Workplace

In KC and beyond, more women crack the glass ceiling to become CEOs

Ora Reynolds was named CEO of Hunt Midwest Enterprises this month. “I think we’ve turned the corner on the pipeline argument that there aren’t qualified women,” she says.
Ora Reynolds was named CEO of Hunt Midwest Enterprises this month. “I think we’ve turned the corner on the pipeline argument that there aren’t qualified women,” she says. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

On June 1, a list carefully tended by Kansas City’s Central Exchange will add another name: Begonya Klumb.

The professional networking organization for women intends to add her to its tally of women who have been hired or promoted to be chief executive officers of large metro-area companies.

Klumb, who has worked for UMB Financial Services for 12 years, will become CEO of UMB Healthcare Services. She will be one of a small but slowly growing number of women who have captured the advocacy group’s attention for leading large or highly visible entities in the city.

“Our numbers are getting better, but there’s still much work to be done,” said CiCi Rojas, Central Exchange president and CEO. “Women hold 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, but American women still lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions.”

That’s why women’s advocacy organizations such as Central Exchange keep tabs and advocate for more.

Its local CEO list now includes Jackie DeSouza, Research Medical Center; Lisa Ginter, CommunityAmerica Credit Union; Danette Wilson, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City; Ora Reynolds, Hunt Midwest Enterprises; Beryl Raff, Helzberg Diamonds; Melinda Estes, St. Luke’s Health System; and Esther George, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The list also includes Carolyn Watley, who is president of CBIZ Benefits & Insurance Services of Kansas City but lacks the CEO title. That variation shows how hard it is to measure top leadership. Many women around the metro head sizable organizations, but the Central Exchange’s CEO roster excludes company owners, entrepreneurs who built their own companies and most nonprofit heads.

“It’s a fine line,” Rojas admitted. “We discuss this all the time. There are powerful women like Brenda Tinnen, who runs the Sprint Center, but she’s technically not a CEO.”

Klumb, Ginter, Wilson and Reynolds earned their CEO titles this year, DeSouza last year, Estes and George in 2011, and Raff in 2009.

Here and around the country, more women are inching through the professional pipeline to be tapped to lead big companies. But, although long recognized as powerhouses in social service organizations, foundations, education, other nonprofits and small businesses, women still are rare in the top echelon of big business.

The dearth sparks unending debates about nature vs. nurture, sexism, affirmative action, work/life balance, old-boy networks, “opting out” and other theories about why there are so few women CEOs in the large or for-profit realm.

Last year, there were just 24 women CEOs in the Fortune 500. Ten years ago, there were only seven.

Today, fewer than 5 percent of S&P 500 companies are led by women. Fewer than 15 percent of all big-company executive officers — the so-called c-suite — are women. Only 8 percent of top corporate earners are women.

These are tiny numbers despite two other facts: Women hold more than half of all professional jobs, and women have been graduating from college in greater numbers than men for years.

Against statistical odds, some women have proved their mettle. They’ve risen through the ranks, deemed by their corporate boards to be ready to direct organization strategy.

Ora Reynolds, who joined Hunt Midwest Enterprises in 1991, this month added the CEO title to the president’s role she has filled since 2010.

“I think we’ve turned the corner on the pipeline argument that there aren’t qualified women,” said Reynolds, who added that she’s grateful for “wonderful mentors who gave me opportunities.”

Nationally, two of the four largest accounting firms, KPMG and Deloitte, this year appointed women as CEOs. Lynne Doughtie, a 30-year veteran at KPMG, will gain the CEO title July 1. Cathy Engelbert of Deloitte, also a 30-year veteran at her firm, in February became the first woman to head a Big Four accounting firm.

For about a decade, about half of accounting firms’ new hires have been women, making it more likely for women to fill the executive pipeline in that profession. But, perhaps counterintuitively, in corporate America, women are more likely to be CEOs in what traditionally are male-dominated industries.

Women lead General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Archer Daniels Midland, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, DuPont, General Dynamics, Duke Energy, Xerox, Sempra Energy, Reynolds American, Graybar Electric and Advanced Micro Devices — none of which would be considered “feminine” or even to mainly produce household products.

Crucial advocates

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, the Central Exchange, the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the University of Missouri-Kansas City last year joined in launching the “Women’s Empowerment Initiative,” a broad-based effort to encourage organizations and women themselves to join boards, run for public office and aim for promotions.

Begonya Klumb thinks advocacy efforts like that are necessary and good.

“It’s critical to have many mentors and advocates,” Klumb said. “It’s important for women, or anyone, to take key, visible assignments and be successful at those and make sure everyone notices you and notices you’re ready for the next role.

“It’s not sufficient to just do a good job for your immediate boss. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone. And women don’t always feel comfortable doing that. Women too often feel they’re not 110 percent ready for the job. To be promoted to the higher jobs you sometimes have to say, ‘Hey, look at me.’”

Klumb, Reynolds and others said that having multiple advocates — not necessarily official mentors — is crucial. And they said it’s important for advocates to be male and female. According to national studies, that kind of support is needed to make women CEOs less rare.

“It’s clear that incremental change does not significantly move the needle,” said Aniela Unguresan, co-founder of a foundation that certifies businesses for workplace gender equality.

Unguresan’s organization, EDGE Certified Foundation, worked with the Mercer consulting firm on a recent study. It found that “active involvement of senior leaders in gender diversity” is the key to “accelerated representation of women in executive roles.”

In other words, the mostly male executives are called on to create corporate cultures that promote women. But Mercer found that only 56 percent of organizations said their senior executives were actively involved in gender diversity or inclusion programs.

Women aspiring to top corporate positions also may need to take more expedient routes to the corner office. That means working in line management or finance rather than human resources or public affairs.

“We need more women in operations, the route to the top,” Rojas said.

When Danette Wilson gained the Blue Cross and Blue Shield CEO position in January, Thomas McCullough, chairman of the Blue KC board, made specific reference to her “significant positive impact on the day-to-day operations,” her influence as a 25-year employee, and her “comprehensive knowledge of our company and the insurance industry.”

Similarly, when Lisa Ginter became CEO of CommunityAmerica Credit Union in March, her appointment recognized her 20-year tenure at the financial institution, most recently as chief operating officer. And Esther George had worked at the Kansas City Fed since 1982 and served as chief operating officer before becoming CEO.

Professional expertise also is key. Beryl Raff, Melinda Estes and Jackie DeSouza had each built strong records in their professions or industries.

Interestingly, one national study found that engineering was the most common college degree held by women who hold Fortune 1000 CEO jobs. But backgrounds in law, finance and business are all valuable precursors.

The Central Exchange will share career tips, especially how to stand out as a “brand,” at its annual leadership Lyceum on Wednesday at the Overland Park Convention Center.

Women CEOs and their advocates mentioned one other ingredient for advancement and success at the highest corporate level: a spouse, partner or other dependable family support system to share household and family care.

“You have to put yourself out there, into situations that give you opportunity,” Reynolds advised other women. “It’s not just luck. It’s not just you. You have to surround yourself with a team who supports you.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com. Follow her online at kansascity.com/workplace and @kcstarstafford.

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