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Room at the Top?

How Southwest Florida’s women feel about their challenges in the workplace.

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Gail Markham had noticed their absence in the place where she least expected it: her own accounting firm she had founded years ago in defiance of the good ol’ boys network that ruled the financial sector. Where were the women?

She employed plenty of them, but they were idling at the associate’s level, not pushing toward partnership. Odd, Markham thought, for a company run by women executives.

Markham started peeking behind curtains in other industries to see who waited in the wings for the roles she and her aging contemporaries would vacate. She saw an awful lot of suits—and not of the Hillary-style variety.

Gail Markham

“We are aging out,” Markham, 67, told a group of local professional women at a dinner last spring put on by members of the International Women’s Forum. “What is our succession plan? We have got to figure that out.”

Lately, Markham has been challenging her staff, civic groups, women’s organizations and public audiences—and us here at Gulfshore Life—to take stock of women’s status in leadership circles. So we did. Over the course of several weeks, we examined who’s sitting in executive suites and boardrooms and similar places of influence. And then we met with 23 highly regarded Southwest Florida women of different ages and career stages to find out whether Markham has reason to worry.

Yes, we concluded. She does. But with these women’s insights, we pinpointed what’s holding women back, what could move them forward—and why Markham’s fears could soon be put to rest.

Most of us may not be giving much thought to women’s leadership these days—not with national figures like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Pepsi Co.’s Indra Nooyi and General Motors’ Mary T. Barra, or Southwest Florida’s Shelley Broader at Chico’s FAS and Kathryn Marinello at Hertz. We assume women have “arrived” because of ceiling-shattering local figures like Markham and Adria Starkey, the FineMark National Bank & Trust Collier County president. And Robbie Roepstorff, president of Edison National Bank/Bank of the Islands; and Kitty Green, the former CEO of Bonita Bay Co.; and Sarah Owen, philanthropic powerbroker at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation; and attorney Kimberly Leach Johnson, who heads one of the nation’s leading law firms from her office in Naples.

But the data void our rosy perceptions. Nationally, women start out as 47 percent of the workforce at the entry level and most remain employed, even after having children. But they’re not advancing alongside their male counterparts. At the vice president level, women hold just 29 percent of jobs. In the C suite (chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating/administrative officer), women are outnumbered by a margin of 8 to 2, according to a 2017 study by McKinsey & Co.

Southwest Florida doesn’t look all that different. Sure, we have Broader and Marinello and Beasley Broadcasting’s Caroline Beasley heading three of our nine publicly traded companies. Our cultural and civic nonprofits are dominated by women. But dig deeper, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find women at the top of our major employers. We examined some 30 large public- and private-sector organizations headquartered in Lee and Collier counties and found just five woman CEOs or equivalents.

“Glacially slow,” is how Lynn Yeakel, one of the nation’s leading voices on women’s equity, calls women’s pace of progress. (Yeakel, the founder of the women’s advocacy group Vision 2020, owns a home on Sanibel and has tapped some Southwest Florida women for her national work toward parity.) “In the Fortune 500s, there are 476 men and only 24 women (CEOs). When you think of it that way, it’s pretty shocking.”

If you think this doesn’t matter to you (as in you have a Y chromosome), think again:

Companies with 50 percent women in senior operating roles show a 19 percent higher return on equity, according to the Credit Suisse Research Institute. A shift from no women leaders to 30 percent female leaders drives up net revenue an average of 15 percent, finds the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“We bring something different to the table,” says Natalie Ashby, 34, a corporal with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office who is pushing through the ranks there. “I think the men I work with see it. There are certain times when they call and say, ‘Hey, can you come over here and help me with this?’ We play off of each other’s strengths.”

Yet today’s mid-career and young professionals are still running into many of the roadblocks their mothers and grandmothers encountered.   

“What I heard about people going through 20 years ago, I’m going through that today,” says Michele Hylton-Terry, 52, the executive director for the City of Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency. She’s talking about women having to work extra hard to prove themselves and stand out in organizations where male managers far outnumber female ones. She’s not imagining it, Yeakel says. “It’s clear from the research that women have to be more qualified than men to get the job.”

Why are we still having this conversation?

Read more: Additional insight from the 23 subjects of our story


Gender bias persists

At a recent Gulfshore Business banquet honoring her achievements, Markham recalled a job at a car dealership where her boss insisted she, then a teenager, sit on his lap every morning. Attendees, aghast, were still taking about it a week later.

That kind of blatant harassment is being purged from workplaces (thank you, #MeToo). But sexism is nowhere near eradicated, as women of all ages reminded us.

“I got passed over (for partner) the first time around,” says Jamie Schwinghamer, 37, an attorney who is a partner in her current firm, Roetzel & Andress LPA, but who did not make the first cut at a previous one. “If I had come to the table with what I had the year I was up for partner, and I was a guy, I would have made it.”

Tracy Duhaney senses the enhanced expectations, too, working in the hospitality industry, which has a predominantly female workforce and a predominantly male leadership pool.

“I have to work three times as hard just to prove that I belong at the table—just to push open the door and be in the room,” says Duhaney, the assistant director of catering at the Hilton Naples. Adding to her advancement challenge: age (28), color (black) and birthplace (Jamaica).

The problem originates early, and not in the workplace. Consider what financial adviser Kylen Moran, 28, of Naples experienced a few years ago during a college business class:

“The guys went to their corner to work on Excel sheet calculations,” she remembers of a group project. “They told the girls, ‘You can do the PowerPoint.’ They basically commandeered the analytical side of the project.”

The boys, incidentally, messed up the calculations. Moran found the mistake. But she—not they—learned the bigger lesson. The climb is steeper for women.


Public perception and the ‘good ol’ boys’

Women can have an empowering boss, supportive co-workers and enabling partners and still absorb endless snubs.

Natalie Ashby

“I don’t feel discrimination from my agency. Not at all,” says Ashby, the corporal. Backed by co-workers and superiors, she’s advancing at work (she recently passed her sergeant’s exam) while pursuing a doctorate degree in industrial and organizational psychology, and raising a 5-year-old on her own. “But I feel it when I go out in public. I think society is not used to seeing women (in authority).”

Among the many things she’s been told: “You’re too pretty to be a cop!”

“What does that even mean?” she wonders.

Or how about what Margo Brewster experienced working for a bank in east Lee County: “It was still that good ol’ boys kind of a thing. You could feel the men treating me differently—almost like, ‘Oh, look at how impressive it is that you know all those big words.’ Or, ‘Listen to you talk about them mortgages,’” she says, laughing in mock imitation. “It definitely felt like that old-school deal-on-a-handshake kind of mentality. It’s still very much there.”

After eight years in banking, Brewster, 29, made a career change and now works as a special projects associate for the PACE Center for Girls in Fort Myers. She also heads the women in business committee of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce.

Even the strong-minded Diana Willis, who owns the Jason’s Deli franchises in Lee and Collier counties with her husband, Scott, sometimes caves to the machismo.

“In lease negotiations, which I handle for our company, when it gets down to the nitty gritty, I sometimes give it to Scott to do,” she confesses. “I do all the work, and I hate to say it, it’s just part of getting business done. It’s ridiculous, I know. But that just goes to show you it’s still happening.”

See photos from our Aug. 22 Women's Forum at Artis—Naples

Ageism is as big a hurdle as sexism

“I am a very young-looking person,” notes Stacey Cook-Hawk, 46, who runs SalusCare, the predominant substance abuse and mental health treatment provider in Lee County. Even in previous positions where she had a good deal of autonomy, her superiors found ways to remind her she was young and female, and she had to be “more careful with her work.” “It wasn’t once or twice,” Cook-Hawk says. “It was often. I was dreaming about the day I would have gray hair, and wouldn’t that be nice!”

Those stories are almost endless: Schwinghamer mistaken for the court reporter; Moran assumed to be secretary; Duhaney encountering clients satisfied with her services by phone but wanting to do business with another administrator once they see her—young, black, female—in person.

“It doesn’t happen often, but I do feel I have to prove them wrong,” Duhaney says.

These women are pretty sure young men don’t have to put up with the same. “I don’t think it even crosses their minds,” Schwinghamer says.

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