By Matt Schepeler
“It’s a man’s world,” sang James Brown back in 1966. And while few would argue that women have made tremendous strides in the past century, they still face unique challenges in the modern world, particularly in the marketplace.
Spurred on by the Brooklyn-Irish Hills Chamber of Commerce, several business women got together in June to discuss those issues at the Breakfast Club Cafe in Brooklyn. Chamber president Cindy Hubbell and facilitator Annette Dupuie were kind enough to let a reporter — and a male one at that — sit in on their discussion.
“One of the reasons that we decided to bring this group together was to discuss some of the hurdles that we all face,” said Dupuie. “I know personally that there are things I struggled with building my business, and everybody is probably experiencing similar issues in our community.”
The first issue she brought up was that of titles.
The chamber board recently changed Hubbell’s title from Executive Director to President and CEO. While that may appear to be mere schematics, for women in particular, titles, or lack of them, can be a problematic issue.
“In some of our communities there exists a good old boys club,” said Dupuie. “If you don’t have [the right] title to back up what you are saying and doing, you don’t necessarily get the head turn that you need.”
Dupuie said that chamber organizations across the United States are changing title structures as a result of the perception issue, “so we decided to give Cindy a little more leverage.”
Hubbell noted that at a recent luncheon, “My past president was a man, and everyone was speaking with him instead of me.”
So why does this matter? Perhaps this analogy might help: if the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, then anyone wanting to accomplish something through a chamber of commerce needs to know who “gets things done.” Most chambers of commerce, including the Brooklyn-Irish Hills chamber, are overseen by a volunteer board of directors who meet regularly to discuss issues brought to their attention by a hired employee who oversees the day-to-day operation of the organization. In the case of the Brooklyn-Irish Hills chamber, that person would be Hubbell.
Dupuie elaborated. “People want to talk to the president when they call the chamber, they want the person that runs the chamber,” she said. “I don’t run the chamber. Cindy runs the chamber.”
Could it be that Hubbell was being over-sensitive in this instance to her past president being a man? That is another issue with which women frequently wrestle. The answer? Maybe. Maybe not. “I don’t know if it was a woman-man thing or a title thing,” Hubbell admitted.
One woman who has spent her career in the banking industry said that titles weren’t as important as how a woman present themselves. She said that when she got started in the banking industry “I was really quiet and shy.
“I got some great advice from an older woman who said ‘It is not really about title. Titles are great. But titles don’t do much without action and thought behind it.’”
“Titles don’t change people. Thoughts and actions do.”
But the discussion of titles could not be over-simplified. Several women brought up instances when they felt they were being condescended to by men, and had to present their title before they were taken seriously. They also admitted that pinpointing cases of rank sexism isn’t always easy, as the lines between perception and reality can easily be blurred.
“I have had coworkers say ‘thank you sweetie,’ or ‘thank you honey’ which would be a more appropriate pet name for their spouse or partner or daughter,” said one woman. “There is a fine line. We all have male coworkers who cross the line.”
Michelle Reed, who has been in business in the male-dominated financial industry for 15 years spoke of one issue she had to address when getting started.
“When I first got in business, men would look at me, size me up and say, ‘You are so young. I assume you are going to have children.’ It was like, you know, ‘why would I want to invest money with you of you are going to go off and have a family?’”
“I can’t tell you how many times someone said that,” said Reed. “It is interesting, especially as a young female in business, they look at you a little bit differently.”
Reed, who is no wallflower, has gone on to a successful career, and credits projecting a confident demeanor with helping to make that happen.
“Every day, put it on like a coat,” said Reed.
Another woman in a male-dominated profession said that she felt women had to work harder to acquire a feeling that they belong there.
“Every day you have to do the hard work and prove yourself,” added Hubbell.
Dupuie noted that when she started out at the age of 22 and just starting out in the healing arts industry, people would act skeptical when she presented herself as the owner of the company.
“They would look at my name tag, look at me, look at my name tag, look at me, and they were really uncomfortable.”
Of course, the wage gap also came up. One woman noted that she was being asked to take on more and more responsibilities. “I finally said ‘sure, but I would have to have more money.’ That seemed to shock him.
“I couldn’t help but wonder if that would have happened if [I had been a man].
Another said that she felt the wage gap was slowly going away, but added many women are simply afraid to ask for more.
“It all goes back to confidence,” she said.
“The worse they can say is no.”