Monday, February 16, 2004

Hurdles remain for women

Mistaken perceptions obstacles

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LUDLOW - A few years ago, the trade show circuit discouraged Lesli Nieberding. Maybe it was the women in swimsuits handing out brochures. Maybe it was the skepticism from potential clients about a pitch coming from a 30-something woman.

Lesli Nieberding, President of Mach III Clutch, Inc. in Ludlow.
(Gary Landers photo)
Nieberding, the 34-year-old president of family-owned Mach III Clutch Inc., shrugged it all off.

She would focus on the merits of her company: a three-decade-old firm that could deliver a variety of more than 2,000 clutches, brakes or torque limiters for companies in the conveyor and packaging industries.

"It's gotten a lot better than it used to be," she says of the trade show booths that link sex to sales. "My generation of women probably doesn't have to prove itself as much as the one before.

"Still, some (women) struggle and must overcome perceptions. My advice: Know your product."

Demand for skilled workers in some sectors in Greater Cincinnati has opened new opportunities for women, who are stepping in to fill jobs as executives, electricians, architects and engineers.

Tristate women who have taken on pioneering roles in their occupation say plenty of hurdles remain, including wisecracks from coworkers, clients who doubt the ability of a woman to do the work, and resentful competitors.

Author Martin Yate, who has sold 3.5 million copies of Knock 'em Dead: The Ultimate Job Hunter's Guide (Adams Media: $12.95) advises career women to join at least two associations.

One should be specific to the profession. "Become active, increase your visibility with the most committed professionals in that group," Yate says. "That's the Old Boys Network."

Then, join an association for women. "That's the Old Girls Network," Yate says. "You've got to become part of the Old Girls Network."

The Old Boy Network is alive in architecture, says Neena Jud, project architect on the housing group at downtown-based Cole+Russell Architects. When she attended architecture school at the University of Florida in Gainesville more than two decades ago, her class held just a handful of women and only two professors were women.

Today, the department has a female director, six full-time female faculty members and 99 women students - more than half - were in the 2003 freshman class of 166, says Angel Ellis, program assistant for undergraduate programs and admissions.

"I believe the Old Boy Network manifests itself in preconceptions that people have," says Jud. "If you've got some sort of common history with somebody else, you have a better chance of relating."

Women best leaders

Author Lois P. Frankel, who has written three books on women and work and been a workplace coach for 600 women, believes women make the best leaders. They tend to build consensus, have better emotional intelligence and are socialized to cooperate, not compete.

But when women are discouraged from participating in decision-making, some shrink from that and other roles. Like many men, only women with a competitive bent will respond to challenges, Frankel says.

"Others back off and companies lose their capabilities because they are not willing to go in and fight," Frankel says.

It takes pluck to be a female electrician, says Charlene R. Monroe, 27, corporate liaison for Electrical Innovations Corp., a two-person, Norwood-based contractor with offices at the Hamilton County Business Center, a regional small business incubator.

Wisecracks are a daily occurrence, she says.

"The first thing encountered as a woman, at least in my experience, is the sexual innuendoes," she says. "It's a constant undertone - a coping skill that a lot of men have on the job."

She believes comments are a coping mechanism and probably help male workers deal with what they think is an uncomfortable situation. Also, electricians usually have no cultural or diversity training and are unprepared for a female co-worker.

"The focus goes from being concentrated on the work to the comments," she says. "There is a pre-conceived notion that men in construction are rough and tough. If a woman can do your job, that takes away from that image in their mind."

A 1994 Walnut Hills High School graduate, Monroe helped start the company when she saw that gender prejudice would prevent her from rising through the ranks.

"I wanted to create an opportunity of sustained employment, without a threat of gender or race discrimination on the job," she says.

Women in charge

That phenomenon - women creating their own company - is commonplace. Yate says: "Sixty percent of entrepreneurs are women. Ask them why and they'll say they were forced into it."

He insists that if women are to get ahead in careers, it is critical that they not retreat from decision-making.

"If you stop being engaged in decisions, your ability to make decisions will atrophy," Yate says. "Women need to think of themselves as problem-solvers.

"Someone will eventually listen. Either at this job or the next."

Lisa A. Rowell, P.E., director of business development for Infrastructure Services, a Blue Ash-based civil and structural engineering company with offices in Akron, recently had a meeting with an architecture firm to investigate a joint venture.

After she detailed the capabilities of Infrastructure Services, the representative from the architecture firm asked to talk with a project manager.

"I had met twice with him. They asked technical questions. I answered them. He still wanted to talk to the project manager, who told him the same thing," Rowell says.

"I've learned it's not going to change, so I may as well make it the best situation for me. To tell you the truth, I like the challenge, if nothing else."



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