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Women in Leadership: It’s About Men, Too


LAS VEGAS -- Women are everywhere — but not so much at the top. Almost 50 percent of the workforce in the consumer packaged goods and retail industry are women, yet just 17.9 percent hold “officer” positions and only 1.7 percent make up the CEO pie. Those numbers have barely budged in seven years.

This data recently released by the Network of Executive Women was shared by Karin Thrift, director of sales for Clif Bar & Co., who moderated a panel consisting of two retailers and two suppliers (one being a man) in the NACS Show educational session, “Women 2020: Leadership of the Future,” which took place Wednesday morning.

“We can’t budge the power of women leadership without more women leaders,” Thrift told an audience that was comprised of nearly as many men as women.

She cited five barriers to female advancement highlighted in the research: institutional bias, corporate cultures, lack of sponsors, work/life conflict and the “motherhood penalty.”

Thrift also highlighted five areas where action needs to take place to effect change:

  • Change the corporate culture, as the current culture rewards  what she dubbed a “male leadership style;"
  • Enroll men in the cause because “women in leadership is an organizational issue, not a women’s issue;
  • Engage senior leaders — fully committed and engaged leaders from the top down is key;
  • Nurture female talent; and
  • Enforce accountability.

"Women leaders are disappearing on their way to the top. It’s an interesting problem and we have to talk to women who are leaving organizations and find out why it’s happening,” added panelist Laura Palenkas, vice president of marketing for Pilot Travel Centers LLC.

Palenkas offered a good example of the changed corporate culture at Pilot after merging with Flying J in 2010. She explained that the immediate excitement was going “200 miles an hour down the road” and centered on "pilotizing" the acquisition. But at the same time, the first female came onto the board, the CEO of Flying J. "She had a voice and a spot and she said, 'Whoa, slow it down. You think you know us and you don’t,’ and she talked about the hard questions,” which had a lot to do with Pilot being fleet-driven and Flying J consisting more of owner/operators, Palenkas explained.

“She had a huge impact on our company. There was a lot of frustration, but the outcome was phenomenal," she continued. "We have a driver efficacy program now and we listen and react differently when customers are talking to us.

Fellow panelist Barbara Poremba, vice president of national retail sales for Coca-Cola Refreshments, agreed that corporate collaboration is critical and that “it’s really more about diversity of thought than gender.”

Donna Sanker, another member of the panel and vice president of marketing for BP/ampm, stressed the importance of being able to “put yourself in someone’s shoes” both on a professional level and personal level. “And it’s not just the women in the workforce that need flexibility” to balance work vs. home, Sanker noted.

The sole male panelist Paul Casadont, merchandising manager, USA & Canada for Chevron Corp., shared the story of a female employee whom he gave a four-month leave of absence to for a personal crisis and she returned a better worker afterward.

The women in leadership issue, according to Casadont, has made him look at what’s really important to employees and the benefits they need beyond a paycheck to make them more productive and effective at work. 

This includes flexible work schedules, career development plans, employee-assisted programs, elder care education and access to substance abuse programs.

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