Above: Rebecca Byrne, director of the Community Foundation of South Alabama, and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., hosted “Shattering the Glass Ceiling: A Forum for Today’s Women” in Mobile Wednesday.
Imagine juggling an egg, a bowling ball and a chainsaw, and then a cellphone rings.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, drew laughter, applause and understanding nods in Mobile with her characterization Wednesday of professional women striving to find that elusive – and perhaps imaginary – work-life balance.
Wagner, a Republican elected to the 113th Congress in 2012, delivered the keynote address during “Shattering the Glass Ceiling: A Forum for Today’s Women” and told the crowd of about 100 that women succeed despite both concrete and perceived barriers because they are “doers” and “great communicators.”
“We ask questions, take criticism … and we listen,” said Wagner, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee and as senior deputy whip.
Wagner’s political aspirations followed a successful career in business, spawned by her family’s homegrown retail carpet business, which included management positions with both Hallmark Cards in Kansas City and Ralston Purina in St. Louis. Meanwhile, she raised three children and served nine years in local government before chairing the Missouri Republican Party, co-chairing the Republican National Convention and serving for four years as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
She attributes her success to involving her family at every level of every new opportunity and learning to step far outside her comfort zone when opportunities arise.
“I’m just a living testament to stepping off that cliff,” Wagner said, noting she is one of 23 women in the 246-member House of Representatives. That’s less than 10 percent of the body, while women nationwide comprise 53 percent of the electorate.
The women’s forum was hosted by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., and his wife, Rebecca Byrne, director of the Community Foundation of South Alabama. It included a panel discussion moderated by Lynne Chronister, vice president of research and economic development for the University of South Alabama. The panel featured Beverly Gibson, the first female rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Mobile; businesswoman Sheila Hodges, whose six enterprises operate in three states; Latitia McCane, dean of instructional services for Bishop State Community College; and Dr. Amy McCoy with Obstetrics & Gynecology Associates in Mobile.
“We identified four areas we thought were particularly concerning or of interest to women when they wake up every single morning, and those are health care, education, spirituality, and business and finance,” Rebecca Byrne said of the event, which she hopes will become annual.
Bradley Byrne, meanwhile, said he is the “beneficiary of someone who has always had strong women in my family” and wanted to work with his wife to create an event that helps women “continue to build on what they do in their professional lives, their community lives and their family lives.”
The general consensus of the panelists focused on the power of perpetual forward motion despite obstacles – internal or external, real or imagined – but also noted that cultural perceptions about traditional gender roles can be more of a hindrance to advancement than the actual availability of training, positions and peer respect.
Of the storied glass ceiling, moderator Chronister said: “I don’t think it’s unbreakable, and I’m not certain it’s unseen, and I don’t know how thick that glass ceiling is anymore.”
Hodges, however, has no doubt gender-based barriers remain, but said she is living proof they are “absolutely breakable.”
Hodges is owner and chairman of the board for Gulf Shores-based SH Enterprises Inc., parent company for Century 21 Meyer Real Estate, Meyer Vacation Rentals, Meyer Services, Starr Textile Services and Starr Textile Services of Louisiana.
From having male bankers give her unsolicited “fatherly” advice to having a loan request denied because at the time she was in the midst of a divorce, Hodges said she has encountered repeated financial issues she doubts any man in an identical position would face.
“I told them they were treating me like a woman who had bought one too many pairs of shoes, and I wouldn’t have it,” Hodges said, calling herself a “determined woman who listens to that inner voice.”
In turn, as she has grown her businesses she has cultivated relationships with bankers, certified public accountants and an array of other professionals who have proven to her they see clearly the value in what she does.
“I don’t talk bank. I talk money,” she said.
Other takeaways from the two-hour panel included:
- Find your community. It will support you.
- Acknowledge what your gifts and talents are. What you cannot do, you can delegate.
- Adapt and stay current.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new.
- It’s OK to ask for help.
- You must take time for yourself.