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Colorado Springs' top female leaders share insights

August 13, 2016 Updated: August 14, 2016 at 9:37 am
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When former El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen mentioned to her 21-year-old daughter that she was part of a Gazette roundtable about the challenges of women in leadership, her daughter asked, "why would there be a panel on that?" There's no issue.

"In her mind, she doesn't see it," Lathen said. "Because we have made such great strides in some ways, it's not so obvious." That millennial's viewpoint has been the dream for more than 50 years - that a woman running a company, a college, a governmental body or a military unit isn't an anomaly, and that rising generations don't have to repeat the struggles of the baby boomers.

"I'm really grateful for the women who have come before, who did make way for us today - it makes it easier to be seen as leaders. We're at a moment where we need to push that nationally," said Jill Tiefenthaler, the second woman to serve as president of Colorado College in the 142-year history of the private, liberal arts institution.

Although women have realized progress in terms of equality and opportunities since the 1960s wave of women's liberation, "We aren't there yet," say some top female leaders in Colorado Springs.

"It's not a destination; it's a journey," said Lathen, who recently became executive director of Colorado Springs Forward, an organization that works to influence public policy and community initiatives.

Five women joined The Gazette's discussion last week. Lathen and Tiefenthaler were joined by Kathy Boe, founder and chief executive officer of defense contractor Boecore; Margaret Sabin, president and chief executive officer of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services; and Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the fastest-growing campus in the CU system.

The women talked about their experiences as females in charge, what society needs to work on and advice they would give other women.

"I agree, we're not there yet," Sabin said. "It's up to us. It's our moral imperative and our opportunity to address that in a manner where we talk about what we bring to the table as powerful women leaders."

Leveraging strengths

Although the advances made by women in the workforce may make the topic seem passé, female leaders continue to make news in ways that male leaders do not. The failure of Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer to turn around her company led to recent speculation that her performance would feed stereotypes that women aren't the right fit for such senior positions.

"There were three to four men who failed in that same week doing the same thing, and the headline was the female who did not make it," Shockley-Zalabak said.

Achieving equality in the workplace is not solely a matter of gender, she said.

"We're not there in terms of getting the best brains around the table, and that includes women. We are under-utilizing the competence of many people," Shockley-Zalabak said. "It's easier to see it by gender because of the sheer numbers."

Boe said women shouldn't ignore their strengths, such as intuitiveness.

"Because of the natural mother in us we tend to be a little more in touch with that side," she said. "That's not to say that men aren't, but that's what they tell me. On the other side, men are good at having a strong disagreement and the next day they're buddies. Women don't necessarily do that."

Women also demonstrate the ability to "sometimes set aside the hierarchal desire to run a single domain," Sabin said.

Women are "more apt to connect social platforms and work together so 1 and 1 becomes 5," she said.

Balancing male and female perspectives in work environment yields the most productive results, all of the participants said.

"Decades of research tells us that diversity at the table leads to the best outcomes," Tiefenthaler said. "It's making sure you're an attractive place for people of all backgrounds because then you really will get the top talent."

Tiefenthaler said she doesn't automatically think women have certain styles of leadership.

"I've worked with men and women who have lots of styles that aren't necessarily by gender," she said. "Experiences, whether it be motherhood or others, the more we have at the table the better off we are."

Boe said she prefers working as a team because it gives her "a great deal of satisfaction when we all win."

When Hillary Clinton made history last month by becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, she declared that her nomination "put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet."

Boe said she doesn't agree with the idea of a glass ceiling, a barrier to professional advancement.

"I look at myself as just qualified. I don't think buying into that stereotype helps bring value," she said.

Lathen said she has not viewed her gender as a hindrance to her work.

"It never occurred to me that it would have an impact in my role," she said. "It's all proven by your effectiveness."

Colorado Springs, she said, has a history of having women in high places. Mary Lou Makepeace became the city's first female mayor, serving from 1997 to 2003.

In 2013, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, was appointed Air Force Academy superintendent. This year, Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson became the first female to take charge of a top-tier U.S. war fighting command, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs.

Neither general was available for the Gazette roundtable.

A consistent theme that emerged during the discussion was that women believe they are collaborators who encourage and support one another.

"As women leaders, it's our obligation to help another woman succeed," Boe said.

Sabin said she looks for opportunities to mentor and coach younger women to help them advance.

"The majority of the workforce in health care is women," she said, but men are usually employed in the top tier.

Do women in high positions still face obstacles?

"I don't, but I don't look for it," Boe said. "If I did, I would probably find it."

One thing she does see: "Men are shocked sometimes when I tell them I'm the CEO of a defense company and describe what we do."

Wage parity

A wage gap can be documented in all industries, said Shockley-Zalabak, which she believes is an impediment for women.

"We value female professionals at about 27 cents less on the dollar than we do the male professionals," she said. "I think it's an issue."

Boe said when she started doing defense work 20 years ago, women earned 48 cents to every dollar men earned.

"I see us closing the gap. There's still inequity, but we've come so far," Boe said.

The disparity, Shockley-Zalabak said, "is tied to both the bottom line and the ebb and flow of the economy."

Tiefenthaler said in higher education, young women have achieved "at levels equal to or higher than men" but the salary inequity grows over time.

Sabin said her oldest daughter caused her to take a hard look at the issue when she asked how Sabin advocates for others who don't have "CEO" or "president" in front of their names.

"We as leaders should have zero tolerance for wage imparity," Sabin said. "We need a just balance."

Boe said she's made it a priority to address the issue at her company, which employs 240 people. She also conducts an annual employee survey, which includes questions about diversity and fair pay.

"I specifically look at my leadership team to look at that and every year make sure we're not falling into that trap," she said.

The fact that women bear children still can adversely influence workplace advancement, Sabin said.

Lathen, who served nearly eight years as a county commissioner before joining Colorado Springs Forward, said she's been asked how she could run for public office with children. Her youngest is 13.

"That wouldn't be an issue for a male counterpart," she said. "We shouldn't be considering gender or race or people as anything but humans."

Biases start early, Shockley-Zalabak said.

"We all have them - you can see a whole progression of those unconscious, biased messages," she said. "The reality is that certain professions are dominated by women, like early education, but economically, we don't value them."

Conflicting priorities

This year's Fortune 500 list showed 21 companies with women at the top, down from 24 in the two previous years. That means women hold just 4.2 percent of CEO positions in America's 500 biggest companies.

Research indicates the numbers of women taking top jobs have stalled, said Shockley-Zalabak, who worked on a recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership.

Globally, only 24 percent of senior leader positions are filled by women, said Candice Frankovelgia, a clinical psychologist and senior faculty member at the nonprofit center, which specializes in leadership development, training, executive coaching and research.

That number has been flat for the past 10 years, Frankovelgia said in an interview.

"When you see that statistic, you can interpret it as women aren't good enough, they can't keep up, but research shows us a different story," Frankovelgia said. "They're choosing not to."

It's not that women are losing ground, the study concluded.

"It's not due to a lack of capability or motivation on the part of females, but rather cultural and organizational practices and mindsets that unintentionally, we'll assume, promote male-based definitions of successful leaders," Frankovelgia said.

Five themes matter most to high-achieving females, the study shows: mapping intentional action toward achieving desired goals; developing a style that fits who they are; forming close relationships; seeking feedback to understand their performance; and uniting their professional and personal roles.

The last element is the most important, Frankovelgia said.

"High-achieving women leaders don't think of it in terms of work/life balance - there's no such thing," she said. "What they do is set priorities and value all of their commitments, which requires that they say 'no' to what no longer serves them."

But these key priorities for high-achieving women often are not part of a company's culture, Frankovelgia said, which creates the disconnect.

Thus, "You can look at it as women can't handle it, or that they're making a conscious decision to step into an environment that does not fit with their well-being."

To reverse the trend of a decrease in female leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership is working on "changing the mindsets of organizations to make diversity more successful."

Transforming an organization's culture is difficult but not impossible, Frankovelgia said.

"It requires buy-in from the top down," she said. "The top people have to feel it's important and are willing to live and breathe it and role model it."

Keys to success

What advice do the female leaders have for other women?

"Have confidence," Boe said. "Any struggles I had were about stretching myself outside my own comfort zone. While it was definitely hard at times, I always grew from it, and it has enabled me to have the confidence to do what I do today."

Competence and credentials must accompany the confidence, Sabin said. Perseverance is another good trait, Shockley-Zalabak said.

"A setback is simply one setback; it isn't your whole career. Be willing to fail," Shockley-Zalabak said. "If something isn't working, take charge of the situation."

Find good mentors, Tiefenthaler said.

"They can be women as well as men," she said. "Build a support group of good friends and colleagues."

Lathen said women should rely on their relational abilities and develop bonds.

"That forms the trust that's needed to influence," she said.

"Women can't wait to be asked to take a seat at the table," Boe said. "You have to take a seat at the table. Persistence pays off. And if it's out of your control, let it go."

Add passion to the list, said Sabin, who oversees 3,300 employees.

"It'll get you through the tough times," she said. "It's not going to be easy. You make decisions that impact thousands of people in a big organization."

Shockley-Zalabak said great leaders have a sense of their impact on others.

"There's a tendency to lose touch with that," she said. "We know what our intentions are, but we don't know how that's being received."

Frankovelgia said women should not strive to be like men. That approach doesn't work, but women can learn from traits males do naturally, such as networking while playing golf or having cocktails.

Ultimately, women need to find what works for them and not emulate men, she said.

"If they find the role that fits who they are, they will rise," Frankovelgia said. "If they don't, they opt out or derail."

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