Pancakes & Politics – Forum III Women in Leadership: Leverage Our Clout to Lead

The top three statewide political offices in Michigan are held by women, as is the U.S. Senate seat. And, the CEO of General Motors is also a woman.

So, on the face of it, it would appear women in Michigan are more empowered collectively than perhaps anywhere else in the country. But things aren’t always what they appear to be said panelists on this month’s Michigan Chronicle’s Pancakes & Politics forum.

At the event held Thursday at the Detroit Athletic Club, Kristy Fercho, executive VP and president of Mortgage, Flagstar Bank; Terri Kline, president and CEO, HAP; Portia Roberson, president and CEO, Focus Hope; and Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer, Detroit Regional Chamber, engaged in a lively discussion before a packed room.

Touching on the unique challenges confronting women in the workplace, they noted that merely because some women are in high profile positions in this state and elsewhere, it does not mean that most women everywhere else still struggle with issues of gender discrimination, the lack of representation and pay inequity.

And, it is the responsibility of women in leadership positions to help other women succeed. Yet, at the same time, leveraging diversity is still a very big challenge even for those who lead.

Carnrike, chief operating officer for the Detroit Regional Chamber, called it a “spotlight” issue.

Photo: Cyndi Elledge

She said her organization offers numerous high-profile events throughout the year and have received a lot of input about the lack of diversity in their programming, on the Chamber board and in its staff.

“It’s been about a four- or five-year process to change that and I would say there are several things that make a difference,” she said. “First, there has to be a recognition at the top that there is a problem. You have to have a board or an advisory group or a pool of volunteers who will say I will help and push for it. But also, you need to bring the candidates forward.”

Roberson, president and CEO of Focus Hope said the same holds true when it comes to training. “You have to make sure that you are finding people where they are, meeting people where they are. You can’t expect everybody who comes through the door to know what we are doing at Focus Hope.”

“And, you have to make decisions about what kind of programs you are offering,” she said. “So, workforces and workforce training is our biggest thing. We have to make sure that we are making offers to people in a diverse range of fields and with respect to women, they need to know that a lot of the programs we have are open to them as well.”

Such affirmative steps lead to a more diverse population of workers in the pipeline for jobs, which helps changes the dynamic of who is in the room when hiring decisions are made, she said.

Kline, president and CEO of HAP, agreed that prioritizing the importance of diversity in the workforce starts at the board and executive level. However, she emphasized that business leaders must also focus in the middle part of an organization to make sure that mid-level employees are getting the exposure and right training to be able to rise up through the organization.

“There are lots of things that we can do not just within our organization, but as a community,” she said.

That means finding organizations and opportunities to invest in women-led and women owned businesses, Kline said. “You have to find a way to create the opportunities for women or any diverse population to be able to get the opportunity … and create pathways for success.”

During the wide-ranging discussion, the panel also addressed the question of equity in the workplace.

Fercho, executive VP and president of Mortgage, Flagstar Bank, said it was also critical for women in leadership and across the company to know their value.

She said she spent 15 years in Human Resources and was constantly astonished at how women and people of color typically took the first offer made to them while white men always negotiated.

“Even if it was more than what they were currently making they still pushed for what more can you give me?” Fercho said.

But that is where women in leadership positions must leverage their clout, said Kline.

“We’re all leaders in this room and we can go back to our organizations and make sure we fight to make sure that there is parity,” she said. “I think that’s a really important thing for all of us to do.”

Now in its 14th season, Pancakes and Politics is known for attracting an incredibly diverse audience, and it continues to be the preeminent speakers’ series for tackling tough issues in a frank, open environment that spurs and incites action. It is sponsored by PNC Bank.

Rick Devore, executive VP and regional president of PNC Bank noted that 58% of his leadership team is women, and 60% of its employees are women.

“Over the years, we’ve been rewarded with some great talent at PNC,” he said. “In fact, we’ve been named one of the top 50 companies in the United States for executive women, and three of our four leaders that run three of our very high-end lines of business are females.”

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