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For women, 'great equalizer is performance'

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Three executives speak at City Club of Portland forum.


They’re the first to sit atop the glass ceilings in their organizations.

Erin Janssens has been chief of the Portland Fire Bureau since 2012. She will retire in April after 28 years with the bureau, and 31 years in her profession, going back to her start as a volunteer firefighter in Boring.

Marissa Madrigal is chief operating officer of Multnomah County. She was chairwoman of the board — and the first Hispanic woman to be county government’s chief executive — for 10 months in 2013 after the resignation of Jeff Cogen under pressure.

D.J. Wilson has been president and general manager of Portland television station KGW since 2007.

All were on a Friday Forum panel at the City Club of Portland — and all agreed that while things are improving for women at executive levels, there is still work to do.

Greg Macpherson, the Portland lawyer who is the current club president, quoted a September report by the McKinsey Global Institute in his introduction. The report concluded that it will take more than a century at the current rate for women to achieve gender parity at the upper reaches of U.S. corporations.

“Step 1 is to recognize that the glass ceiling is real, and comes in many different forms, particularly for women of color,” says Jillian Schoene, the panel’s moderator and executive director of Emerge Oregon, which recruits and trains Democratic women to seek public office.

About one-third of the current Oregon Legislature — eight senators and 20 representatives — are women. Women also hold three of the five statewide elected offices, although Kate Brown became governor upon the resignation of her predecessor — she is seeking the two years remaining in that term this year — and Brown appointed her successor as secretary of state.

But Schoene says none of eight public universities is led by a woman, although 12 community college campuses are, and only one of 39 publicly traded companies in Oregon has a woman as its chief executive officer.

Early drawbacks

Janssens says that as a student, she noticed the differences between how men’s and women’s sports were treated.

“Luckily, my generation came up just as Title IX was being passed,” she says, referring to the 1972 law barring gender discrimination in federally funded programs. “That had enormous implications on the nation for opening up dialogue and the conversations about what equity was and what women and girls could do.”

Still, after Wilson won a promotion at work years ago, she discovered by accident — a paper had been left in the office copy machine — she was being paid less than her predecessor.

Madrigal, in the first political campaign she managed at the age of 26, found that a supporter told her candidate he felt she was overpaid.

“That experience taught me how to muscle through that kind of doubt people may have in you — and to define my worth by my results, not by what people think about me,” she says.

All three say leadership characteristics seen as positive when men display them, such as confidence, are interpreted as negative when expressed by women.

Janssens says some of those criticisms were aimed at Hillary Clinton, but not at her rivals, during her first bid for president in 2008.

“There definitely is behavior that is perfectly acceptable in men in leadership that is not acceptable for women,” Madrigal says. “Because I am not a harsh person, people think I am not tough or not going to hold the line. It’s an interesting challenge for me to make sure people know I am serious and I am the boss.”

But Wilson says that perception can be exaggerated.

“You can be intensely focused on a topic and speak with a lot of passion about it,” she says, “and yet not be perceived as an individual that somehow has a different impression on people.”

Still, Wilson says, she was frustrated a few years ago when KGW put together focus groups as part of its research into news-gathering efforts.

“The first thing they wanted to talk about was our anchor’s hair-do,” Wilson says. “I’m telling you it was awful. It was so insulting.”

Schoene, who also has worked with focus groups in politics, said she has had similar experiences.

“When we do focus groups in politics, it’s women being more critical of women than men are,” she says.

Change based on results

All the panelists say that a changing workplace will continue to bring about changing attitudes about women — although women still will have to exude confidence, seek mentors and show courage.

Janssens says there are 53 women among the 730 Portland firefighters, up from three of 880 when she began back in 1988. Of 400 metro-sized fire agencies in the nation, she says, women lead five of them.

“There are certainly jobs now that we continue to see as nontraditional, or traditionally male, and women are just gaining ground entering those jobs,” she says. “They will continue to work their way through and rise through the ranks with their male counterparts and develop a more equalized workforce.”

Madrigal says that while four of the five elected Multnomah County commissioners are women, women constitute only about 13 percent of government managers nationwide.

“Results matter. No matter what job you are in, take whatever opportunity you have and work it,” was her advice.

“As employers, we also have to examine those subconscious biases: Are we hiring based on results and experience, or are we hiring based on ‘fit,’ which can be code for a lot of other things?”

Wilson says women need to figure out what their goals are and how to get there — but competence will be rewarded.

“I would say the world is a competitive place now,” she says. “The great equalizer is performance — and if you are an individual who performs, that will trump everything.”

pwong@pamplinmedia.com

twitter.com/capitolwong

To view the entire Friday Forum, go to the City Club website:

www.pdxcityclub.org