Ask 47 of Omaha's top female executives about what it's like to be in their shoes — and how they got into them — and you'll get both good and bad news about how far women have come in the world of business.
In interviews last year for a Women's Fund of Omaha study, they talked about learning to set goals and surpass them in male-dominated fields, taking on leadership roles at work, at home and in the community and running into unexpected roadblocks on their way to the top. Their answers — including quotes from some of their conversations — are being released Wednesday in a report by the organization.
“The encouraging news is that there's been a lot of progress, a lot of opportunity for women,” said study participant Joan Neuhaus, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Alegent Health. “Some of the experiences were very similar to what occurred way back in the '70s, but the good news is that a lot has changed.”
The survey was part of an effort by the fund to track the role of women in key roles in Omaha. The group did broader studies, involving interviews with both men and women, in 1996 and 2006. The group also monitors the number of women who serve on boards, commissions and hold elected office in the city.
Ellie Archer, the fund's executive director, said she felt it was important to get a closer look at the experiences of women leaders and share those findings with both businesses and younger women beginning their professional careers. She said the women have important stories but are often hesitant to share them.
“In the past, I have experienced some resistance from high-level, prominent women in the community — they feel a little guarded,” Archer said. “This was an opportunity to speak to them as a group, anonymously.”
With the assurance that their names would not be attached to the quotes included in the report, the women spoke freely about the ways in which they'd felt excluded in the workplace. About 34 percent of the survey participants said their choices had been limited by an unsupportive company culture or by being shut out of meetings. Some said their bosses reacted poorly to discussions about pregnancy or maternity leave. Others said they were left out of after-work social outings — and all the networking opportunities that come with them.
But without being asked, a quarter of the women told the interviewer that they felt things were changing for the better.
Some said both men and women seem to be more interested in creating workplaces that value different types of leaders. Nearly all of the women — 94 percent, which was up from 68 percent in the 2006 survey — said they'd found mentors who had helped them shape their careers and learn how to get ahead.
Karen Bricklemyer, president and CEO of the United Way of the Midlands, said the biggest challenges she's faced have been about balancing her roles as a parent and a professional — not about being a woman in the workplace.
When she was pregnant with her twin daughters, who are now 10, she was put on bed rest — at a time when she had plenty on her plate at the office.
“I plan everything,” she said. “I thought, well, I need to be at work. Being a mom has done more to challenge me in terms of the ability to get really creative in terms of juggling.”
She wasn't alone.
More than half of the women surveyed (51 percent) said they'd had to make a choice between family and work to get ahead in the professional life. About 15 percent said they'd sacrificed their social lives in the interest of their careers and their families. Many described a life in which everything has to be carefully scheduled if it's all going to work.
One woman said she gets up at 3:45 a.m. six days a week so she has time to exercise. While she's running, she does laundry. She takes her kids to school at 7:30 a.m., then heads to work. She reserves 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. each evening and weekends for family time.
“I'm not sure I have work-life balance,” she said.
Most of the women were quick to give credit to others in their lives — spouses, family members, friends, babysitters —who help carry some of the load so that they can keep up momentum at work. About 64 percent said they hire someone to help take care of their children, clean their home or take care of their yard work. Of the 38 survey participants who are married, 82 percent said their spouse had helped them with their career by taking a major role in caring for their children, working from home or moving because of their wife's job opportunities.
Neuhaus said that's very different from when she entered the workforce four decades ago.
“One of the things that has changed for the better is that instead of the myth — you have to be the superwoman, the supermom, to do it all — you can have that support network,” she said.
The survey also revealed that younger generations of women leaders are taking a much different approach to career planning than their predecessors.
Many women who have been in business since the 1970s or 1980s said they never planned to work their way to the top. Instead, they took advantage of opportunities that came up.
Maria Jensen, the director of human resources at Airlite Plastics, worked at three Fortune 500 companies on her way to her current position. She went back to college in the middle of her career, but it wasn't a path she'd planned on when she was just starting out.
“I came up through the ranks, took advantage of opportunities that were handed to me,” she said.
Archer said that's not the case for the youngest survey participants, who are in their 30s.
“The younger ones had a plan: ‘By this age, I'm going to be here,' ” she said.
Ann Finkner, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Farm Credit Services of America, said the challenge for employers is to spot those young women with plans — and to make them a key part of a company's growth.
Setting up professional networks for women and men is important, she said, as is changing the culture in companies that tend to fall back on what's known and comfortable to them.
“I think one of the greatest challenges for companies is to ensure that women are sponsored within their organization —in other words, assuming it will happen is not a strategy,” Finkner said.
Archer said it's hard to track some of the changes that may be happening because of her organization's work.
But she said studies like this one seem to be pushing more businesses to think about women as leaders. She noted that more women are showing up on the boards of major companies, including Valmont Industries, which recently selected its first female director.
“It seems like a small thing, but it's really not, when you look at the numbers,” she said.
Bricklemyer recalled a comment from Warren Buffett at a fundraising event for the organization Girls Inc., when the billionaire noted that he probably would not have achieved so much success if he'd been a woman because of the limited opportunities that existed for women in business not so long ago.
Bricklemyer wondered out loud about how much things might continue to change in the future.
“If we think about moving forward 50 years, if somebody of that caliber were to be sitting up on that stage, wouldn't it be great if that wasn't even a thought?” she said.
Click on the tab below to see a list of Omaha-area women interviewed for the Women in Leadership survey by the Women's Fund of Omaha.
Omaha-area women interviewed
Sheri Andrews, president and CEO, Lozier Corp.
Janet Barnard, senior vice president and general manager, central region, Cox Communications
Nancee Berger, president and chief operating officer, West Corp.
Anne Boyle, commissioner, Nebraska Public Service Commission
Karen Bricklemyer, president and CEO, United Way of the Midlands
Susie Buffett, director, Sherwood Foundation
Sandy Callahan, senior vice president, Lincoln Financial Group
Joan Chow, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, ConAgra Foods
Melissa Crawford, senior vice president, Physicians Mutual
Gail Deboer, president and CEO, SAC Federal Credit Union
Leslie Delperdang, chief operating officer, N.P. Dodge
Diane Duren, vice president and general manager for chemicals, Union Pacific Railroad
Kathy English, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Children's Hospital & Medical Center
Ann Finkner, senior vice president and chief administrative officer, Farm Credit Services of America
Jean Fober, merchandising and buying manager, Nebraska Furniture Mart
Andrea Frost, vice president, financial reporting, InfoGroup
Kristy Gerry, director of production, Omaha World-Herald
Vickie Hagen, vice president and chief marketing officer, Omaha Steaks
Mary Hawkins, president, Bellevue University
Ruth Henrichs, president and CEO, Lutheran Family Services
Sherrye Hutcherson, vice president, essential services, Omaha Public Power District
Susan Jacques, president and CEO, Borsheims
Cara James, senior vice president, compliance, First National Bank
Maria Jensen, director of human resources, Airlite Plastics
Kathy Johnson, vice president, franchise services, Godfather's Pizza
Mary Jones, vice president and treasurer, Union Pacific Corp.
Sue Korth, vice president and chief operation officer, Methodist Women's Hospital
Johanna Lewis, vice president and chief merchandising officer, Gordmans
Jan Madsen, vice president, finance, Creighton University
Kathy Mallatt, plan president, UnitedHealthcare Community and State, Share Advantage
Jane Miller, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Gallup
Adrian Minks, vice president, essential services (retired), Omaha Public Power District
Stephanie Moline, executive vice president, First National Bank
Joan Neuhaus, senior vice president and chief operating officer, Alegent Health
Connie Ryan, president, Streck
Barb Schaefer, senior vice president, human resources and corporate secretary, Union Pacific Corp.
Debra Schneider, senior vice president and chief financial officer, Metropolitan Utilities District
Stacy Scholtz, executive vice president, corporate services, Mutual of Omaha
Sarah Smith, former president and general manager, KETV
Deb Smith-Howell, associate vice chancellor, academic affairs, and dean of graduate studies, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Connie Spellman, director, Omaha by Design
Sister Maryanne Stevens, president, College of St. Mary
Nikki Theophilus, senior vice president, human resources, ConAgra Foods
Sarah Waldman, vice president, ethical practices and corporate secretary, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska
Gail Werner-Robertson, president and CEO, GWR Wealth Management
Mary Wise, vice president, technology and administrative services, Metropolitan Community College
Lyn Ziegenbein, executive director, Peter Kiewit Foundation
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