The difficulty women face in attaining leadership positions in the business world hit home for a group of female business leaders from the banking, legal, nonprofit and hospitality industries attending a panel discussion hosted by The Business Council of Westchester.
Council President and CEO Marsha Gordon asked how many women have served on paid, private corporate boards.
Out of more than 20 women in the room, only a single hand was raised.
“I’m shocked when I look at this room of all these high-powered successful people and hear not one of you is on a board,” said New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was leading the Aug. 30 discussion. “That’s very troubling.”
Hochul, a Democrat who ran with Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his 2014 re-election campaign, led a back-and-forth discussion with the group, which she playfully termed the “power elite of Westchester,” for about a half-hour. She engaged the group mostly on the barriers women face attaining leadership positions in fields traditionally dominated by men.
“What I’m doing is gathering information and would like to make some recommendations to our governor on the state of women today,” Hochul told the group.
Hochul noted she was in a very male-dominated business herself. Despite women being 52 percent of the population, she said, they represent only 26 percent of elected officials in the New York state Legislature.
The representation was hardly better in Washington D.C., where Hochul served as a Congresswoman representing Buffalo in New York’s 26th District from 2011 to 2013.
“It really is sort of a lonely existence, when nine times of ten you get in an elevator after work and you’re the only woman in the elevator,” Hochul said of her time in Congress.
The problem extends to the corporate world, and Hochul came armed with more statistics to show just how badly.
“I looked at this number and I was so disheartened when I saw it. You look at new CEOs of major corporations in North America last year, only one was a woman,” she said.
Companies are more profitable and CEOs are paid more when companies have women in leadership positions, Hochul said.
“Whether it’s nature or nurture, I don’t know, but I find sometimes women don’t take the risk to even go down these paths,” Hochul said. “But we so desperately need their voices in the boardrooms and in organizations like this.”
What also can get in the way, according to Hochul, is the cost of child care. Women who have children are often “derailed,” one woman on the panel said, and face difficulties getting back into workforce since they are often expected to take on more of the child-rearing responsibilities.
“That’s something we will continually focus on as a policy for the state: give women the option,” Hochul said. “If you want to be home, or you want to be in the workplace but can’t find affordable child care and you’re being held back in your career, that’s something we should care about as a society.”
Another suggestion was to engage men to encourage them to promote female leadership.
“We need men to understand how important it is, not just to have our voices heard, but the economic impact,” Hochul said. “When women are able to be paid the same as men, for example, that would be a $1.3 billion impact for New York’s economy.”
The lieutenant governor has been touring the state hosting similar roundtable discussions on the topic. She led a discussion in April at the College of New Rochelle that featured state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousin and CNR President Judith Huntington.
Hochul ended the conversation by encouraging women – and men – to help other women push past barriers and advance in their fields.
“There’s a perception … that once we figure out how to get inside the club, we want to make sure we are the only one, because they may need only one token one and we are threatened by anybody else,” Hochul said. “That is so false.”
She told the story of her time on town council in Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo, when she immediately pushed for another woman on the council following her election.
“And I think all of you do that, because we realize the value,” she said. “It’s not tokenism, it’s the value that we have.”