A new study confirms the lack of progress women are making in the city's power structure. But signs of optimism can be seen in plans to narrow the disparity, from mentoring entrepreneurs to promoting more diverse boardrooms.

Editor's Note: This story originally ran in the June 2011 issue of Columbus Monthly.

When Columbus Monthly published its rankings of the city's most influential people, women were barely part of the conversation. In fact, they were even scarcer than Democrats now at the Ohio Statehouse. Of the 21 people noted in the article last year, only one was a woman. And that was Abigail Wexner, the wife of the top Titan, Les Wexner.

That huge disparity was nothing new. Men always have driven the power scene. But the aha moment was how little progress apparently had been made. “I think there is this perception that women are doing really well in Central Ohio, but when you look at who the CEOs are in this community, women have really not broken that glass ceiling," says Ohio Supreme Court justice Yvette McGee Brown, former president of the Center for Childhood and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Take, for instance, Tanny Crane. A member of a longtime prominent Columbus family, she runs a significant business, Crane Group, and belongs to the Columbus Partnership, the ultimate power club (a collection of the top CEOs in the region). By pedigree and track record, it would seem she'd be on the A-list.

But after making the top 10 in Columbus Monthly's Power ranking in 2005, she fell off in 2010 when the list was trimmed to six because power players perceived her as too narrowly focused in her civic engagement on public education (as if that were a fault). And she talks about male peers acting surprised when she expresses interest in serving as a board director for a public company. One time, she recalls a man saying, “ ‘I'm so glad you asked.’ To me, the way he said that was, 'I would have never thought of you.’ We don't come to mind.”

Crane's anecdote is backed up by data compiled in a recent study commissioned by the Institute on Women, Otterbein University and Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD). The Central Ohio Leadership Census reveals a gloomy picture about women at the top of the power pyramid: leaders of nonprofits, universities, publicly traded companies and private companies, as well as those holding a political office or a directorship in a public company.

Compared to eight years ago—when a similar study was done—there are fewer female nonprofit heads and female university presidents. The first and only female CEO of a publicly traded company, Kerrii Anderson at Wendy's, is gone (after Arby's took over). And during this stretch, Karen Holbrook left the presidency at Ohio State University, Val Moeller retired from the helm of Columbus State Community College and Julie Kunkel, the first woman managing partner at a major accounting firm, moved to Minnesota.

Now, only four of the 48 private companies surveyed have female CEOs, and of the 271 seats on boards of 30 publicly held companies, 12.5 percent belong to women (34, the same number as in 2001).

Here are a few more stats to consider from the study:

• Eleven of those 30 public companies, 37 percent, have no female board members. (Which shows an improvement from 2001, when 48 percent of the boards were all men.)

• Thirteen percent of executive officers at public companies are women. Nearly half of those businesses have no women as executive officers.

• There are only four companies—Express, State Auto, Limited Brands and Abercrombie & Fitch—with 30 percent or more of the executive offices filled with women.

“It is clear we have a great deal of work to do,” says Julie Graber of the Institute on Women. “There's been very little change over the past 10 years. To me, it says we need new strategies. The only way it is going to get better is if companies get more proactive."

Recent progress on a few fronts is sparking some optimism, however. Otterbein named Kathy Krendl as its new president. Liza Kessler is the partner-in charge of the Columbus office of the prestigious Jones Day law firm. In January, Advertising Age ranked Resource Interactive, the digital marketing firm led by two women (founder Nancy Kramer and CEO Kelly Mooney), the fourth best ad agency in the country. Former Johnson & Johnson executive Christine Poon is now the dean of the Fisher College of Business at OSU. (Forbes regularly used to name her one of the nation's most powerful women in business.) And important institutions continue to be led by women, such as Columbus City Schools (Gene Harris) and United Way of Central Ohio (Janet Jackson).

In addition, a number of women-based groups have hatched to compile research, promote causes and advocate for better female representation in boardrooms. Among them:

• Women at the Table, which is trying to get public companies to name more women as board directors.

• Dames Bond, a networking community that markets its members' businesses and expertise.

• WELD, which works to increase the number of women in the top ranks of business and government.

These groups are just a step, though. "Oftentimes, women are all preaching to each other, to the choir, if you will,” says Barb Smoot, WELD executive director. “One of the things we all understand is that this is something that needs to occur in a partnership forum to really address the issue of: Do we want our community to be the best it can be? Do we want the most profitable companies here? Do we want Columbus to be a destination city? If so, how do we all work together to make that be the case?"

"It can't just be a women's issue," says Andrea Nameche, president of the Columbus chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Adds Smoot, "It's a community issue.”

The following looks at the various attempts to close the gender gap in the city's leadership structure, from mentoring female entrepreneurs to addressing the issue of how family matters affect women and their careers.

MORE SEATS AT THE TABLE

Traditionally, women have done much better in leadership roles within nonprofit organizations. Research by Graber of the Institute on Women shows that women are best represented as CEOs of nonprofits, with 44 percent of the top spots at 48.organizations being held by females. (And all of the nonprofits have at least one woman serving on their boards.)

The more lucrative and influential for profit world is a different story, though. A seat on the board of a public company is a coveted appointment. You're invited to an exclusive circle of the business world, learning the inner workings of a business and meeting regularly with well-connected players. It's a shining star on the résumé (and the part-time pay isn't bad, either—sometimes worth tens of thousands of dollars).

That's why it's important for women to get inside those doors. The good news (if you can call it that) is while the local numbers for female directors at public companies are low, they're close to the national average (15 percent) and better than those in Ohio (9 percent), according to studies based on SEC filings.

But there are various studies that might help place more women in the boardroom. The argument isn't just that they should be better represented because they're half the population—although there is that, too—but also data showing the impact on the bottom line.

For instance, Catalyst Inc., an international nonprofit organization seeking to increase opportunities for women and business, performed a 2007 study on corporate performance. The companies with the most female board directors had significant economic advantages. In short, the report says, “Financial measures excel where women serve."

“This is a business decision," says WELD's Smoot. “If people don't believe that, then pretty much any conversation around that isn't going to be effective. They have to fundamentally believe that this will help us economically and in the community."

Making that case is one of the core missions of Women at the Table (WATT), whose members include such high-powered figures as Crane, McGee Brown and former top Nationwide executive Donna James.

The qualifications are narrowly defined, says James, who calls herself "board-ed up" with three directorships, including Limited Brands, Coca Cola Enterprises and Time Warner Cable. (She left the CNO Financial Group board in early May.) "To a large extent, for-profit, public company boards are looking for individuals who are in what's commonly referred to as the 'C-suite.’ They've either been a CEO, chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, a C-something," she says.

In some ways, you have to be there to get there. But WATT is trying to help broaden the definition. The group has identified about 25 women with the. necessary qualifications for board membership, according to Deanna Stewart, WATT founding member and senior VP at the United Way of Central Ohio.

In late February, 20 of those women met with WATT members and a couple of invited power players: Mike Morris, chairman and CEO of AEP, and Alex Shumate, managing partner of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. Stewart says the exposure helped the women better understand the qualifications needed to become a board member.

Before being appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court in December, McGee Brown served on both corporate and nonprofit boards. She says it's vital to help companies expand their list of women beyond the handful or so of names that always come up. “Donna James can't do any more boards," she says. “We need to introduce them to that next tier of women."

Crane also is working on personal outreach—specifically, bringing the conversation to male peers. “We're each taking a list of companies that don't have women and, if we know someone on the board or the CEO, going to spend some time with them-not in the position of saying 'You're bad,' but just to understand and hopefully to improve awareness and to potentially help them."

“We now have a list of women, we have résumés, we have a list of skills," Crane adds. “I think we have fabulous women in our community who would be great corporate board members.”

WISE AUNTS: WOMEN HELPING WOMEN

When Nancy Kramer started Resource Interactive 30 years ago, she was a rare species: a woman in the male-dominated technology world. As for female mentors, she says, “There weren't any, frankly, for me. I was most encouraged by my father."

Fast forward about 20 years to when Elizabeth Lessner was starting her restaurant/bar chain, Betty's Family of Restaurants. She, too, struggled to find women as role models.

After establishing herself with two locations, Betty's Fine Food & Spirits and Surly Girl Saloon, Lessner found herself the unsuspecting recipient of what she calls an old girls' network. She had befriended Alice Wing, who owned the Grapevine Cafe on Gay Street downtown. One morning, about four or five years ago, Wing invited Lessner to the bar. Waiting for her were three other women: a real estate agent, an investor and then Columbus City Council member Mary so Hudson. Wing wanted to sell Grapevine to a woman, specifically, Lessner, who wasn't looking to expand. But the gang of four gave her no choice, she says, as they had answers and help for all of her objections. In the end, Lessner opened Tip Top Kitchen and Cocktails in the Grapevine space.

Today, Lessner and Kramer say the climate has changed even more for women trying to build their own businesses. Kramer says she is approached frequently by budding female entrepreneurs seeking advice. Lessner adds that the number of women trying to launch ventures in the food industry is "exploding. Women are feeling more confident and willing to take the plunge."

Lessner also works with female students at OSU's Fisher College and uses products in her restaurants made by women. “There's just a wonderful community of women helping each other," she says. “If I need to talk to anybody, I can, usually, with a couple (mouse) clicks get to someone and they'll help us. There's a lot of wise aunts within the city."

Some of those wise aunts run Dames Bond, which was founded in 2006 following discussions between Lessner and her neighbor, Mary B. Relotto. “We really encourage our members to form friendships and build trust, and we hope that then, business will follow," says Relotto, who now is the group's full-time CEO.

The Dames’ all-female business directory of 2,700 members (representing nearly 500 businesses) is a concept Relotto wants to take national. (Its website was recognized by forbes.com last year as one of the top 10 career sites for women in business.) “Rather than mimic the way men have socialized us into ‘proper’ networking technique, we are finally embracing and accepting the fact that we do things differently, and that’s OK,” she says.

POLITICS

Perhaps the brightest spot for women and leadership is in politics. Parity can be found in several places. Women hold five of the seven seats on the Columbus school board, half of the 12 nonjudicial Franklin County offices, three of the seven Columbus City Council spots and four of the nine positions in the Franklin County delegation of the Ohio House of Representatives.

Statewide, things aren't so bright. All the state offices are held by men (with the exception of Mary Taylor as lieutenant governor) and Gov. John Kasich took heat for appointing almost all men to his top cabinet positions. .

One exception is the Ohio Supreme Court. Four of the seven seats are held by women, including the first female chief justice, Maureen O'Connor. The newest addition, McGee Brown, thinks women have an easier time with the electorate than in business. She calls this a fairly recent development, noting that when she ran for Franklin County domestic relations court in 1992, she was only the second woman to do so. Now, three of the five judges in that court are women.

O'Connor was the first female prosecuting attorney in Summit County in 1995. But in politics, such female firsts are almost ceasing to be noteworthy. “When I was campaigning this last time, it was interesting if I would go to a group of women who were probably 40-plus; they were very excited about the fact that I would be the first woman chief justice. If you talk to younger students, they couldn't imagine why a woman couldn't be chief justice," O'Connor says.

The reason for women's increasing political accomplishments may be simple. “I think women who go to the polls like to support other women," McGee Brown says, adding that the backing crosses party lines.

“Look who the decision-makers are for how you get your position in politics and how you get your position in the business world-half of the voters are women," O'Connor says. “What you're doing is you're promoting your qualities, your qualifications—trying to convince people why you're the better person for that job, but not just to a boss or panel of three or four different people on the board or whatever. You're talking to 11 million Ohioans if you're running statewide. It's a very different process.”

recognizes the importance of blending for women. Craig Marshall, managing partner at E&Y in Columbus, uses a sports team analogy to highlight the benefits of having a diverse workforce, particularly one that includes women. "If you were forming a basketball team, you would not go out and get five point guards; you would get a diverse team. That's the way the firm looks at it, too,” he says.

Ernst & Young released an extensive report in 2009 on the benefits of women in business. It underlined the need to draw on a wide range of talent, citing economic analyses by the World Bank, United Nations and Goldman Sachs, among others, that examined the relationship between corporate performance and women in leadership roles. “It was meant to bring all the information together, sort of like being an encyclopedia for the women advancement initiative," Marshall says.

The company has been putting those beliefs to work for a decade, specifically focusing on giving its female employees access to benefits and networking opportunities to help them advance within the firm while juggling the demands of family. Employees are able to take advantage of flexible work arrangements, maternal and paternal leave, privacy rooms for new mothers and babysitting services on Saturday.

E&Y encourages networking to help women know and learn from their counterparts at other companies. There also is a semi-annual Career Watch review that focuses on mentoring and job counseling for women and diversity candidates, with the goal of encouraging promotion from within.

“The benefit for the company is we invest a lot in our people through education, through training. They understand our culture, they understand what it means to deliver high-quality service. If we can keep those individuals, that enables us to continue to be a high performing entity and have that continuity in serving clients,” Marshall says.

The company also has responded by changing the makeup of its top tier. Over the past 10 years, Marshall says, “We've gone from zero female partners to 25 percent of our Columbus leadership being comprised of women. It's still not where it needs to be, but we're making progress because we have the tone at the top, we have the focus.”

***

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine, as well as our weekly newsletter so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.