Bursting through the glass ceiling

This trio of Bellingham businesswomen has faced adversity since Day 1, and thrived despite it

Peggy Zoro’s father, in the photo at top right, provided Zoro with an inspiration and work ethic that allowed her to rise to the position of senior vice president and regional manager with Whidbey Island Bank.

Heidi Schiller
   Roughly two decades since the height of the women’s movement, women continue to struggle with balancing their professional and personal lives.
   They have increasingly participated in the United States work force since the middle of the 20th century. According to a population survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32.7 percent of women aged 16 and over worked in 1948. That number has steadily increased to 66 percent in 2005.
   However, women business owners make up a far smaller percentage of total non-farm business ownership in the U.S. In 2002, women owned 6.5 million non-farm businesses in the U.S., accounting for only 28.2 percent of all non-farm business ownership, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
   Here in Bellingham, as young women contemplate whether to dive into the business world or splash around in a different field, they are fortunate to have a depth of knowledge from a breadth of successful business women to learn from.
   Here are three of those women’s stories of how they dealt with the challenges of sexism in a traditionally male field — especially early on in their career — and how they became empowered to take the Bellingham business world by the horns.

Mauri Ingram, project manager, Trillium Corporation
   As an only child whose single mother worked full time, Mauri Ingram grew up in East Lansing, Mich., with a role model for career success, as her mother was one of the first female public-broadcasting managers in the United States.
   She also felt fortunate that while she made crafts and baked with her grandmother and played sports with her grandfather, her family always treated her as a person.
   She carries that ingrained awareness with her to this day.
   “I approach everything like I’m a person, not a little girl,” she said.
   Ingram always knew she wanted to be a businesswoman. Working summers at her cousin’s business-equipment store during high school, Ingram enjoyed the customer interaction. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in business marketing from Towson State University in Maryland and then a master’s degree in finance and marketing from the University of Washington.
   Ingram has co-owned two successful restaurants, including The Little Cheerful for nine years — first in Seattle and then in Bellingham — and The Calumet for seven-and-a-half years. Her list of extracurricular activities in Bellingham is extensive, and includes being the founding and executive director of the Downtown Renaissance Network, a board member for several local organizations, including Sustainable Connections and the City Club, and a member of the city’s parking commission.
   More recently, Ingram has worked for the past two years as a project manager for Trillium Corporation.
   At Trillium, of the 20 people she closely works with, about 65 percent are men.
   Ingram said she felt more ostracized as a business woman when she was younger. As the co-owner of The Little Cheerful in Seattle during her 20s, the combination of being a young woman and working in the breakfast and lunch food-service field was challenging because the business community typically slighted both roles.
   In one instance during that time, she and her husband — who was also her business partner — tried to re-negotiate a lease for the restaurant. The owner of the building — an older man — never remembered her name and wouldn’t listen to her, he only communicated with her husband.
   “I had to accept I wasn’t going to be an entity in the room,” she said. The experience was frustrating for Ingram because she felt forced to communicate through her husband.
   “I had to try and remember what the ultimate purpose was,” she said. “Now, the more self-confidence I have, the less I have to wave my arms around and say, ‘I’m here.'”
   Since then, Ingram has learned to deal with challenges like this by recognizing and learning to work with different communication styles between genders.
   “The lesson is to listen in the broadest sense, observe. Genders have their own broad styles,” she said. “Women are raised to be pleasers. I’m getting better at that as I get older. No more back flips.”
   The challenges for Ingram as a woman in business have not entirely gone away since moving to Bellingham in 1990, although she said she feels fortunate not to have dealt with many sexist hurdles.
   “I have an androgynous look going on so I suffer less than others,” she said.
   However, men will tend to give her a once-over and sometimes make offensive comments on the way she looks, occasionally, such as, “Gee, you look hot today.” Ingram said she thinks these types of comments represent a power play.
   Young women need to be wary of how they deal with situations like that, she said, especially because business school doesn’t prepare women for such situations.
   “Those instances can mark you and make you gun shy,” she said. Men need to know sexist or condescending comments are not okay, she said. Ingram has called men out on several occasions.
   “I’m kind of sharp-tongued sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll make a glib remark, but I don’t want to embarrass anyone.”
   She also said she’s seen sexism come from other women, usually between older and younger women.
   Ingram recalled an incident where an older, female colleague said, “Oh, here comes the perky one,” as a younger co-worker approached a board meeting. Ingram and another female co-worker later confronted the older woman with concerns about her behavior.
   With so many professional accomplishments under her belt, Ingram is lately beginning to value having more of a balance between life and work, but it hasn’t always been a priority for her.
   “I’m definitely a workaholic,” she said. “Life-work balance was never a concept for me.” Including Trillium and her volunteer work, Ingram works 10 to 15 hours a day, but said she’s trying to cut down.
   “I’m learning to be more human,” she said.

Lori Reece, broker/co-owner, RE/MAX Whatcom County
   In May, Lori Reece attended a national real estate leadership conference called the Gathering of Eagles for the country’s top 500 residential real estate brokers. She did not meet another female broker/owner there.
   Reece began her career in real estate after graduating from Western Washington University with a business degree in 1979. Her father was a real estate agent in Sudden Valley and he helped her get hired at one of the local agencies.
   At that time, very few women worked in the real estate field, she said.
   “I started at an office full of older, retired men,” she said. “They’d just come in, smoke cigarettes and read the newspaper all day.”
   After a few years, she left the real estate business and job-hopped for 10 years from banking to property management then back to banking.
   In 1989, Reece moved back to Bellingham and refocused on real-estate management.
   Now she co-owns RE/MAX Whatcom County, an empire that includes more than 105 agents and five offices. It’s one of the largest agencies in Whatcom County, in terms of productivity and revenue, she said.

Tackling glass ceilings
   When she started out in real estate, clients didn’t trust her because she was a young woman, Reece said. Now, credibility in the field is entirely non-gender-based and is rooted in an agent’s knowledge, technical savvy, skill and talent.
   One of Reece’s main challenges as a businesswoman has been getting professional men to take her seriously. She said it’s not unusual for her to call a male professional in the community only to have him return that call to her partner.
   “They sometimes think I’m just a figurehead,” she said.
   But Reece does not abide that type of behavior, and said she’s fired consultants, accountants and lawyers for not taking her seriously enough.
   “Ultimately, my position trumps my gender,” she said.
   One of the biggest challenges women in business face, Reece said, is their own fear of success, which is rarely an issue with men, she said.
   Women often don’t feel as though they deserve their professional success, or that they’ve earned it, she said.
   “It’s about getting past their own personal glass ceiling,” she said.
   In 1998, Reece was elected president of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, and in 2005 she was named RE/MAX broker/owner of the year in the Pacific Northwest region.
   She said she feels lucky to be in a business field that is so conducive to women’s careers, with more equality for women in real estate than in any other business field.
   “We have different talents and skill sets and so we can really shine,” she said. “There is no glass ceiling in real estate.”

Peggy Zoro, senior vice president and regional manager, Whidbey Island Bank
   Peggy Zoro’s father was a metallurgical engineer who emigrated from Sicily to the United States when he was five years old. He later spent 17 years getting the equivalent of a master’s degree in engineering.
   “I learned the importance of education, perseverance, performance and a great work ethic,” she said. “And to always treat employees equally.”
   Zoro said she felt her father’s influence helped her transcend any real or perceived challenges as a woman in the business field.
   “I got my passion and work ethic from my father, and my toughness from my mother — she was German,” she said.
   Zoro originally considered going into interior design, but received a bachelor’s degree in math and science after her father strongly encouraged her to go into what he thought was a more serious field. She then got a master’s degree in guidance and psychology and proceeded to teach math and science in public schools in Galveston, Tex., and New York City, where she met her husband.
   The two moved to Bellingham in 1970 after he was hired at Western Washington University as a music professor.
   Zoro struggled with finding a job in her field and finally accepted a “temporary” position at a bank as a general ledger clerk. When she started, she had no idea how to use some of the banking equipment, despite her extensive math experience and knowledge.
   “I used to come down at night and I would practice the 10-key for hours,” she said.
   Because of her extra-curricular nightly activities, Zoro began turning the daily ledger in earlier and earlier to her supervisor, and her hard work started getting her promoted in the industry. Her career took off.
   For nine years, Zoro was a district president for Key Bank in Washington, a position that managed $1.2 billion in assets; She’s been a senior vice president and regional manager at Whidbey Island Bank for the past four years.
   “I’ve worked for some industry giants, most of them men. What mattered to them was performance, not gender,” she said.

Making an easier world of work for future women
   “It’s not been easy, I have run into challenges,” Zoro said of her career success.
   One of the major challenges she’s faced in her career is the that most bank leadership consists of men between the ages of 40 and 60 who make decisions without accounting for gender and minority diversity, affecting both gender and minority employees as well as the customers they serve, she said. However, this occurrence is getting increasingly less pronounced.
   For example, enlightened bank leadership will match the gender and racial/ethnic demographic of their bank’s staffs to that of the community the bank is located in.
   “If there is not that type of leadership, however, women can still run into challenges,” she said. “Political acumen for women is critical.”
   A specific instance of that kind of challenge is an incident that happened to her 20 years ago. Her supervisor had a high regard for her work, she said, but was still prejudiced against her for being a woman. Zoro got a raise, but it was not as high as a male colleague’s who had received a lower performance rating than she had.
   “Well, your husband is working, right?” the supervisor said when she confronted him about it. He also mentioned that she didn’t have any children, and because of those reasons shouldn’t need a higher raise.
   She finally got the raise she deserved, and the supervisor refrained from sexist actions in the future.
   “I wanted to make my world of work easier for women who came after me,” Zoro said of the incident.
   To this day, she said, men sometimes have fragile egos and feel fearful, or threatened, of women’s success.
   “Then they come off as bullies, controllers, autocrats and poor listeners,” she said. Luckily, Zoro said, she’s been fortunate not to deal with too many men like that.
   Ultimately, Zoro said she’s chosen her battles wisely and always asserted her rights as a woman politely. Those qualities, along with her work ethic, have made being a woman in business an asset.

Advice to the next generation of businesswomen

Ingram: “Self-confidence is really important for young women in particular. It’s easier (for women, rather than men) to struggle with, especially in the work-place,” she said. “Don’t assume anything, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Reece: “Don’t be afraid. Try and follow your passion and don’t settle,” she said. “Even after your first, or fifth or tenth job.”
“Starting over is nothing to be scared of,” she said; Reece started RE/MAX Whatcom County when she was 35. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from people in the field and remember to network.”

Zoro: “I would say remember to be themselves first and foremost,” she said. “Don’t take on a different persona.”

 

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