Rewriting the rules: Women make changes in local business world

Jeanette Lee White is president and CEO of Sytel Infrastructure Services in Bethesda.

In a 2002 Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies, 15.7 percent of corporate officers were women. Montgomery County paints a different scenario -- with more women breaking glass ceilings here than almost anywhere.

Deidre Walker, assistant police chief for Montgomery County's Investigative Services Bureau, said her education helped get her where she is.

"A degree doesn't say 'I'm smarter,' but it says 'I have the credentials and can make my goals,'" said Ms. Walker, who earned her master's degree in management while she was a lieutenant at the Wheaton Glenmont district.

"Nobody paid my way, and that said something to others." Ms. Walker said Montgomery County's police force is the exception to the rule in that its doors are open to women leaders. About six of the county's 12 captains are female.

Carol Mehrling, who joined the department's all-female Juvenile Aid Bureau when it was the only place women officers were allowed, became the county's first female police chief in 1995. She was one of 70 nationwide compared with 17,000 males, and oversaw the second largest police force in the nation.

Korean-born Jeanette Lee White moved to Bethesda at age 14 and in 1987 launched an information technology company now called Sytel. The firm she started from her kitchen table the year her son was born now has a staff of 300, is projecting $48 million in revenue this year, and has made Inc Magazine's "500 Fastest Growing Companies" list five times.

"The secret to my success is my husband's support; I didn't have to work so hard to juggle," said Ms. White, the company's CEO.

She observed that women historically had to work harder to prove themselves, and that initially she had a hard time finding qualified women managers because so few were in IT. She says a shifting gender ratio has brought more balance to the table, as men and women often lead differently.

"Today, the sheer global nature of the competition has driven a lot of people to focus on results -- not on gender. This is partly because an older generation of women has paved the way. And it's partly because businesses cannot afford to be in a backward society. They need the best talent possible, period."

Ms. White is a rare breed. While many women run nonprofits, much fewer reach towering stature in the corporate world, and those who do climb often make less than men. Sixty-three of the nation's 2,500 top income earners are women, according to The New York Times.

A year and a half ago, white collar executive Pat Cornish did what a lot of women are doing.

"I left corporate America to start my own company," said the chair of the Business and Professional Women's Foundation and president of the Montgomery County Commission for Women.

Ms. Cornish's small but growing start-up business manages financial planning and taxes for corporations, small and mid-sized companies.

A former manager at one of the state's largest public accounting firms, Ms. Cornish said, "It was the old boy network from the get go."

Accountants qualified for a pay increase if they billed out at least 3.5 times their gross salary.

Opting not to cite the firm's name, Ms. Cornish said "Although I had the highest billable hours in the company, my salary increase and position were not comparable to what the men received for their billable time."

Discrepancies have also existed in education.

"In a 1997 study we found Montgomery County had four female and 14 male principals at the high school level. In middle school it was about half men and half women. In elementary school 85 women and 36 men were principals," said Judith Vaughan Prather, executive director of the Montgomery County Commission for Women.

"This suggests that the attitude may be, "Women can be principals if they are dealing with young children, but may not do well with older kids. Just as the perception may be that women can run nonprofits but not corporations."

The trend in public schools is changing, she noted, adding that County Executive Douglas Duncan's administration has appointed more women to head government agencies. Currently, women reign in 166 of the county's 363 senior management-level positions.

"If people want to see it happen, it happens," Ms. Vaughan Prather said.

Locally, Chief Information Officer Alison Moore is one of 5 percent of women CIO's in the country; Sharlene Nunley is Montgomery County Community College's first female president.

Of the 478 Montgomery County-based federal government senior executive services positions, 129 were held by women in September 2003.

Montgomery County's Chamber of Commerce--reports that of its 720 member organizations who are in private industry, there are about 320 female, senior-level managers, primarily vice presidents and owners. They represent mainly midsize companies though there are some big ones in there like IBM and Bank of America.

Getting women into positions where they are responsible for the bottom line is the first step, according to Carol Frohlinger, a principal at Shadow Negotiation, a New York-based company that provides negotiation training.

"Companies go to line positions when they are looking for the next CEO. It's where they find proven records in managing profitability, but you don't see as many women in these jobs," Ms. Frohlinger said, commenting they've been shut out or just chose not to pursue this path.

Line positions require excellent negotiating skills but women are expected to negotiate differently, many business strategists say.

"There's a whole thing now on bully broads. If women are too aggressive, that's what they're considered -- bullies. If they're too collaborative, they may be seen as wimps. You need a delicate balance in formal contracts and in informal negotiations as well, like who gets which cubicle and how staff will work together," Ms. Frohlinger said.

Most women report balancing home and work is the hardest. Carol Mehrling told a local newspaper, "I have a tendency not to balance my life. I've devoted my whole life to this police department because it has been so rewarding."

Women who are game to make big sacrifices often have to push harder to prove it, many business strategists say. Depending on the setting, the ability to bring something unique to the table can up the ante.

As a "homegrown girl" Ms. Walker brings additional insight to the police force.

"Our department is less myopic because we have a fair representation of women and men When I see a command structure that's all white male, I worry that the perspective is limited."

"We are seeing evidence that companies need to take women more seriously because it's not just the right thing to do, but it's smart business," Ms. Frohlinger said. She cited a Catalyst study correlating performance of Fortune 500 companies to the percentage of women in top management.

The research firm found that of 353 companies from 1996 to 2000, the return on equity was 35.1 percent higher when women were in senior management. The total return to shareholders was 34 percent higher.

"Though the statistics do not prove cause and effect, they are a strong indication of why companies need to pay attention to women," Ms. Frohlinger said. But she commented the feminine persuasion may need to help the process along.

"Sometimes men write the rules. In some cases women need to take it on to rewrite them."

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