In July of 1968, tobacco giant Philip Morris launched a marketing campaign for its Virginia Slims cigarettes aimed directly at young women. It’s slogan — “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby! — was a shameless piggyback onto the fast-growing women’s movement of the day. It was also a huge hit, convincing hordes of 20-something women eager to stake out a spot in male-dominated corporate America that puffing on skinny cancer sticks was a great way to show their independence. In that way, it was a marketing guy’s dream: a tagline that moved tons of product while becoming part of the national zeitgeist surrounding the evolution of women in society.
Ah, the times they were a-changin’.
But almost 50 years later, maybe things haven’t changed all that much, at least not when it comes to how women are faring in the workplace. A major study released last fall shows that women remain underrepresented on almost every rung of the corporate ladder. The “Women in the Workplace 2015” report, a joint effort of Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org and global management consultant McKinsey & Company, also suggests women may be 25 years away from parity with their male colleagues at the senior vice president level and a full century away at the C-level (the top executive level).
The reasons are many: disproportionate levels of stress for women seeking higher positions, fewer opportunities for career advancement, a lack of gender diversity as a corporate priority, and fewer mentors and advocates for women along the way. This can be particularly true for women working in fields still dominated by men.
Iron Mechanical Inc. CFO Katharine Gelber can relate to those challenges. The 29-year-old mother of two small children grew up in a construction family, so she is no stranger to the particular demands of the industry. Nor is she cowed by the rough-and-tumble nature of the folks who work in it. But she is also acutely aware there are not a lot of female role models for someone like her to follow.
“You don’t see many women presidents, estimators or project managers in this business,” Gelber says. “This is an industry where the guys have access to the developers and the general contractors, or they are the general contractors. Then it funnels down to subcontractors and field workers. They’re making these projects happen, and so it’s still very much the men shaping the projects.” But she also notes that gender isn’t always the key factor in whether or not someone makes it in the industry. “This is not an industry for the weak — male or female. It’s cutthroat, deadline driven.”
Neither of those elements, however, are exclusive to construction or any other industry. Every field is competitive and demanding, more so every day. To that end, the “Women in the Workplace” report suggests several steps companies can take right now to help women gain a stronger foothold in corporate boardrooms. Those include identifying inherent biases that discourage women from seeking advancement, helping women find mentors and encouraging companies to examine their performance metrics to ensure they are addressing problem areas or policies that keep qualified women out of the C-suite.
Virginia Rynk, a deputy chief with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Geotechnical Engineering Branch in Sacramento, suggests women be proactive in seeking out a mentor. “Having a mentor is critical,” she says. “I actually have two mentors — one woman and one man. I often reach out to them on different things, but sometimes I’ll go over the same issue with them both to get their unique perspectives.”
She doubts she’ll see true gender parity in her working lifetime, but Rynk, who is from North Carolina, offers one bit of positive perspective: “There is definitely still an old boys’ club here in California, but it’s nowhere near as pervasive as it is in the South.”