After years of slow and steady progress, Columbus must address structural problems to achieve true gender equity in the city's business, political and civic leadership.

When many successful women leaders look back at their careers, they see a moment that made them want to stop playing by traditional rules and start making new ones. For Columbus City Councilmember Liz Brown, one such moment came long before she ran for office. A man she worked with pointed to a male co-worker, she recalls, and told him he had “innate leadership qualities.” Then he pointed to Brown and said she was “such a good advocate.” Brown knew the man intended to compliment them both, but she resented the implication that she was not a leader, and on a gut level she knew it was because she was a woman. “It felt to me like a real slap in the face.”

For attorney Rita McNeil Danish, a partner in the Columbus office of the Taft law firm, one such moment highlighted both racial and gender bias. In 2014, McNeil Danish, an African American and a former city attorney for Cincinnati, Dayton and Greensboro, North Carolina, was running to retain her Domestic and Juvenile Court seat in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. Advisers told her she should get rid of her natural, twist-out hairstyle if she wanted to win. She followed their advice—and lost the election. “I decided right then I was never going to straighten my hair ever again. I needed to be true to myself.” As a founding member of the Matriots, an Ohio PAC aimed at increasing the number of women in elective office, McNeil Danish often travels around the state encouraging other women candidates.

For Kelley Griesmer, it was the day she first attended a meeting of the then-new Women’s Fund of Central Ohio. The gathering was held in the basement of the building where she had been toiling in pursuit of a seat at the partners’ table at the law firm where she worked (a seat she attained in 2002).

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“I’d become very comfortable being [like] a 20-something male, hanging with the older men, knowing what was on the sports page and slugging glasses of wine after a trial,” she says. But she had also sensed, as she rose through the ranks, a reluctance by partners at the firm to allow a woman to actually take over a case or a client, as opposed to laboring in a support role. At the same time, many women who had made it to the top seemed too exhausted by the effort to reach back and offer a hand up. “So when I walked into this room full of women, I was immediately struck by this sense of relief that there were people that might understand or want to talk to me about these things.”

Six years later, Griesmer left the private law practice to work in the nonprofit world. Today she is president and CEO of the Women’s Fund, a public foundation that seeks to “transform the lives of women and girls by mobilizing the collective power and passion of all people working together.”

Changing Times

It’s been almost a decade since Columbus Monthly last explored the state of women’s access to power and leadership roles in the region, and a lot has happened in gender relations nationally since then. Rape and sexual harassment accusations against a slew of well-known male executives and celebrities underscored the dangers for (mostly) women in the workplace when power is unequally distributed, igniting a national movement empowering women to speak out about harassment. Donald Trump was elected president despite a national outcry over a video in which he boasted of molesting women. And yet a record-breaking 117 women were elected or appointed to the U.S. Congress in 2018, causing many to call it “The Year of the Woman.”

Meanwhile, a growing body of research outlined the business case for increasing gender diversity in corporate leadership roles. The 2018 installment of McKinsey and Co.’s annual “Women in the Workplace” study, conducted in partnership with Sheryl Sandberg’s, found that companies in the top quartile for percentage of female leaders were 21 percent more likely to achieve above-average profitability than those in the bottom three-quarters. The outcomes for companies with ethnically and culturally diverse leaders were even better.

It’s a compelling argument for businesses, and like many other regions, Central Ohio has seen a slow but steady increase in women ascending to leadership in recent years. The powerful Columbus Partnership, a brain trust of Columbus’ top business and nonprofit executives, has 13 women members today versus four in 2011. It’s more than doubled in size, though, from 38 to 78, in part as a way to diversify its membership.

To some women leaders interviewed for this article, such incremental change is far too slow. It’s time to move beyond head counts and checkboxes, they say, and get serious about structural and cultural changes in the workplace that will pave the way for true equity. They want to talk about implicit bias, family-friendly workplaces, pay equity, new hiring practices. Rather than encouraging women to play by rules created by men, they want to see the workplace embrace and reward the unique contributions of women.

Slow Progress

But first, a look at how far the city has come. Back in 2011, many of the indicators Columbus Monthly cited showed huge disparities between women and men. Half of the 30 public companies in Central Ohio had executive suites populated entirely by men; across all public companies in the region, women made up just 13 percent of executive officers. Women held 12.5 percent of the board seats at these companies; 11 public companies had all-male boards of directors.

Today, nearly twice as many women are serving on the boards of the region’s public companies (which now number 27), making up 26.6 percent of the directors, and women hold a little over 20 percent of executive management positions, based on Columbus Monthly’s survey of information reported on company websites. That’s still below the national average for S&P 500 companies, however, which is about 26.5 percent. “The pace of change is so slow,” comments Barb Smoot, president and CEO of Women for Economic and Leadership Development.

The corner office in big public companies is still mostly closed to women. In 2011, none had a woman as CEO; today, the number is two—Fran Horowitz of Abercrombie & Fitch and Heather Brilliant of Diamond Hill Capital Management. (For a portion of this year, it rose to three but dropped back to two in November when Alliance Data’s CEO, Melisa Miller, was abruptly replaced five months after her appointment to the job.) This is a matter of double concern, points out Julie Graber, a gender-equity researcher and consultant, because CEOs are the first to be selected for seats on other companies’ boards—positions that not only are lucrative and build a woman’s sphere of influence in the community but also offer a chance to effect change at the companies they serve.

The situation is more hopeful among Franklin County nonprofits surveyed in 2019 by the United Way of Central Ohio, which discovered that women now make up 46.9 percent of nonprofit board members (women are 51.2 percent of the countywide population). Racial diversity is lagging, with 80 percent of board members still white, while the county population is less than 65 percent white, says Lisa Courtice, president of the local United Way. For 25 years, the United Way has run training programs to prepare diverse community members to serve on nonprofit boards; Courtice says the organization is now exploring new ways to try to move the needle.

Bright Spots

In politics, women have been quite successful locally. They constitute 53.1 percent of officials elected in Franklin County (not counting statewide officeholders or suburban officials), compared with 39.6 percent in 2011. It’s a stark contrast to the statewide picture, where just 29 percent of 17,412 elected offices at all levels were held by women in 2018, according to data collected by the Matriots. While four of the seven Ohio Supreme Court justices are women, all of the state’s elected executives are men—although it’s worth noting that 15 of Gov. DeWine’s 24 appointed cabinet members are women.

Councilmember Brown would like to see more balance. “We were set up as a representative democracy because you will come closer to meeting the needs of every person in society if we have more diverse representation,” says Brown, who was pregnant during her first run for City Council in 2015 and gave birth just before the election. Before the end of her second year in office, she and the council announced a new policy for city employees granting four weeks of paid family leave for mothers, fathers and adopting couples, as well as two weeks of caretaker leave for those with a sick spouse, child or parent.

“I can think of a lot of men who agree with me on the women’s issues that I’ve pushed,” Brown says. “But they may not be as tenacious in getting to a win on them because they haven’t lived that.”

Megan Kilgore, who was elected in 2016 as the city’s first-ever female auditor—and who is also gay—sees inclusivity as an economic issue for the city. Columbus didn’t land the Amazon headquarters, but she points out one of the company’s scoring criteria was inclusive policies, “and Columbus scored brilliantly.” Opportunity for women is important to attracting businesses that will bring jobs and opportunity to the region. That’s one reason, she says, that her office joined a federal lawsuit to try to block the Trump administration’s “Gag Rule,” which withdrew federal funding from Planned Parenthood clinics that provide reproductive health care to many poor women in the region. “I think the word activist has been applied to the word auditor a bit more under my term than it was under [her predecessor and mentor Hugh] Dorrian’s,” she says with a grin.

Two additional bright spots in the local landscape are banking and the arts. Five of the biggest banks in the region—Fifth Third Bank, Huntington, JPMorgan Chase, KeyBank and PNC—are led by women regionally, while nearly all of the city’s biggest visual and performing arts organizations—including BalletMet, the Columbus Symphony, Opera Columbus, the Lincoln Theatre, ProMusica, Shadowbox Live, Columbus College of Art & Design, Wexner Center for the Arts and Columbus Museum of Art—have women as their highest-ranking administrators.

Melissa Ingwersen, Central Ohio district president at KeyBank, suggested that the relationship-based nature of banking might contribute to creating opportunities for women. But role models may be more important. The CEO of KeyBank, headquartered in Cleveland, is Beth Mooney. “You can see what the possibilities are when you have a woman at your company being the first female CEO of a top 20 U.S. bank,” says Ingwersen. “That suggests there’s a culture that supports women’s career aspirations and that women could take leadership roles in any number of areas.”

Melanie Corn, who moved to Columbus in 2016 to become the president of CCAD, says that the long tradition of female leadership at Columbus Museum of Art, led since 2003 by Nannette Maciejunes, and the Wexner Center, led for 25 years by Sherri Geldin and now by Johanna Burton—as well as a tradition of prominent female gallery owners—signaled to her and perhaps to other women in the arts that Columbus is a good place to relocate. “Women in power beget women in power,” Corn says.

What About 50-50?

Yet sometimes, as women increase their numbers in leadership roles, the momentum diminishes. According to the McKinsey study, male employees surveyed felt that they had achieved diversity when only one in 10 company leaders was a woman; even more surprising was the fact that 30 percent of women felt the same way. “I think part of our challenge is that we haven’t said, you know, we’re not going to be happy until it’s 40 or 50 percent,” says Graber.

To get past the current plateau and continue progress toward that elusive 50-50 split, local leaders said in a series of recent interviews that both structural and cultural change is needed. Many traditional workplace rules of the road favor men. Instead of women changing to fit the mold, why not change the rules?

Salary negotiations, for instance, can put women at a disadvantage that snowballs throughout their careers. Shannon Ginther, an OhioHealth executive who launched the Columbus Women’s Commission to address women’s economic well-being after her husband became Columbus mayor in 2016, says societal norms make women less likely to negotiate when companies make lowball offers, resulting in lower pay. Training women to ask for what they’re worth will help address that inequity, but she says just as important is getting companies to stop making lowball offers. Ginther says several Central Ohio businesses have made this a standard HR practice.

Kelly Gratz, who recently became CEO of Westerville-based g2o, a privately held technology consulting firm, says her company is getting ready to roll out universal criteria for evaluation and promotions, in part to help level the playing field for women in a male-dominated industry. “I want every person in this organization to drive value,” she says.

With women in Central Ohio earning 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to a 2014 Women’s Fund study, pay equity is at the top of the Women’s Commission’s wish list, and so far the group has been successful at getting employers to join the discussion. More than 200 companies have signed the commission’s “Columbus Commitment,” promising to learn about and act to address gender- and race-based pay disparities. The Columbus Partnership has signed the pledge and plans to facilitate unconscious or implicit bias training for all its member organizations.

In fact, there seems to be a growing recognition that before a woman can dream of reaching the top of the ladder, she needs a chance to start climbing. The McKinsey/ study, now in its fifth year, identified in 2019 a “broken rung” that prevents many women from making their first leap forward to a managerial position. Women are 28 percent less likely to be promoted to manager than men are.

Erasing Barriers

Early-to-mid-career is a time when many women with children find it difficult to advance. In some cases, they may fear seeking a promotion because they worry the time commitment will keep them from their families. In others, a jump in pay could be more than offset by additional childcare costs as they lose subsidies available to those with lower wages. And in some cases, women are not even offered the assignments that will permit them to earn a promotion because of their status as parents. These are turning points that will ripple through their careers, preventing them from gaining power in the workplace and reducing their lifetime earnings.

“We penalize women for being mothers and being caregivers,” says Griesmer. “You can say, well, women made those choices, but you know, men make the same choices—but it doesn’t cost them their career. It doesn’t cost them equal pay.”

Earlier this year, the Women’s Fund issued a report on wealth disparities in Central Ohio, which found that single women own 40 cents in assets for every dollar single men own. (The disparities were far greater for black and Latina women.) The report pointed to entrepreneurship as a potential wealth driver—but bias exists there, too. Christy Farnbauch, executive director of the Columbus chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, points out that while investments in women’s businesses earn twice the profit of investments in male-owned businesses, women garner only 2 percent of investment capital. One strategy NAWBO has pursued is state legislation creating a certification process for women-owned businesses. The legislation, which passed in 2018 and currently is being finalized, will create opportunities for female Ohio business owners to bid for contracts that require such certification.

One oft-cited fact in the gender equity conversation is an HP finding that women apply for jobs or promotions only if they possess all of the advertised skills or criteria, while men apply—and sometimes get hired—even if they possess only 60 percent. Some companies are seeking to counter this problem internally by requiring managers to consider all eligible staffers for promotions, rather than looking only at those who apply.

Sarah Woods, a senior product manager at Root Insurance, wants to tackle the problem from the perspective of job applicants. Woods invented Shatter, a browser extension to help users overcome bias by identifying elements of online job descriptions that sometimes discourage female applicants—words like “rock star,” or mentions of arcane coding languages. The app coaches women through the application process, encouraging them to apply for jobs where they meet most of the requirements. If they meet all, it tells them to aim higher. Shatter (as in glass ceilings), a winner of the 2018 GiveBackHack, launched last May.

A New Way?

Does the path to more power for women in Columbus simply require tweaks and hacks to existing systems, or wholesale change? Women seem divided on this question. Tanny Crane, CEO of the Crane Group and a longtime local power player, says women need to learn men’s rules. “Sometimes we have to kind of play ball with the guys.” But then she adds, “I’m also the first to say we are different. We are women. … Don’t pretend you’re a guy, because we have unique perspectives and amazing skill sets.”

Maybe the word “power” is inadequate to describe what women leaders want. IBM iX’s Nancy Kramer, another longtime Partnership member, says the word is at odds with the collaboration so many jobs require today. “The word ‘power’ is disempowering,” she says.

“How does a city like ours want to define power?” asks Griesmer. “Is it just that we have the most women who have given up everything to be CEO of their company?

“What I’m really fascinated by is when we actually convene and get together and just kind of realize maybe there’s a different way.” Instead of helping everyone climb up an existing ladder, she goes on, “Let them build their own ladder. That, to me, would be a much more exciting place to focus.”


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