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14 percent: Why are women under represented in the C-suites of corporate America?

Four decades after the feminist revolution, why are there so few women at the top of big companies across America and in Hawaii?

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“I had come out of banking and had gone to a university as a budget and personnel officer because women weren’t going up in banking fast,” says Vuchinich. “The opportunities were much greater in a university setting. Oftentimes, you have to look outside the traditional industries to see where women are aspiring and moving up. Even when I came here (to the UH Foundation) as a VP, and then assumed the presidency, I was probably one of just a couple in the country who were presidents of their foundations. That has now changed dramatically. You see more leaders and presidents who are women.”

Susan K. Hippensteele, professor of Women’s Studies and strategic planning coordinator for the chancellor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Photo: David Croxford

Even in academia, women often face challenges that men do not and that hinders them from landing jobs and getting promoted, says Susan K. Hippensteele, who has spent the last six months studying how the career paths of men and women differ at the UH-Manoa. Hippensteele is a professor of women’s studies and the strategic planning coordinator for the UH-Manoa chancellor.

One area she is looking at is how to keep more women in the academic STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. She says many women leaders in those fields are “scratching their heads,” wondering why there aren’t more women leaders in STEM.

“Is there still that much hostility and discrimination that women aren’t getting hired? By and large that doesn’t seem to be the case. What does seem to be the case, and we’re seeing it here, anecdotally looking at the data, is that some women report they’re uncertain what they need to do for tenure and promotion,” even though their backgrounds and resumes are equal to those of their male counterparts.

“Many women have done double duty throughout graduate school as mothers and caregivers,” she said. “They didn’t have as much time to socialize as their male counterparts. They might not have been invited to socialize and these are the opportunities for the transmission of valuable advice … and opportunities for forming richer social relationships.”

Hippensteele says that, while women once flocked to academia as a place to excel in their fields and become leaders, they are now becoming independent consultants so they can have autonomy, control and flexibility.

“My hat’s off to women who come through and excel in their programs, get top-notch credentials, and then go off and do what they want. They graduate and say ‘I’m outta here,’ ” she says. “… But I also want some of these brilliant people to stay in academia and take leadership roles. We need both to happen.”
Some male-dominated fields have been transformed by a female invasion, says real estate broker and appraiser Stephany Sofos, whose candid new book, “Untold Stories of a Real Estate Diva,” documents her journey from the sexist workplaces of 1970s Hawaii to running her own company.

“The traditional corporate ladder (in Hawaii) is still very, very conservative because of the cultural atmosphere,” she says. “It’s even more conservative than the mainland U.S. because people still get jobs here because of what high school they went to. And you can’t be too aggressive or assertive or you’ll be called brassy. That cultural environment has made it difficult for women, which is why you have so many in the real estate industry where you can be assertive. The more assertive you are, the more money you can make. The same in the retail business. That’s why women do well in sales, in retail, where they can be as successful as men.

“We want to be women, but we want to earn the same amount of money as men and we want the same social status,” says Sofos. “The other profession is law. When you have a legal degree and you’re in front of a judge, you’re on an even keel.”

That’s exactly what motivates Sandra Theunick, head of school for St. Andrew’s Priory: putting women on an even keel with men. She says the best way to do that is to teach girls and women that they can tackle anything, and to provide them a superior education in all-girls’ schools to help thwart persistent media images focusing on bodies over brains.

“We are continuing to battle what it means to be a woman in today’s society,” says Theunick. “For example, look at the ‘Miss Representation’ documentary about how the media views women. It brings into question the role models young women are given, how girls are endorsed in their families and how they are persistently portrayed.”

Instead, says Theunick, we must offer girls and young women a broader range of female role models so they see many possibilities for themselves. She wants her girls to be “comfortable in their own skin. … You learn you can do anything, and you’re just fine the way you are.”

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