Playing a leading role: Professionals offer insights on past challenges and advice on how to achieve future success

As women head into the second decade of the 21st century in the Grand Valley, they can celebrate the strides women have made in realizing the opportunities once considered the domain of the “good ol’ boy network.” Women can be found at all levels of management — from a bank president to a grocery store executive to the top spots in city and county government. Many women also own and manage their own businesses in a region of the country famous for its entrepreneurial spirit.

“I think Grand Junction is fairly progressive,” says Carol Skubic, market president for Vectra Bank Colorado in Grand Junction. “I found Grand Junction to be very accepting when I moved here.”

Skubic recalls the days when it was uncommon to find a women in commercial banking, when she would be greeted by raised eyebrows in a business dominated by men. “I never took questioning of my gender personally,” she says. “I was just personally committed to doing a good job.”

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, says women should view their gender as a strength rather than a barrier.

Schwenke recalls a time when women sensed they had to work harder than men to be considered serious players in the business world. But she didn’t let that affect her approach to work. “I never really looked at the people I interacted with as male, female, black, Hispanic … but as people.”

Sally Schaefer, retired chief executive officer of Hilltop Community Resources based in Grand Junction and a member of the Colorado Health Foundation board, says one of the first pieces of advice she offers women — and men — is to gain insight into how the world looks at them. Schaefer’s message: Perceptions of a person can affect the ability of that person to succeed in various ventures.

As the former head of a large community organization and an active participant in addressing projects that vary from a public recreation center to increasing the number of local primary care doctors, Schaefer has plenty of experience inside and outside the workplace.

She also suggests that reaching across boundaries can help women achieve success. For example, a business friend gave her a golf putter in 1998, telling Schaefer that men wouldn’t have a problem with a woman who plays golf. She discovered that older men in particular seemed to be more receptive when she played alongside them on the links.

Like Schaefer, Skubic serves as a leader in many ways that reach beyond the workplace. Skubic is a member of the board of directors for the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. She’s an incoming board member for the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. She also belongs to the Grand Junction Downtown Rotary Club.

Georgann Jouflas, a business professor at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, says today’s women students are beneficiaries of the inroads women have made in the business world.

Jouflas recalls the days when her supervisors would call her “dear” and indirectly treat her differently than they would a man.

“Everything we worked for they’ve got,” she says, adding that young people don’t realize the challenges women used to face in the workplace.

Young women now view themselves as equals in business and don’t worry about the so-called glass ceiling — an invisible obstacle to career advancement their predecessors used to face, Jouflas says. “I don’t think the younger students see it as an issue.”

In fact, colleges graduate more women than they do men these days. An October report from the National Economic Council espoused how economic policies have purportedly benefited American women. Among the findings of the report are several indications women play key roles in producing goods and services: Women constitute a growing share of the work force, entrepreneurs and innovators. As the majority of college graduates and nearly 50 percent of the work force, women are in a position to drive the 21st century economy.

An increasing number of women are the main breadwinners for their families. In almost two-thirds of families led by single mothers or two parents, women are either the primary or co-breadwinner.

Jessica Peterson might not run the Mesa County government, but as public relations director for the county, she’s strongly connected to the administration and county commissioners. A recent bevy of issues — from controversy over the hiring of a new county administrator to the search for a health department director to Commissioner Craig Meis’ challenge of a jet ski ticket — had her hopping while communicating among the county, media and general public.

When asked to offer advice to women who aspire to positions in management, Peterson suggests they follow her lead in pursing a college education and even a master’s degree. “For people for whom that’s a possibility, additional education is always helpful.”

Mary Lou Wilson, executive director of the Fruita Area Chamber of Commerce, took a non-traditional path to management. She didn’t go to college, but earned her high school equivalency diploma through a program at Mesa State. She worked as an office manager and spent time as a stay-at-home spouse before assuming her role at the chamber. While college constitutes an important step for women aspiring to a career, Wilson offers an example of how women can take different paths to success.

Her advice is simple and direct. “My philosophy is to be true and honest to yourself and don’t be afraid to step up and take a leadership position.”

Under Wilson’s direction, the chamber sponsors a women in business organization and a young professionals group. The women’s organization took a cruise to Mexico and meets for informational sessions on such topics as financial fitness for women.

While women have made progress in business, some national reports indicate women face special challenges in the wake of the recession that hit in late 2007. A report from the National Economic Council states:

Since women are nearly 50 percent of the work force, the recession’s economic impacts on women are even more consequential for the economy than they would have been in past recessions. As a result of the recession … women have lost jobs and seen their median annual earnings fall. Further, women have faced increased economic insecurity as housing prices declined and states and municipalities have cut back on the provision of social services.

Women face a number of longer-term challenges such as the wage gap and female under representation in higher levels of management. Further, specific groups of women like single mothers, older women and minorities face additional challenges.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2007 the number of women managers nationwide increased by just 1 percent and that women mangers are paid less than their male counterparts.

Kat Rhein, assistant vice president at the Vectra Bank branch on 24 Road, says she experienced some of the “glass ceiling” phenomenon.

“In Grand Junction, there’s definitely what I call ‘the good ol’ boy network,’” says Rhein. “I think there’s still some of that here.”

She says the business community has become more accepting of women as business people move here from California and metropolitan areas.

As for advice about how to succeed as a woman in local business, Rhein says hard work and focus remain key elements.

“I started as a teller and worked my way up,” she says. “I found the niche that I enjoyed the most (sales and customer service) and worked really hard at that.”

Such hard work can combine with government programs to give women a hand up. According to the economic council, loans backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration are three to five times more likely to go to women and minorities than are conventional small business loans. More than 12,000 SBA Recovery Act loans have gone to women-owned businesses, driving $3 billion in lending support to help grow businesses.

The report adds the Recovery Act and the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act have played a role in saving jobs in the education and health care sectors, where women make up more than 75 percent of professionals.

No matter what the obstacles might be, a positive outlook and the ability to look for opportunity can turn a poor opportunity into a good one.

Says Schaefer: “It couldn’t be a more wonderful time for women or men. When things are in chaos, that’s when things can change.”

As the Grand Valley economy chugs along in the wake of the Great Recession, women in business are joining men in business in hoping that Schaefer has a good point.