Fishbeck, the lone woman in Algenol’s engineering department, seems unfazed by her solo status.

“I feel Algenol is really encouraging and supportive of new ideas,” she says. “There are no boundaries. Starting with the brainstorming and through the final solutions, the company takes everyone’s input positively.”

This is the kind of working world that I want to someday send my daughters into. Yet, as I continued, I heard stories that explain why books like Lean In continue to generate debate.

When Sharon Hanlon got her start as an attorney, she had to fight her way into the court room. Now female litigators are more plentiful in Southwest Florida.


One of the best examples of women breaking barriers is Katie Haas, the Florida operations manager for the Boston Red Sox.

“I always have to put the toilet seat down,” Haas says wryly. She’s the only woman in Major League Baseball in her position.

I’m having coffee with her and Lydia Black, her close friend and the executive director of the Lee County Alliance for the Arts. We’re calling it a “group therapy session” because talk will come around to the challenges of raising our kids and managing our work. Black, 36, and Haas, 32, each have a daughter; I have two.

Their careers offer further proof that gender doesn’t necessarily inhibit professional opportunities. Even so, Haas and Black say Southwest Florida may still hold more traditional gender roles than other communities in which they’ve worked. Questions about women, work and balance come up a whole lot more often in Southwest Florida than they did in Washington, D.C., or Boston, where they’d worked before. In those cities, young, go-getting women—with or without kids—were the norm.

“When I moved to Southwest Florida, I think it was the first time I was consciously aware that I was a woman—a young woman,” Black quips.

I’d heard a similar remark a few days earlier from Samantha Scott, owner of Pushing the Envelope Inc., a Fort Myers-based marketing communications firm.

“There is a little bit of skepticism from what I like to call the ‘old guard.’ I can’t put my finger on it, whether it’s my age or my gender,” says Scott, 28, who graduated from college at 20 and started a direct mail company with her husband at age 21, which later morphed into the public relations firm. Once she starts talking, though, she’s quick to convince her audience that she knows her stuff.

Ambitious women of any age face another significant hurdle: There’s a double standard for workplace behavior that makes it tougher for us to exhibit the qualities that we know are imperative for success.

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO, recounts a story of a Columbia Business School professor who asked half of his students to read a case study of a successful venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. The other half read the same profile, but Heidi’s first name was switched to “Howard.” Heidi and “Howard” both earned respect, Sandberg writes in Lean In, but Heidi “was seen as selfish and ‘not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.’ The same data with a single difference—gender—created vastly different impressions.”

Women here can attest to that. An assertive, decisive male is complimented for his acumen. A woman behaving in the same way—labeled a “bitch.”

“People say the ‘girl part’ in me is broken—that emotional, sensitive part,” Scott says. She doesn’t apologize for who she is. Scott says her personality helps her. She’s “pushy” when it comes to advancing her firm and favors direct and open communications with her employees. I doubt many men would be told they needed more emotion in their business dealings.


So we’ve come a long way, even if we’re not there yet. But there is plenty to be optimistic about regarding our status here in Southwest Florida. Two trends are playing out that promise to open more opportunities for us: Our workplaces are changing, and so are our ideas about work.

Dr. Nelyda Fonte, a trauma surgeon and president of the medical staff at Lee Memorial Health System, points to what is happening in her industry. Twenty years ago, she says, the number of specialties were few, the demands many and women a distinct minority. More recently, medicine has split into sub-specialties, allowing doctors to narrowly focus practices—and create more time for family.

“In the past, women had to make the choice—career or family. Now they really don’t have to make that choice. You can do both, although you do have to make compromises,” says Fonte, who is in her late 40s.

Today, there’s a near-equal split between men and women medical school graduates, and both genders are demanding a life outside of work.

I hear of similar shifts in other intense professions such as law.

“Firms are more willing to acknowledge that women want to have a family life—and men, too,” says Sharon Hanlon, a Naples trial lawyer, who pushed for her place in the courtroom at a time when the profession tried to pigeonhole women into specialties like family law. “It just takes time. It takes time for people to open their minds.”

It’s possible today for a lawyer to make partner even when spending time raising children, Hanlon says. I find it telling that the bar associations in both Lee and Collier have elected women as their current and immediate past presidents.

Not all workplaces are shifting, DePasquale, the chamber president, notes. In a still-weak economy, many workers are grateful just to be employed, and employers may not feel compelled to prioritize flexibility or have the staffing levels to allow it.

But at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, President and CEO Sarah Owen draws from her past as an executive and single mother and uses it to create a very different workplace culture.

“I never felt they were treating me different because I was a woman, but I always felt I needed to prove myself … and I was fearful to speak up about the challenges I was facing,” recalls Owen, 50. “I just wanted to be a contributing member of the team, and I was worried that it would change their view of me.”

She continues, “On the complete flip side of that, I’d go home and want to make sure my children saw me as a ‘highly contributing, engaged mother.’”

Owen says she was seeking “balance,” a state that she’s come to believe doesn’t exist. Sometimes workplace needs take center stage; sometimes the most important matter is caring for a family member or applauding the school play. “I think what will free up women is this idea that we are not chasing a perfect balance. We are putting the most important thing at that moment in the most important space.”

“(My employees) can design how they take personal days away from the office,” Owen says. “We just say here, ‘Make it work. Make it work professionally and personally.’”

Philanthropist Lou Pontius was concerned about women not owning enough businesses locally, so she help start a fund to help women get businesses off the ground.


What if, even in family-friendly places, work still doesn’t work? What if one of the real reasons behind women’s waning management representation is that we just don’t want to be there?

I’d been upset by my editor’s words when I announced my pregnancy, but ultimately he was right. Two little girls later, I was more concerned about picking them up from preschool than I was generating headlines. My bosses helped me juggle, but ultimately I didn’t want to stay. I taught high school for a couple of years and then returned to journalism as a freelance writer. There’s no title. There’s not much of an income. I’ll never be counted in the management ranks that we look at to determine whether women are advancing adequately. But I’m still working, still growing, still challenged. And I’m waiting at the school bus stop every afternoon.

Lots of us are choosing winding and nontraditional paths. We’re intentionally slowing our progressions, changing careers or starting our own businesses. We’re aided by technology and fueled by a desire to create our own schedules and define success on our own terms.

“I feel like my career is molded around my lifestyle and my daughter,” Niesha Ruttenberg, 30, of Cape Coral tells me. She runs a photogra- phy business out of her home. Her friend Rachel Revehl took a somewhat different approach. She left an unpredictable and emotional job as a crime reporter to work for a firm that writes legal blogs.

“I think my ultimate goals shifted,” says Revehl, 31, who is expecting her second child. “The things that were important to me before were not as important.”

Her boss put her as second-in-command and lets her work from home a few days a week. Revehl isn’t ruling out a return to reporting, but for now, she’s at peace working a job that uses her editorial skills and allows her to be the kind of parent she wants to be.

Or I think about Lydia Black. The arts executive shifted to part-time and at-home work when her daughter was small and now works to cultivate a career that honors both motherhood and leadership. “I chose a profession where my daughter is part of my working life,” she says.

I’m grateful that we can make these decisions. Because not long ago, women had to march forward relentlessly to shatter male-imposed limits. In the process, we started fighting not only men but also each other—the troubling years of the “mommy wars,” friction between the work-at-home and the work-outside-the-home moms.

I like how Black puts it: “I think other women laid the foundation for us so we can make choices. … I think there are times when you ‘lean in’ and times when you bow out.”

I’m not sure how the pioneers who opened the workplace feel about the choices my generation is making. I know some worry we could slip backward, and they encourage us to approach women’s advancement in new and creative ways.

“I think a lot of this lies in our idea of what productivity looks like,” says Owen, who wants to see employers re-think how they structure their workplaces and standard work hours. “If we allowed this to be re-examined, we could have productive team members who are also making sure their lives work.”

Go to the top, Owen urges, and make the cultural changes that allow people to thrive.

“We went from having no choice to maybe thinking if you didn’t make the same choice that we did you were hurting the cause,” Pontius says. “And men, for the first time, are making different choices, too. It’s beginning to be accepted for the entire population that anything is right—it’s about what is right for you.”

I’m not going to pretend we’ve reached nirvana. There are still countless issues that must be addressed so that women have true equity—everything from ending those cultural double standards to establishing affordable child care to creating new workplace paradigms.

But we are, I think, in an ideal place to push forward.


A Call to Arms

We’re 50 years—50!—into the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and women are still earning an average of 77 cents to every $1 a man earns.

There’s a lot of debate behind that figure. Are we behind because we’re choosing lower-paying professions like teaching? Is it because employers consider us potentially less productive if we have, or may have, children? Perhaps we lower our career ambitions during our child-rearing years while men advance theirs.

Or is it because we’re not pushy enough?

Nationally, professional women starting their careers accept an average salary of $4,000 less than a man, says Brenda Tate, president of the Women’s Fund of Southwest Florida.

“You are starting behind the start line, and it comes back to women often have not been raised or trained to negotiate for themselves based on their value,” Tate says. “The gap grows exponentially from that first $4,000.”

Of everything I heard or read during my journey to understand our place in Southwest Florida’s professional workforce, this is the issue that struck me deepest. Maybe it’s because I see too much of myself in the theory that women by and large fail to negotiate, promote our skills and accept praise for our successes.

“If I as an employee truly believe I am worth $200,000, and my employer doesn’t agree, then I need to leave. And women are reticent to do that,” says Joyce Chastain, a human resources consultant and president of the HR Florida State Council. She was in Fort Myers recently to meet with members of the Human Resources Management Association of Southwest Florida.

She knows of one male executive whose income jumped from $27,000 to $80,000 in eight years because he was not satisfied remaining in one position at one company for too long. In contrast, women will stay put, trying to perfect their current jobs.

That’s not how Glo Cuiffi, the chief operating officer at Scott Fischer Enterprises, got ahead. Her curiosity and competitiveness landed her in the executive suite.

“Sometimes you have to reach out and do things that aren’t your job to get it,” she says of promotional opportunity. “I think a lot of people say, ‘If they really wanted me to be involved and part of this, they’d ask.’ You have to be your own self-promoter.”

She’s right. The high-ranking women I met shone with confidence and sense of self.

“Get past your self-doubt and do it,” advises Samantha Scott, owner of Pushing the Envelope, a marketing communications firm based in Fort Myers. But for how long will we do it? Lots of us slow our career progressions, step off ladders or take alternative pathways once we have children.

After Katie Haas, the Florida Operations Manager for the Boston Red Sox, successfully opened the 11,000-seat, $78 million JetBlue Park in 2012, she found herself wondering: “What’s next?” Should she push for a higher position back in Boston? And if the Sox offered one, would she take it?

“I’d have to really think about it,” Haas says. She’d taken the Florida job largely because it offered more flexibility and off-season downtime compared to the nonstop Fenway Park.

But she had a different thought later.

“Why couldn’t I have this flexibility somewhere else?” she asked. “What if I flipped it and gave them my expectations?”

Why not, indeed? If employers want our talents, then why aren’t we telling them our needs—our salary requirements, workweek design, telecommuting preferences and the like? That’s the kind of conversation that could change the workplace.



Edit ModuleShow Tags

You Might Like

The Feel Good Report

The latest in health, fitness and beauty.

Former NBC2 Traffic Reporter Designs 'Cap Wigs' for Cancer Patients

When Natasha Verma was diagnosed with cancer at age 23, she searched for a high-quality solution to the hair loss she experienced.

The Adventures of Yoga Man

Our reporter tries it all to check out the vaunted physical and spiritual gains of the ancient art.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module


Powered by Robly

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags