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Networking opportunities can be critical to professional success

Want a take on the value of women’s business networking? Talk to Kay Cobb of Oxford, who recently retired as presiding justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Cobb had made an effort to network with other female attorneys in the state. So, when it came time to recommend a replacement upon her retirement, she had good women attorneys to recommend to Gov. Haley Barbour. One was selected, Ann H. Lamar.

There was only one woman on the Mississippi Supreme Court, so Cobb felt that made it particularly important for another qualified woman to be appointed.

Cobb, who was recently appointed by the governor to chair the Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women, says there are benefits to women networking all arenas of the life — including business.

Challenges remain

“There is no question there are still challenges for women in getting equal pay and opportunities,” Cobb says. “Networking is a way of uniting our strength so that we are working together toward these goals. One of my personal goals as the new chair of the Commission on the Status of Women is to address women’s issues, which certainly include equal pay, but go beyond that into quality-of-life situations for those women who are struggling as single parents. It includes such basic issues as adequate and affordable childcare and adequate education to enable women to reach their highest potential.”

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently received negative publicity over earlier remarks regarding the lack of women elected officials in the state. Clinton pointed out that Mississippi has never elected a women as a U.S. senator or representative or as governor.

Cobb, who served two terms as a state senator before being elected to the Mississippi Supreme Court, observes that there is a shortage of women who run for office in the state. One of her personal goals is to encourage more women to run for public office. She suspects that when women do run, they aren’t necessarily at any disadvantage winning office.

“Women aren’t successful every time, but a high percentage of women win when they run,” Cobb says. “If you went back and looked at the numbers, there have been no serious women candidates in Mississippi for the U.S. Senate and only a few have had serious races for the U.S. House.”

On the question of women running and winning judgeship races, while there is only one of nine Supreme Court justices who is female and only two of 10 members of the Court of Appeals are female, approximately 24% of trial judges in the state are female, which is approximately equal to the percentage of women lawyers in the state.

“That is to me a hopeful statistic because it means women are offering themselves for judgeships where they are qualified,” Cobb says. “We would wish for 50-50 representation, but the bar is still lopsided with men.”

Advancing the agenda

The Women’s Commission was established in 2001, but this is the first year it has received funding. The $50,000 appropriated by the Legislature will allow the organization to hire a part-time executive director. Cobb expects that to help move along the agenda for the organization that has 13 board members from around the state who serve as volunteers.

“I’m excited about getting focused and resuming being productive,” Cobb says.

One doesn’t have to be a Supreme Court justice to help other talented women up the ladder of success. Cobb has nominated several women to the 50 Leading Business Women competition sponsored by the Mississippi Business Journal, including the woman who was chosen as Mississippi Businesswoman of the Year this past year.

Networking can also include organizations that help women gain contracts with both private business and the government. There are certification programs for small, disadvantaged and woman-owned businesses to receive federal government contract awards. And on the private front, a lot of large national corporations have supplier diversity programs that spend millions of dollars a year with companies that are either minority or women-owned businesses.

The Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) is a national group that certifies women-owned businesses to be considered for the diversity programs.

“Companies look for that certification, and the certification process is very thorough,” says Carolyn Boteler, regional director for Mississippi, Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) Council South and is presidentowner TempStaff Inc. in Jackson. “I spent 10 hours in my original process to become certified. Specifically, they are looking for business that are owned at least 51% by a woman, and where a female is making the majority of decisions.”

More than paperwork is involved. Once a business submits all the required documents, someone from the council comes for a personal interview at the applicant’s office to verify that a woman is driving the main decision process of that company. Every two years, the business must be recertified.

In addition to providing vital third-party certification, WBE places a big focus on fostering diversity in the world of commerce with programs and policies designed to expand opportunities and eliminate barriers in the marketplace for women business owners.

“It is a wonderful networking group,” Boteler says. “I have made some wonderful contacts in other states. The company we utilize for all of our background checks is a certified woman-owned business I met through WBE networking events. She was also serving on the board of directors. We found the data she gave us through her computer services was the best, so we are utilizing the services of another WBE.”

Women-owned businesses can also be certified through the State of Mississippi. Businesses must have annual sales of less than $11 million.

“Once you reach that point, you can no longer be certified by the state,” Boteler says. “I think that is something they should re-evaluate. We were certified by the state until we exceeded that limit. It is best for the state for you to be able to continue to grow your business. Their present regulations don’t allow you to do that.”

It you look at the boards of directors for most businesses, particularly in Mississippi, it is still largely a man’s world.

“I think sometimes we are still stereotyped in the business world,” Boteler says. “I know I personally have experienced that. People will come in and they will want to talk to the president or owner, expecting a man. When a five-foot, 110-pound female comes out, they are very surprised.”

Boteler has sat on several board of directors, and many times these are predominantly male. But change is being seen.

“More women are being entrepreneurs and wanting to step out and be trendsetters,” Boteler says. “A lot of upper management is female. You are seeing that trend. In the past couple of decades, we have gone from women primarily being wives and stay-at-home moms to now most women being in the workforce because of the cost of living.”

In addition to the certification action, WBE also holds information workshops with guest speakers followed by networking opportunities. For example, a program March 26 in Tupelo at the Hilton Garden Inn titled “Mistakes to Avoid in Business” is being presented by Rubye Del Harden, RESULTS Inc.

Boteler says that women often have to learn business “by the seat of their pants.” It can save a lot of time and money to learn from the experiences of other business owners.

Another important women’s business group in the state is Mississippi Federation of Business & Professional Women (BPW). BPW provides networking opportunities at the local, state and national level. Through BPW meetings, conferences and other signature events, working women can meet to discuss, debate and propose solutions to issues affecting their personal and professional lives.

“Networking allows women to effectively exchange ideas, explore business opportunities and develop professional relationships with other working women,” says state BPW president Terri Grant Ulmer, who is the environmental, health and safety director for Falco Lime, a division of Mississippi Lime Company. “Often, they find mentors who assist them in developing their goals and perfecting the skills they need to advance in their profession.

“Networking also provides a conduit for making important contacts and establishing strategic alliances within the business community. Women who engage in networking benefit from being a part of a strong support system that offers encouragement, advice and opportunities that might otherwise not be available.”

Wage gap

Ulmer says women still face major challenges, including pay inequity. The 2006 Census Bureau reported that, on average, full-time workingwomen earned $0.77 for every $1.00 earned by a man for the same work with the same qualifications.

“Although the wage gap has improved slightly, the inequity continues to have a significant negative impact on working women,” Ulmer says. “ Not only does it reduce the amount of their paycheck each week, but it also reduces savings opportunities and other important wage-based benefits, particularly retirement income. Reduced wages result in lower 401(k) matching contributions and Social Security contributions. The wage disparity can have a life-long negative impact on workingwomen and their families.”

Another challenge many working women face is the struggle for work-life balance. Although men also can struggle with this issue, it is women who often find this an even more difficult challenge.

“Many women strive to maintain that ‘superwoman’ status by giving 100% to every area of their responsibility — family, home, work and community,” she says. “Effectively managing the responsibilities of motherhood, marriage, running a household and — for many — caring for aging or ill parents, while not slighting their career responsibilities, can be a daunting task and the source of unbelievable stress.”

While there are still some employers who frown on a woman’s absence from work to address family or other personal responsibilities, many more employers recognize the need to support employees’ other responsibilities and are striving to implement programs to promote work-life balance for all of their employees. Ulmer says some employers are offering flexible work hours, telecommuting options, employee assistance and dependent care programs to help their employees achieve the work-life balance they so de

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.sire.

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