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Breaking the glass ceiling – Leading businesswomen discuss life at the top

By   /   Sunday, February 15th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Breaking the glass ceiling – Leading businesswomen discuss life at the top

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The Business Times is launching a six-times-a-year focus section on women in business. For its inaugural issue, we talked several female tri-county business leaders to get their views. We also invited Barbara Lanz-Mateo, former editor of Coastal Woman, to contribute to our op-ed page on page 18A of the Feb. 13 edition.

Grace Vaswani, Clarice Clarke and Sheila Cluff are all at the top of their respective games. Vaswani is president of Santa Barbara Applied Research, Clarke is a principal at Lee & Associates and Cluff founded The Oaks at Ojai and is its president.

Pacific Coast Business Times: What’s it like to be a woman in the “old boys’ club?” Do you ever feel like you’re being treated differently because of your gender?

Clarice Clarke: Once in a very rare while I can detect an “old school” mentality toward me as a woman, but it doesn’t bother me very much as I know I am competent in my business and can get a job done well. I find that those who may be skeptical about my abilities soon change their minds after they have conducted business with me.

I can’t expect everyone across the board to be consistently open-minded and have a progressive attitude toward women. I also sometimes think about how I might have been treated in my business 50 years ago. There has been so much progress for women in the business world for which I am so grateful, but I am very aware that there is more to be done in this area.

Grace Vaswani: Women have come a long way in the business world. It was a lot different when I started over 20 years ago. Being a female in a predominately male industry was tough.
Things have definitely changed. It really doesn’t matter if you are a male or female; you just have to be exceptional in what you do.

Sheila Cluff: Back in the ’60s when I first started my business, it was quite unusual for a woman to have her own business. The “old boys club” left me alone. I think they expected me to fail, and I surprised them. As the years progressed, more and more business women realized that entrepreneurship rather than the corporate world — where there was still a very heavy glass ceiling — was the way to financial freedom.

When first starting my small fitness company, I felt that perhaps my desire to run my own successful business would negatively impact my husband’s corporate career, so it was necessary for me to find ways to camouflage what I was doing.

PCBT: Most of the highest-paid executives in the Tri-Counties are men. What do you think about pay differences in the workplace?

SC: There is still a glass ceiling but not as overt as in the past. However, many women who have hit the glass ceiling from a corporate view have chosen not to stay in the corporate world, but to start their own company.

One of the reasons we have more men in leadership positions is that women still carry more of the responsibilities for running the family and have chosen a dual role as opposed to a highly-focused career role.

GV: I have owned my company for over 20 years and so have not experienced the difference in compensation. We work hard to make sure that our employees are compensated for their skills, education, experience and performance — and not for their gender. I am a firm believer that women should be paid the same if they are performing the same duties as their male counterparts.

However, women should not be paid the same if they have less of a responsibility or are performing a lesser function than their male counterparts.

PCBT: Is it harder for a woman to make it to the top of the corporate ladder? Why or why not?

CC: I believe that some discrimination does still exist toward women in the corporate workplace, but there are many women who do rise to the top. These are women who have a very high level of competence paired with will and determination. The change for women’s equality and participation in the corporate world is an evolutionary process, and changes don’t happen overnight.

In my grandmother’s lifetime women couldn’t even vote, so there have been great strides for women and the progress will continue for those who choose to be a part of the corporate or business world.

GV: It is still true in corporate America that there are more “good old boy” networks than their counterparts. It does make it easier to move ahead when you have the support of your peers and management.

I own my own business and therefore am not really exposed to the “corporate ladder.” We offer the same opportunities within our company to females and males, as long as they are qualified.

PCBT: What do you see as some of the challenges women are facing in the workplace?

SC: Women have to make a major decision between career and family because they have a biological clock that continues to tick. For instance, in the world of academia, the childbearing years are also the years that the Ph.D researcher or professor is expected to do in-depth research and publish papers and books. Men do not face that same predicament. Child care is still a big issue for women and often the cost of it is so prohibitive that a woman will be forced to give up her career.

There are some men – granted, very few in today’s world — who have trouble taking direction or having a woman as their superior. A woman has to overcome egotistical and cultural differences. Men may not be faced with these same challenges.

CC: I think one major challenge for women is trying to juggle too many life responsibilities, especially if there are children.

Another is that women may not feel comfortable pushing for what they think is fair and equitable. Women need to stand up for themselves and not be afraid to speak their minds, to step outside their comfort zone to promote their talent and abilities.

• Roundtable compiled by staff writer Sara Hamilton.

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