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Crain’s Chicago Business

Women aided by networking

Crain's Chicago Business
By: Cathy Tokarski February 12, 2001Women aided by networking

In the ’80s, women who wanted to make their mark in the business world were urged to think, act and even dress like men. Now, the “power suits” and bow ties of that era are a humorous relic, and women are defining what success means and how to achieve it.

In the Chicago area, women are forming women-only forums, networking groups and professional associations to help members meet their goals. Women who run small businesses may find added benefit from these groups because they are less likely to have colleagues or mentors at work who can offer advice, experts say. But they caution women against relying exclusively on these groups to forge relationships or reach professional goals.

“The need is still there, and the outlook for these organizations is strong,” says Susan L. Abrams, visiting scholar at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

A recent survey by Catalyst, a New York-based research group for women in business, found that only 12.5% of the corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies were occupied by women, compared with 8.7% in 1995.

While the trend is up, “the pace is really glacial,” says Ms. Abrams, author of a new book called “The New Success Rules for Women.”

One Chicago-based group, Women Empowering Women in Illinois, or We-Will, is seeking to speed that process.

Formed in 1999, the coalition of 30 women’s professional organizations is working to identify and groom women to serve as board members of corporations, government entities and non-profit organizations. It formed as an outgrowth of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois.

Its combined membership totals about 10,000, including representatives from Women in Management, the National Assn. of Women Business Owners and the Network of Women Entrepreneurs. Representatives of these groups, typically past presidents, are “across the board, Chicago-specific and high-powered,” says Co-chair Gayle Guthrie.

Qualified women have not been frozen out of board positions at Chicago’s business and civic institutions, but only a handful are invited repeatedly to join, says Ms. Guthrie, president of Chicago-based Guthrie Enterprises Group, a total asset management firm. “We need to spread the wealth.”

Carmen Caldero, president and owner of CPC Electrical Supply Co. in Chicago and a member of We-Will, attests to the value of board experience.

For 10 years, she served on the board of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which oversees the development of Navy Pier and McCormick Place, and ran two of its committees.

“I would say that was my college education,” says Ms. Caldero, who described her tenure as an “incredible opportunity to learn and make decisions at that level.” Among them were the approvals of construction projects with budgets exceeding $1.5 billion.

The owner of a five-person lighting and electrical supply company that sells to government, corporations and contractors, Ms. Caldero says her service on the authority didn’t translate into a fatter bottom line for her company.

It paid other dividends, however. “It gave me visibility, and it gave me visibility in the construction industry, so people know who I am. That makes it a little easier to do business.”

Helping groom other women for that chance will fill a much-needed gap, she says. “There aren’t enough women in leadership. At age 49 . . . I see my role as more of a mentor in helping develop leadership skills in younger women.”

A similar motivation inspired former business owner Linda McCabe to create Feminine Forum, a Chicago-area networking organization. A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, Ms. McCabe joined her father’s scrap metal reclamation business in 1980 and took the helm when he became ill in 1986. She sold the business in 1999 and launched Feminine Forum in early 2000.

Meeting in small groups moderated by a professional facilitator, the forum encourages discussion among members on a range of personal and professional issues, ranging from launching a career change to coping with difficult bosses to exercising power wisely. Members are encouraged, but not required, to sign “action commitment” statements that establish deadlines for their goals.

At a late-November meeting in Des Plaines, participants discussed a chapter from a new book titled “Power and Wisdom: the New Path for Women.” An element of each meeting, the discussions serve as a springboard to help members examine the issues they’re confronting.

A manager at a small suburban manufacturing company who asked not to be identified notes that exercising power at her male-dominated company often meets with a negative response. “You’re working so much harder to be taken seriously,” she says. Yet, “your opinions don’t count as much.”

Having the chance to freely air concerns and opinions allows women to collaborate on problem-solving, Ms. McCabe says. Traditionally, “women have had a need to focus on the needs of others,” she notes. Now, “women need to find their power in the business world, and we help them activate that power.”

As beneficial as women-only groups may be in grooming women for board positions or providing a forum for problem-solving and growth, leaders urge women to regard them as only one resource.

“You can’t rely on women’s networks exclusively,” says Ms. Abrams.

Women who do will cut off potential relationships with men who still occupy the vast majority of corporate officer positions. “It’s absolutely critical we open ourselves to these relationships as well,” she adds.

©2001 by Crain Communications Inc.