What glass ceiling?
Legatus’ female executives are helping break new ground as savvy business leaders . . .
“I’m sure he never thought that. In those days, it wasn’t even fathomed. Now it’s the grandsons and granddaughters that are taking over,” said Rita Liebelt, Illig’s granddaughter and the current president of Ilig Construction, a Los Angeles-based general contractor that is still family-owned.
Liebelt, a member of Legatus’ Pasadena Chapter and former Legatus board member, said she sees a “natural progression” with more women owning businesses and assuming leadership roles in the boardroom.
“Women are breaking that glass ceiling; more are becoming CEOs and presidents,” Liebelt said. “There’s a still long way to go. The percentage of women on corporate boards may still not be very high, but it’s improving.”
Female executives comprise one of the fastest growing demographics in the workplace and in Legatus. Whereas there were only about a dozen female executive members 10 years ago, today there are more than 150 women among Legatus’ 2,400 executive members.
More than 9.1 million firms in the U.S., employing nearly 7.9 million people and generating $1.4 trillion in sales as of 2014, are now owned by women, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners. However, statistics also show that women executive are still a minority on corporate boards of directors.
Today 24 female CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies — more than at any point since Fortune started tracking executive gender in 1998 when only one woman made the cut.
“I think much of the data suggests the role of women in business, in terms of numbers, hasn’t moved dramatically in the past decade, and you get into why is that? It’s a complex and nuanced issue,” said Sarah Elk, a partner in the consulting firm Bain & Company’s Chicago office and a member of Legatus’ newly chartered DuPage County Chapter in Illinois.
“I think it has nothing to do with a lack of qualified women, but I think it has a lot to do with how you break through, and there is not one easy answer as to why.”
Luanne Zurlo, a visiting professor of finance at the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America, said the number of female executives varies quite a bit from industry to industry, and even firm to firm within industries.
Zurlo, a former Wall Street securities analyst with Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs, however said she expects opportunities to continue growing for female business professionals in the coming years — especially as a younger generation emerges that prioritizes balancing career with home and family life.
“I think creating that work-life balance and improving the ability for women to raise their children well — and to have successful careers in which they really move to the top — I think that is critical and very important,” Zurlo said. “But just as important is that we validate women who choose not to do that — women who choose to devote their energies for large parts of their lives to raising children.”
Several female executive members of Legatus discussed with us the challenges of balancing demanding professional careers with their roles as wives and mothers. Many of them said they had excellent support systems in their husbands and extended families. They also credit their Catholic faith with keeping them grounded and providing perspective in their unique vocations.
“Men and women complement each other; we both bring something to the table,” said Suzy Kelly, an At-Large Legatus member and chief executive officer of Jo-Kell, an electrical distribution, engineering and solutions company with locations in Virginia and Florida. “I look at that as such a great gift that God has given to both genders.”
Kelly, an elected city council member in Chesapeake, Va., also co-founded Catholic Passion Ministries, an apostolate devoted to deepening Catholics’ spiritual lives. Kelly, 59, has accomplished much in her professional and political careers while being married for 37 years and a mother of four grown children.
“Whether I’m with my family, the business or the city council, my faith is always there,” Kelly said. “I always make my decisions through the lens of my faith. I don’t separate it.”
Elk agrees. Balancing work and family life is rarely easy for any active mother or father, she said.
“In any given day, week or month, there are always too many demands versus the time you have. You try to allocate your time as best you can to meet the needs of everybody,” said Elk, 38, who is married with three children, ages 4, 7 and 9. Elk added that she is less inclined than others to stereotype women executives as being more nurturing and empathetic than their male counterparts.
“I’ve definitely seen that, but I’ve also seen men with those same skills and characteristics,” Elk said. “I think all diversity is helpful. Whether it’s gender diversity or other forms, it will lead to better decision-making and outcomes for the company.”
“It’s hard to generalize that women bring a softer side to business,” said Kimberly Boudreaux, 37, executive director of Catholic Services of Acadiana in Louisiana. “Many times, I’m far from soft in my business practices.”
Boudreaux, a member of Legatus’ Lafayette-Acadiana Chapter, said she believes women professionals, especially those with families, are adept at multi-tasking. She also credits the Catholic Church for long recognizing that women have the capacity to be leaders.
“My career is a reflection of my faith,” explained Boudreaux, a married mother of three young daughters, ages 2, 4 and 7. “I believe we are all called to imitate the life of Christ, and for me, I have found that my life is most aligned with Christ when I among the poor and forgotten.”
Stephanie Anderson, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, La., said women often bring different management styles and perspectives to the workplace.
“While women are very driven, results-oriented, and possess a strong work ethic, we also have characteristics that set us apart,” said Anderson, 52, a member of Legatus’ Baton Rouge Chapter. “We’re very nurturing. We possess strong and effective communication skills. We’re very good at multi-tasking and establishing priorities.”
Married 25 years with three sons, Anderson said she begins every day with prayer, a special intention, and thinks of three things she is thankful for. On her computer screensaver at work, she has scripture verses and a popular quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi to “preach the gospel always, and when necessary, use words.”
“My faith helps keep me grounded and focused on what’s important in life,” Anderson explained. “I see work and business as additional avenues to living out my faith and being an example to others.”
Liebelt, the owner of Illig Construction in Los Angeles, also said the Catholic faith “permeates” her work. She said her grandfather, his brothers, and her father were all faith-filled businessmen. “Faith is who we are,” Liebelt said. “It’s how we live.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer.