January 12, 2015

CT companies make progress in narrowing the gender gap

PHOTO | Pablo Robles
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
Jill Hummel was named president of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in Connecticut in 2013, joining a growing number of women in the state taking on executive posts.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
Anthem President Jill Hummel, shown to the left, said women fill 56 percent of the company’s leadership positions.
Karen Rohan, president, Aetna
Jennifer Morgan DelMonico, managing partner, Murtha Cullina
Bonnie Malley, Chief Financial Officer, The Phoenix Co. and chair, MetroHartford Alliance

Women account for more than half of U.S. college students and influence 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in the country, yet many states still struggle to end leadership disparities in the workforce and close gender-wage gaps.

Connecticut, however, is one of several top-ranking states leading the charge in offering women greater opportunities for professional development and economic growth, according to one recent study.

Several recent high-profile women executive promotions in Connecticut — Hartford health insurer Aetna naming Karen Rohan president; Jennifer Morgan DelMonico becoming managing partner of Hartford law firm Murtha Cullina; and The Phoenix Co.'s Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Malley being named the first woman chair of the MetroHartford Alliance — are indicative of the state's progressive efforts to diversify their top ranks, experts say.

Still, critics warn, there is a long way to go before gender-wage disparities are fully overcome and women occupy a higher percentage of C-suite positions in Connecticut.

Women, for example, still earn 78 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts in the state, according to a study published by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW).

"Connecticut is still behind the ball when it comes to women in non-traditional roles such as managerial jobs and jobs in engineering and sciences; we also rank low for women-owned businesses," said Rowena Ortiz-Walters, co-director of Quinnipiac University's new Center for Women and Business, which offers a variety of programs and professional development events to help foster supportive environments for women seeking leadership positions at workplaces across Connecticut.

Signs of progress

Connecticut women are making progress climbing the corporate ladder. According PCSW's recent report, which used 2012 data, 43.9 percent of employed women in the state work in professional or managerial roles, up from just 33.4 percent in 1995.

Aetna represents a prime example of Greater Hartford companies focusing on the advancement of women into leadership roles, said Ortiz-Walters and Kathleen Simione, the other co-director of Quinnipiac's Center for Women and Business.

Besides naming Rohan president, the majority (76 percent) of Aetna's employees are women, and women hold 64 percent of management positions at the company, said Grace Figueredo, Aetna's vice president of diversity and inclusion.

Aetna has created several initiatives geared toward accelerating women's advancement at the company, Figueredo said, including programs that focus on mentorship, sponsorship and targeted development.

Their "Strategies for Success" program, for example, brings together high-potential and high-performing women from across the company so they can exchange thoughts and expertise on topics ranging from personal brand building; innovation and risk taking; and crafting one's executive presence.

Aetna also established a women's leadership alliance, which provides coaching, mentorship and training opportunities to help women accelerate their careers, Figueredo said.

"As a healthcare company, it's important that we acknowledge that the majority of healthcare decisions are made by women and that women also influence 80 percent of purchasing decisions in the country," said Figueredo. "Having the input of women in our company is important."

Connecticut's Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield also focuses on putting women in leadership positions, said Jill Hummel, who was named the company's president in 2013.

Hummel said 76 percent of Anthem's 1,400 Connecticut associates are women; women also make up 56 percent of the company's leadership positions.

"Anthem strives to maintain a work environment and a corporate culture that promotes work-life balance and flexibility — an essential component to fostering women's advancement and success in our organization," Hummel said.

Barriers remain

Despite the progress, barriers such as limited access to mentors, role models and sponsors as well as stereotypes regarding femininity and gender roles, continue to impact women as they attempt to break through the glass ceiling, Ortiz-Walters and Simione said.

They're issues experienced by leaders like DelMonico, who takes the reigns as Murtha Cullina's managing partner this month.

"The biggest challenge, particularly early in my career, was overcoming assumptions about my abilities and commitment to my career," DelMonico said. "This challenge was exacerbated when I had children and faced additional assumptions about a working mother's ability to manage the busy workload of a full-time trial lawyer."

At the start of her career, DelMonico said she took on a very demanding workload and made herself available to clients and colleagues at all hours to combat those perceptions and prove her dedication to her career as well as her ability to juggle competing demands.

"Men are presumed to put career first, and women are perceived to put family first," said DelMonico. "So many times, well-intentioned people would presume — based on nothing other than the fact that I was a mother — that I was not willing to take on major responsibilities, work late, travel, or do other things that could interfere with my personal life."

Murtha Cullina's history of placing women in leadership roles — DelMonico will succeed current managing partner, Elizabeth Stewart — has helped to create a supportive environment for women at the firm, DelMonico said.

The Phoenix Cos.' Malley said she has experienced several challenges climbing the corporate ladder, but she doesn't believe they were related to her gender.

"I've seen the challenges of trying to raise a family — trying to work your way through roles with increasing responsibility — but I see those challenges as gender neutral," said Malley.

However, Malley said throughout her lengthy career, female mentors and role models have been scarce.

"I've never personally felt that my challenges were especially unique but I absolutely acknowledge that along the way I didn't have many women role models in [executive] positions," said Malley, who was recently named chair of the MetroHartford Alliance. ''But I've been lucky enough to have worked for many men who were incredibly supportive."

Like Hummel and DelMonico, Malley said her company's flexibility and culture helped her overcome workplace challenges and not experience the glass-ceiling effect felt by many women across the country.

The Phoenix Cos. offers flexible schedules, telecommuting, and a generous amount of paid time off to help employees balance the competing demands of work and home, said Suzette Louro, the company's senior vice president of corporate benefits.

Going solo

For women who struggle to make it to the C-suite, entrepreneurship has emerged as an alternate route to financial and career success, according to the Connecticut Women's Business Development Council (CWBDC).

Research published by PCSW showed that, between 1997 and 2007, the percentage of women-owned businesses in Connecticut increased from 25.5 percent to 28.1 percent.

Still, women who choose to strike out on their own sometimes face their own set of challenges, said Fran Pastore, president and CEO of CWBDC, which offers entrepreneurial and financial training for women.

"Access to capital is the leading challenge facing women entrepreneurs — it takes an average of four attempts to receive funding from traditional lenders," said Pastore. "The prevailing wisdom is that there are not enough women on the other side of the table as lenders or on corporate boards."

Once capital is secured, women may find themselves paying higher interest rates on loans and struggling to gain significant market share, Pastore said.

"Women entrepreneurs fall short on all measures from the business outcome perspective when compared to men — specifically market share, number of loans, gross in sales and gross in profit," said Quinnipiac's Ortiz-Walters.

Overcoming challenges facing women in business will take time and effort, Ortiz-Walters said. However, recent high-profile promotions and the state's gradual progression offer optimism.

"Being a woman will sometimes work against you, but sometimes it will work in your favor," said Murtha Cullina's DelMonico. "You can't control that, so don't get upset when it works against you and don't feel guilty when it works in your favor. Focus on doing excellent work and making the most of every opportunity you have to demonstrate your abilities."

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