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Special report: Interweave

Females see diversity's value

From their perspective, it's just good business.

Published March 18, 2007

Alex Sink,
Florida’s chief financial officer
[Times photo:Daniel Wallace]

Collectively, they're some of the first women to benefit from the workplace strides made by social movements on behalf of women and minorities. Six women who have risen to the top in Florida agree on two key factors when it comes to diversifying the work force: First, top management has to make it a priority. And second, in the 21st century, it's just good business. From their perspectives:

Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer

When Sink joined North Carolina National Bank in 1974 as a marketing analyst, there was not a single female vice president. The new college graduate, hoping to advance, took accounting classes at night and signed up for credit training so no one could doubt her qualifications.

"I think people have always given men chances to do things because they believed in them or thought they were talented, but they didn't have to have the complete resume," said Sink, 58. "I think for women, people are still looking for the complete resume."

Decades later, as president of Bank of America in Florida, Sink made it her priority to find a work force to mirror the customers walking into her bank's branches, from a heavily gay neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale to a Central Florida branch surrounded by Puerto Rican residents.

"We found a Puerto Rican woman to hire as a lending officer. There were people driving from 50 miles around to do business with this woman," said Sink, who won election as the state's chief financial officer in November.

"It's the right thing to do, to give everybody an equal opportunity to be successful," Sink said. "But it is also good business."

Donna Shalala, University of Miami president

Shalala led the University of Wisconsin-Madison and spent eight years as the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. But in 1972, two years into her first job at City University of New York, her boss told her she'd never receive tenure because she was a woman. "I don't think anyone would dare say that now," said Shalala, 66.

Discrimination has become more sophisticated, Shalala said, but she also thinks pragmatism is wearing it away.

"When the Ivy League (universities) went co-ed, they didn't go co-ed because of some social philosophy," Shalala says. "They went co-ed because if they didn't they'd have to lower the quality of their student body."

Corporate America and government, she said, have been much better at embracing diversity than academia, where faculty members, not university leaders, pick their colleagues.

One asset UM has been able to exploit to increase its number of minority faculty is demographics. "It's much harder to recruit an African-American faculty member to Madison, Wis., than to Miami, Fla.," Shalala said.

Kathleen Shanahan, CEO, WRS Infrastructure & Environment Inc.

Less than a year into her job as the CEO of an environmental engineering firm, Shanahan, 46, realized she was the only female speaker at a two-day industry conference.

From the stage, she pointed it out: "The older I get, the more I appreciate the (symbolism) ... of having someone who looks like the (client's) decisionmaker on the other side of the table."

Shanahan took over the reins of WRS in Tampa in 2005, after a career spent on Wall Street and in government, including terms as chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Her current job, by comparison, is small business. With 340 employees, WRS has fewer resources for broad diversity initiatives or recruiting plans. Instead, she said, she leads by example and demands that her managers do the same.

"If you make it a metric of performance for your management team, then I think you'll see some (progress)," she said. Diversity "has to be outlined and rewarded."

Susan Story, President/CEO of Gulf Power Co.

Growing up in rural Alabama, Story didn't know what a nuclear power plant engineer was until she was a freshman at Auburn University.

"I thought, 'Geez, I can make a good living out of this.' I had very practical motivations," said Story, 47, whose utility serves 420,000 customers in Florida's western Panhandle.

For her first job in 1982, Story joined an engineering staff that included one other woman. Her path since then explains her company's interest in encouraging children, particularly girls, in the sciences.

Engineers visit fifth-grade classes every month to do scientific experiments. And the company sponsors a high school career academy that targets girls and minorities.

"My technical background in engineering really gave me a lot of opportunities," said Story. "If you don't have women in engineering and science, how can they head up companies that are technical in nature?"

Marilyn Holifield, Partner Holland & Knight

As a teenager, Holifield was one of three black students to integrate Tallahassee's Leon High School. As a new lawyer from Harvard, she worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But when she joined Holland & Knight's Tampa law office in the early 1980s, only one major firm in the city had a black partner.

"It's not unimaginable for a black person to be a CEO of a corporation now. In that sense, it was unimaginable in the 1970s for an African-American female like myself to be a partner at a major law firm in Florida," said Holifield, 58, who is now one of the firm's most prominent partners in Miami. "It's not unimaginable, it can occur. But it's not commonplace."

Holifield remains optimistic, largely because she sees corporate America increasingly insisting on legal staff that is from diverse backgrounds, not only to reflect the consumer groups they're trying to serve, but for a variety of problem-solving options.

Diversity "can affect legal strategies, government relation strategies, even how to be a good citizen in the communities where they do business," Holifield said. "Here in America, having a diverse team can go straight to the bottom line."

Gwen Mitchell, Partner Deloitte & Touche

The year Gwen Mitchell made partner at her accounting firm, 1993, a particular fact tempered her excitement: She was the first woman in Oklahoma to achieve the title at a major accounting firm.

"It really struck me as not a good thing," said Mitchell, 49, and now managing partner for Deloitte & Touche's North Florida operation.

But it was also 1993 when Deloitte's CEO was similarly alarmed and launched what became known as the "Women's Initiative." The effort is still considered one of the most aggressive work force diversification efforts in corporate America.

It was spurred by a simple fact: More women were joining big accounting firms, but few were staying.

Mitchell said Deloitte now offers both men and women flexible working arrangements and formalized mentoring programs.

The firm's annual turnover rate is 13 percent among both genders, and its leadership team is about 20 percent female. Deloitte contends that both statistics are better than their competitors.

"We weren't unique in having those kind of statistics (in 1993), but we were unique in the top levels saying 'Let's take a look at this,' " said Mitchell.


[Last modified March 14, 2007, 15:25:17]

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