PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The “Me Too” movement has highlighted the need for more women in leadership.
Allegheny County is leading the way with four women in charge of all four county authorities – the Airport Authority, Port Authority, Sports and Exhibition Authority and ALCOSAN.
KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen sat down to talk with each of them and some other local women leaders, about rising to the top, discrimination along the way and Allegheny County attracting women leaders.
Each of these women has worked hard to earn her spot.
Arletta Scott Williams is the Executive Director of ALCOSAN.
“At ALCOSAN, I went in at the lowest level of management and within 10 years, I had moved five levels, again, just by the grace of God and opportunity,” she said.
Christina Cassotis is the CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority.
“We know where the minefields are. We navigate them, and we work like hell and we believe we’re supposed to be there. I think that the reason that there are a lot of great women running agencies in Allegheny County is because we’re the right people to do the job and that we have leadership in the county that’s looking for the right people, as opposed to the right people of certain genders,” she said.
Jennifer Liptak is the first female Chief of Staff for the County Executive of Allegheny County.
“I think it’s the environment of creating an atmosphere of opportunity. It starts within government. We have set the standard and set the lead, and what we see [is that] it’s spreading out beyond that,” she said.
The women also say it’s a domino effect — having women in leadership attracts more women leaders.
“You want to go to a place where you’re going to be able to achieve your goals and achieve the goals of that position, and knowing that there are other women leaders, who are potentially going to be your peers, [you know that] you’re not going to be the only one,” Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said.
Most of these women say they’ve faced challenges male counterparts did not face. Dr. Hacker points to her experience as a student at Yale University.
“I will definitely tell you that the women worked harder than the men …. and we had pretty much been told from the day we were there that, in order to even get in, we probably had to be better than our male counterparts,” Hacker said.
The women say they’ve also either experienced, or witnessed first-hand, pay inequity.
“There’s no question …. At the consulting firm I worked at, it became apparent to me that three of the women who worked in my department, and another, were grossly underpaid relative to their male peers, and they had more responsibilities,” Cassotis said.
Another challenge these women face is balancing strength with modesty, as women leaders are judged differently from men on voice, appearance and language.
“It’s balancing between thoughtfulness, politeness and assertiveness which, as women, does get tricky,” Liptak said.
“Just because a woman is polite, it doesn’t mean she is not strong,” Aradhna Oliphant, CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh, said.
“I don’t care if someone thinks I’m bossy or obnoxious or stepping on their toes. We’re taking care of each other and getting the job done,” Katharine Kelleman, CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, said.
Most of the women say even childhood expectations were different for them than boys.
“When I was growing up, I definitely will tell you that there’s a part of my family that still wanted you to not be very ambitious, to make sure you got married and that that was a priority and had children,” Hacker said.
“My life was supposed to be in service of someone else,” Oliphant said.
But these women all say attitudes are changing.
“Sometimes it takes time for the viewpoints to change, but it seems like that’s happening,” Mary Conturo, Executive Director of the Sport and Exhibition Authority, said.
When Kristine asked all of the women if they were ever sexually harassed, one of the seven said she was.
Watch Part 2 of Kristine Sorensen’s report —
The “Me Too” movement has inspired many companies to work to ensure equal treatment of women, but some local women leaders have been doing that for some time.
Many of the local women leaders shared stories of discrimination and double standards throughout their careers, but they say times are changing. They feel it’s possible women and men can work together toward a future of equality in the workplace.
“I think we’re experiencing the result of an overall cultural shift,” Williams said.
“I am seeing women, young women, speak up more, being more confident,” Oliphant said.
These women say change and attitudes in the workplace seem to be starting in the home.
“What our children saw growing up was very, very different than what I saw growing up in my household and what was expected. My mother worked full time and made all the food and did all the laundry … and that was the expectation,” Hacker said.
“Times are changing, I think, and I think a lot of the fathers being more involved with their daughters has made a big difference in that regard,” Conturo said.
Christina Cassotis, who’s run Pittsburgh International Airport and the Allegheny County Airport Authority for four years, says it’s important for women to speak up.
“I think that it’s important for all of us to point out where we see inequity, and it’s important for us to be a part of the solution to get into positions of leadership so we can make the changes and effect the kinds of workplaces that will allow for great teams,” Cassotis said.
But Cassotis acknowledges that it’s not always easy.
“This is such a tough subject, I have to tell you, because the last thing you want to be is the woman who complains, right? Still to this day,” she said.
Women now make up 50 percent of college graduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This year, the percentage of women in Congress increased from 20 percent to 23 percent. But the number of female CEOs of fortune 500 companies decreased to just 4.8 percent last year.
Certain fields that are male-dominated can be especially difficult. Williams worked her way up from the bottom of ALCOSAN, defying expectations along the way. She says the plumbing expertise she learned at home from her dad helped her.
“Because the expectation is that you just don’t have that background, you didn’t have that experience,” she said.
“I would also say that just [in] medicine, in general, there’s a lot of male dominance,” Hacker said.
But that, too, is changing. In fact, just last year, women became the majority of all medical school students.
These women say they want to be examples for future generations of women, looking for guidance on how to overcome discrimination and rise to the top.
“Always find mentors. Start those mentor relationships early. Regardless of gender, you don’t prove you’re tough by going it alone,” Kelleman said.
“I would say, ‘Teach our children. Teach our children that everyone deserves opportunity,’” Liptak said.
Kristine Sorensen asked the women gathered, “Who thinks that all of the attention we’ve seen recently in the media on the treatment of women in the workplace is a good thing?” All said “Yes.” They all agree that focusing more on the issue is helping correct decades of discrimination and will hopefully lead to more women leaders like them.
“This show, the women that I’m sitting here with, this is going to speak to people,” Williams said.