Survey the boardrooms in the Akron area and it’s not difficult to find a preponderance of white men.
At FirstEnergy Corp., the nation’s largest electric utility, the company’s website lists 15 board members. Only two are women, two are African-American.
On the 12-member Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. board there are fewer: one woman, one African-American.
It’s a trend that carries into the nonprofit sector.
A study released this week by the John S. and James L. Knight and GAR foundations shows that nonprofits with the most money and the greatest focus on economic development are heavily skewed toward men — about 85 percent of the seats.
Where do women dominate? The low-?budget nonprofits.
African-Americans have a more proportional representation.
The imbalance hasn’t been lost on a group of women who believe waiting for diversity isn’t good enough.
“We envision a community where diversity is ‘top of mind,’ and where differences are embraced rather than eschewed,” said local attorney Karen Lefton.
Lefton’s group, which has a tongue-in-cheek name, Women Up to No Good Again, or WUTNGA, is seeking funding to launch a Leadership Diversity Alliance. They would like to have conversations with leaders and the community in various forums.
“We want to be careful in not offending the male leadership,” said Lefton, 57. “We don’t mean to diss them or be critical.”
But, she said, the question must be asked: “How can we put the young people and minorities and the immigrant population in a position to use their skills and talents for the good of the community? Many of them can’t because for one reason or another, they don’t fit into that mold.”
Lefton is among 11 businesswomen who began to look for a new project after some had worked together to raise $2 million in 2013 for the Akron Community Foundation’s Women’s Endowment Fund.
Other advocates include Summit County Councilwoman Ilene Shapiro, Omnova Solutions Foundation CEO Theresa Carter and Laura Culp, a partner at BCG & Co. and past president of the Leadership Akron Alumni Association.
They homed in on spurring conversation at the highest levels that would improve representation of women and minorities in leadership.
“We think this is a grand experiment and Akron is a petri dish for growing a culture of inclusion,” Lefton said.
Now or later?
For a long time, women have been the majority population in Summit County, but not in leadership.
And there is a new dynamic: American Community Survey statistics show that racial and ethnic composition is changing. Recent Summit County numbers are not available, but nationally, of baby boomers age 65 to 69 in 2009, only 15 percent were nonwhite; but of young people age 20 to 25, 23 percent were nonwhite.
Younger people view the world from a more diverse perspective than boomers.
“I see the younger generations being much more accepting of changes,” said Virginia Albanese, 51, the chief executive officer and president of FedEx Custom Critical in Green.
“I see with my own children, when you watch the way our children look at, take to, accept and don’t even see when there’s an interracial couple in school,” said Albanese, the mother of two teenagers. “They’re blind to that. I’m hoping we’re getting to that when it comes to same-sex couples. I see us moving away from being so black and white, husband and wife.
A question is whether women and minorities should be patient, or whether there should be aggressive change now.
Albanese said there are methods to creating diversity, but we’re also seeing the natural flow.
Women and minorities “are going to be the people rising up in business. I don’t think it’s a bunch of white guys at the moment because [of] intolerance. I do believe we’re on this pathway towards a community of leaders who look more representative of the community,” said Albanese.
Her husband chose to quit his job to stay at home, and she is accustomed to being singled out in a crowd of male leaders as the female CEO of a trucking company.
Someday, those role choices won’t be noticed.
“We need to educate the community on the value of diversity because diversity is not having a quota: ‘Let’s have two women and two people of color.’ Diversity has to be intentional and people have to understand why it’s valuable,” Albanese said.
Bernett Williams is an African-American woman who led the Akron Urban League into a modern community service organization before joining Akron Children’s Hospital as vice president of external affairs.
A longtime resident of the Akron area, she’s critical of the community’s progress toward diversity on boards.
“We’re not doing well,” she said. “We’re doing poorly. That’s what I would say in terms of board service. In terms of really senior leadership in institutions and people working their way up, I think there are people in the pipeline.
“I think that there’s a significant opportunity for us to bring more people into the pipeline and to help people be better prepared,” said Williams, 49, who was named to head the Akron Urban League in her late 20s. She moved to Akron Children’s in 2011.
Williams has taken on a question raised by African-American graduates of Leadership Akron: Why aren’t more African-Americans applying for the program or getting involved in the community? The initiative has been expanded to include other minority populations.
“We have to be deliberate about nurturing our young professionals and preparing them. We have to be deliberate about minorities and … acknowledge the business proposition of being diverse and I mean in all spectrums,” Williams said.
Challenges for moms
Albanese said that for women who are mothers, climbing up the corporate ladder is difficult.
“For women who are going to want to be on the [chief-level] track, I would suggest there are sacrifices that do have to be made. Luckily, in my case, I had a husband who chose to stay home. There are lots of two-income families. Hire help and don’t try to do it all yourself,” said Albanese.
And as corporate leaders, there can be ways to still encourage and mentor a working mother, she said.
Often, working mothers “end up putting themselves in a track that’s not the track to the top, or they adjust their schedule because they have children. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. The question as an employer is ‘How do I keep that person engaged?’ When the kids may not need you as much, how do you then send them back into the track or keep them on track?” Albanese said.
Albanese gave the example of a working mother who was on the managerial track, but wanted to reduce her hours when her kids were young. She went part time as a manager, “but she was still a key contributor ... her kids are grown and almost off to college and she holds a very important job for us now.”
Amanda Leffler, 37, is a young working mother of two young girls, who works at finding that work-life balance between her family, her job and her community involvement.
An attorney, Leffler was named partner at Akron firm Brouse McDowell when she was 32. She served as the president of the young professionals group Torchbearers two years ago. She’s currently in the Leadership Akron class and serves on the United Disabilities Services board. She recently transitioned off a few boards, including the Akron Bar Association and Child Guidance & Family Solutions.
Leffler said she never felt she was treated any differently as a woman leader among her male counterparts. But she knows that she and other working mothers have had to make difficult choices.
“I think it’s very difficult for young moms to make choices that take them away from their families,” she said. Leffler’s husband, Dan, picks up extra family duties with their two daughters, Abby, 4, and Avery, 3, so Leffler can fit in her community involvement.
In the legal field, there has been a push among working mothers to step off the track and want the career waiting upon a person’s return, said Leffler.
“You are not going to be able to become partner as quickly if you take time off or go part time,” she said. “Those are the hard choices women have to make every day.”
Leffler said she has declined opportunities.
“I’m not at a point in my life where I want to sacrifice that amount of time. I want to do the best I can to balance the things that are important to me: family, life, work and God. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way,” she said.
Women take over
Finding women role models at the top of organizations — both private and nonprofit — is difficult, said Amber Genet, president of the Downtown Akron Partnership Emerging Leaders and member of Akron Torchbearers, a young leadership group.
“Who’s my mentor? Who am I looking up to?” Genet, 30, said, referring to the small number of women in leadership positions in Akron.
Yet, Genet, an event planner for Westfield Insurance, is among those who recognize that diversity is more natural among millennials.
The 15-member Torchbearers board of directors for 2015 has 10 women, three of whom are African-American.
Kyle Kutuchief, last year’s president, said there have been times that men had to be recruited for leadership because it was heavily skewing toward women.
And it’s just not a trend at Torchbearers. Genet’s organization, the Downtown Akron Partnership Emerging Leaders, has two men on its board of 12.
And when Genet and the presidents of the five young professionals groups in Akron — Torchbearers, Downtown Akron Partnership Emerging Leaders, Young Professionals of Akron, Young Professionals Network and ArtCetera — get together quarterly, it’s four women leaders and one male.
“When you talk about one generation, it’s all men and when you look at the next generation, it’s mostly women,” said Genet. “I don’t know what the motivator behind it is.”
For leaders now, though, it has to be intentional, said Albanese at FedEx.
“If you want a diverse organization, you have to really keep a focus on it. You definitely want the right candidate. Do not mishear that. But the question is, I always like to refer to it as you have to fish in many ponds to get diverse candidates.
“If you keep fishing in a bass pond and hope to catch trout, likely you might, there might be a few in there. But you’ll catch bass. If you want to catch trout, you have to go find out where the trout are,” said Albanese.
Coming next: The millennial generation brings culture change.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.