By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
or Rochelle Landy, it was a scary moment.
An advertising executive with Prodigal Media in Boardman, she was seated between two male colleagues at a business meeting when the client looked at her pointedly and scolded: "Honey, aren't you going to write this down?"
Landy, whom the businessman had apparently mistaken for a secretary, was especially chagrined because she'd recently returned to the Mahoning Valley after working five years as an agent for a major licensing agency in New York City.
"That was my first month working in this town, and I wondered if I'd made a big mistake coming back here," she recalled.
Turns out, Landy said, the experience wasn't typical, and 41/2 years later she's still here, now director of client services for Prodigal.
The Vindicator interviewed female executives representing several industries across the Mahoning Valley, and most agreed that the region offers plenty of opportunity for women who are willing to work hard and persevere.
Although the negative, gender-related experiences they've had were the exception rather than the rule, they emphasized that the way women respond to those negatives can determine their success or failure.
Gave her a hard time
Bonnie Tura said she went through trial by fire when she started her career at General Motors Lordstown in the mid-1980s, a rarity then as a woman supervisor in the auto assembly plant.
"I was just 22, fresh out of General Motors Institute, and I don't know if they were reacting to my gender or my youth, but they did try me," she said.
"They wanted to see if I could cut the mustard. They wanted to see if I was willing to get my hands dirty to help them."
Tura stuck it out, working her way up the ranks in production over 16 years, then landed her current position as director of engineering. "I just had this inner drive to succeed," Tura recalled. "I would go home many days and ask myself: Why am I doing this? But I just had to show them that I could succeed."
Diane Sauer, owner of Diane Sauer's Martin Chevrolet in Warren, said she's learned that it's sometimes better to ignore a negative comment if it doesn't involve a crucial career issue. "I always tell people, don't sweat the small stuff," she said.
She's the boss now, so she doesn't run into much gender bias, but Sauer said she faced frequent challenges in her early years in auto sales as she took on a succession of management positions that had generally been held by men.
"It's important to know what's really critical to your career," Sauer said. "If you think somebody's treating you differently because you're a woman, but it's not an important issue, don't worry about it. Keep your sense of humor."
The women executives differed in their views on the progress of women in leadership locally.
Stephanie Shaw, public affairs manager for Sprint in Warren, said she thinks women have "a long way to go," based on her observations participating in various community service boards across the region.
An eight-year Sprint veteran who started as a telephone customer service representative and worked her way up to the executive suite, Shaw said attending charitable board meetings is in her job description.
"I'm always one of just one or two women at those meetings," she said. "And if a business sends a representative, it's almost always a man. I've never felt discriminated against, personally, but in business I've noticed there's not a lot of women at the top."
Home Savings and Loan is one exception, said Cindy Cerimele, vice president of human resources at the Youngstown-based company. "We have to be female-friendly because our work force is largely female," she said.
Cerimele said she believes more women are moving into executive positions locally, and the community is more aware of them because of programs such as Leadership Mahoning Valley and the ATHENA Award, which recognizes outstanding local businesswomen.
"Women need to reach out to one another as mentors and coaches," she said. "A woman might not get that from a male counterpart."
Brenda Oman, vice president of finance and administration at Exal Corp., said the Youngstown aluminum container plant is also receptive to women leaders and has several women managers in its work force of 132.
"Often I'm the only female in a class or a meeting, but I guess I don't have a problem with that because the people I've been around have been very open to women," she said. "I think the glass ceiling is going away. I've never run into it. I've just always worked very hard and that's why I've succeeded."
Ambition is key
And Patricia Ulery, district sales manager at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Youngstown, said she hasn't noticed any obstacles related to gender.
"I'm not sure the glass ceiling ever existed at Anthem. I can't speak for other companies, but there are a lot of women in executive positions here," Ulery said.
"I was ambitious from the start. I think that women who succeed are driven and assertive. And we have an advantage because we can multitask. They can balance a career and a home if they choose to do that."
One factor limiting opportunities for women in the Valley is the middle-size of the community, said Landy, the Prodigal executive.
"We have female business leaders here, but most of them are in their mid-40s or 50s, not the mid-30s age bracket," she said. "I think in bigger cities you reach that level earlier because there's more opportunity, more room to jump around. Here, there are fewer levels, the companies are smaller, and there's not much room for jumping around."
Fewer opportunities here
Pat Rose, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of the Mahoning Valley, argued that the region's lack of corporate headquarters limits women's opportunities and is detrimental to the economy.
"I hate to see people use this area as a steppingstone," she said, "but without some corporate headquarters, our population is going to become older and older. We have to develop some of that [corporate headquarters] for this area to grow."
Hard work was a central theme for every woman interviewed, and education also got top billing in their list of success criteria.
"You've got to get as much education as you can, and build up your portfolio. Learn as much as you possibly can in the job you're in today," said Elaine Wilson, director of minority health initiatives for Humility of Mary Health Partners.
A registered nurse who ran her own home health-care business for 12 years, she works to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health care in her position with HM.
"Maybe you won't be the head of the department you're in now, but maybe you will be somewhere else. The key for women, especially minority women, is to really become very well prepared so when that door opens, you're ready to step in."
Wilson practiced what she preaches. It took her 25 years to complete her bachelor's degree while rearing a family and working full time, and now she's six weeks short of completing a master's degree in public health.
Rose of the BBB agreed that women must meet the same educational standards as the men they hope to compete with. "If men are working hard to get their MBAs, then the women have to do the same and no making excuses," she said.
"I don't believe there should be quotas. If the best person for the job is a young, white male, I think he should get the job."
In the long run, Tura of GM argued, the growing mix of women and minorities in the workplace is an advantage in the global marketplace.
"Maybe a white male might feel like we're only promoting women, but I think we are still promoting based on talent," she said.
"We do look at our mix, and we recognize that diversity is a key to success. It brings more different perspectives, more ways to solve a problem, and in our market with the fierce competition we face, we need that."