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Cracks in the 'glass ceiling'

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Posted: Thursday, March 6, 2014 9:47 am

Meet Karin Sarratt. She is the vice president of human resources, commercial and specialty business division for WellPoint Inc., a Fortune 500 company that touches 1 in 9 Americans lives.

Many would label Sarratt as a successful businesswoman, but if you ask her if she has shattered the glass ceiling, she’d humbly say “in some ways.”

“What has prepared me for this has been my job experiences and the lessons of life,” said Sarratt.

Sarratt became a working woman as an Ann Arbor, Mich., teen when she became an employee at McDonalds. “I was trained on fries,” she laughs.

She went on to attend Ball State University where she received a degree in telecommunications followed by a Master’s degree in human resources development at Clemson University. She has worked at companies such as Duke Energy and Prudential Insurance & Financial Services and has had a long career at International Paper prior to coming to WellPoint in 2012.

From her modest beginnings until today, Sarrat said she’s had the opportunity to experience various cultures, travel, make a difference and open doors for others. That is a direct result from her hard work, time, commitment to her career and help from her mentor, Bathsheba Sams.

Her trek to leadership positions also came with lots of sacrifice.

“It was sometimes being willing to take on assignments others wouldn’t take. One of my mentors at the time said I needed to get manufacturing experience (in order to work in HR) so I did at International Paper in Gurdon, Ark. That was the beginning of my journey,” said Sarratt. “(My family and I moved) 10 times and each of those moves propelled my career in a different way.”

In addition to living in Arkansas, Sarratt and her family have also lived in Morton, Miss.; Savannah and Augusta, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; twice in Memphis, Tenn.; Trumbull, Conn.; Brussels, Belgium; and now, Indianapolis. She said each move presented new opportunities for both her and her family.

“It wasn’t just about my career. That was the mechanism, but it opened so many doors for us in many ways,” said Sarratt.

Count the ways

Sarratt’s career has been one of change, hard work and endurance. While impressive, the sobering fact remains that she is one of a small sorority of women who have excelled in business by shattering the glass ceiling along the way. There’s even less women of color in the upper echelons of business.

“Part of my job is to track women CEOs in the Fortune 500. Among them, there are 23 women CEOs. That’s 4.6 percent and I can name every one of them. Until we stop keeping track of every woman CEO as this big thing, no woman will have really gone through the glass ceiling,” said Emily Troiano, senior director of the information center at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to expand opportunities for women and business.

Patty Prosser, managing partner of Career Consultants OI Global Partners and the chair of the board of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce believes that reasons behind very few women aggressively shattering the glass ceiling includes organizational issues such as businesses who aren’t intentional about recognizing the importance of advancing women or diversity in general. She also said many businesses don’t develop career paths that allow women to expand their skills, take stretch assignments and/or demonstrate their leadership skills.

“It’s not about fixing the women, it’s about fixing the workplaces,” agreed Troiano.

Prosser also believes women can be their own roadblock in business.

“Women, for whatever reason, and I use these words carefully, self inflict roadblocks to keep them from achieving what they are capable of achieving,” said Prosser. “What I mean is that clearly there are more women in the workforce today. But a recent study indicates that a high percentage of these extremely smart, high performing women are self-censoring. They’re taking themselves out of the leadership game. What it takes to get there in their minds isn’t acceptable.”

She adds that many women set unreasonable expectations for themselves and try to be “superwomen” instead of strategic. She’d also like to see more women stand up for themselves.

“It takes a willingness to raise your hand and let someone know you’re interested in growth and development; be willing to take on non-traditional assignments; and get somebody at a leadership level that can be an internal advocate for you,” said Prosser.

Troiano said that while there are considerable amounts of educated and business savvy women, there’s a serious lack of women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. This is an area many are working to get young girls interested in to change this trend.

There’s also still “boys clubs” women must take on and gender stereotypes such as women aren’t as tough as men or are emotional.

“Women possess the majority of the leadership qualities needed to be successful today in ways their male counterparts don’t, like being collaborative and supportive,” said Prosser. “And women don’t have to act like men to break the glass ceiling. The key is to be as authentic as you can and showcase your skills in a way that shows you add value to an organization.”

Women in leadership positions are a goal of many advocates, yet Troiano said women simply getting in the door and workplace equality can have dramatic effects.

“Raising women’s employment to men’s levels can boost the Gross Domestic Product 5 percent in the U.S., meaning it can improve the country’s growth and stability,” said Troiano.

What’s it going to take?

Prosser said the advancements in women in leadership are a work in progress, but the fact that there has been progress is good. In order for women to not just crack the glass ceiling but to shatter it, she said it’s going to take organizations becoming more intentional about wanting to raise the level of leadership in a diverse way and identifying high potential women and creating opportunities for them.

In turn, women must be willing to take on these responsibilities.

Sarratt adds that women must be clear about their goals and motivations. She also believes that mentorship is very important.

“Mentors should know there’s some risk involved, but say ‘I’m going to be her sponsor and help position her for success,’” Sarratt said. “You must also leave room for honest dialogue in what the challenges will be. That’s one of the things my mentor helped me with – it was the reality check. She’d say to me ‘yes, this will be hard and you know what, the next assignment will be even tougher.’ It’s also the act of being there to pick you up if you need some encouragement or if you don’t succeed.”

Women advocates say people should note that not all women desire to be at the top level of a company nor should they feel as if they must take on such goals. Women should be the best they can be.

“Women take on lots of responsibility and are successful in many different places in their lives and at different times of their lives. The key is to do what you do extraordinarily well and be a strong contributor. Also influence what you can and be willing to pay it forward,” said Prosser.

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