March is Women’s History Month, and four of the area’s most prominent female leaders recently came together to discuss their paths to success and challenges along the way.
The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club organized the event, “Women Rule the World,” March 1 at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Kimberly Jackson, executive director for St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, moderated the discussion.
Panelists included Brandi Gabbard, St. Petersburg City Council chairperson; Christian Hardigree, regional chancellor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; and Lisa Cane, Pinellas County School Board chairperson.
Following introductions, Jackson asked the speakers to describe obstacles they overcame early in their careers, which often involved raising a family. Hardigree relayed that as a practicing attorney also hoping to gain tenure at a university, an administrative supervisor once told her he could not wait three months to accommodate maternity leave.
“So, I had a c-section and returned to work four days later on a part-time basis,” Hardigree said. “I was breastfeeding – I would be pumping in my office. It was not a comfortable situation.”
She explained those experiences now inform her decisions and the environments she creates as a leader. Once Hardigree became president of that same institution, she passed a campus-wide “stop the clock” tenure policy so women could focus on family.
Gabbard explained that in her mid 30s, she was the youngest board member for a county realtor organization. A colleague told her that if she had a child, “all of this is gone.”
Not one to back down from a challenge, she sat in boardrooms “very pregnant” and once brought her six-week-old baby rather than missing a meeting. Gabbard said she became the organization’s youngest president.
As a city council member, Gabbard noted she was the only person on the dais raising young children. She knocked on a constituent’s door to ask for a vote one day, and the female resident asked why Gabbard’s husband wasn’t canvassing so she could stay home with the kids.
“So, it’s not just men that marginalize – it’s women too,” Gabbard added. “If you stop every time someone said, ‘you can’t do this and that,’ where would we be?”
“The people who say, ‘no you can’t,’ they don’t know what you’re built of.”
Cane said that ideology made her not want children at a young age, and she thought giving birth to her oldest daughter at 20 diminished her chances for professional success. Cane said she cried daily for two-and-a-half years.
Her education was unfinished, and Cane said she had no money or plan. She recalled sitting at home with a baby in her arms “and nothing but responsibility.”
However, she picked herself up and began taking a “glass half-full” approach, something she carries today. Cane also brought her kids to work and said she understands what it feels like as a mom, “hoping it’s not your kid in the back room making that disruption.”
“It’s important for them to see me doing something important for the community,” Cane said. “They are going to learn how to be leaders that way. If they’re watching me do what I love, then they are going to learn to do what they love. And I kept telling myself that through the journey.”
Shattering glass ceilings
Hardigree recalled interviewing a female leader 20 years ago who told her something profound. She said that rather than glass, the barrier for women was more like plastic wrap; “a few poke through, but that doesn’t open it for everyone.”
Hardigree elaborated that BIPOC women (Black, Indigenous and people of color) earn less than she does, which, according to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau study, is 83 cents for every male-earned dollar.
“Hispanic women, for example, make about 69 cents to every dollar in the same job classification,” Harigree said. “Sometimes our parents have trained us to be quiet. Don’t make a fuss, don’t ask for stuff.”
As such, she stressed the importance of women mentoring and uplifting each other. In addition, Hardigree said people should have the space to make mistakes, learn and grow.
Gabbard relayed her pride to sit on St. Petersburg’s first female supermajority city council. That included Councilmembers Gina Driscoll, Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Lisset Hanewicz, and former Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
She also credited former City Councilmembers Amy Foster and Darden Rice for their big “take on the world” personalities. Despite that progress, Gabbard believes the work remains unfinished.
She said society often characterizes female leaders as too strong, harsh and unapproachable. Gabbard said many people still fail to honor a woman’s intellect, subject expertise and leadership ability.
She explained how she never wanted to become a politician, only an advocate. Gabbard also promised herself that she would never sacrifice integrity for future votes, and to do what she believes is best based on available information.
“Because I’ve had to revisit the conversation in my head, time and time again, I can say that is what I have done,” Gabbard said. “I know there are lots of things I have said or voted on the people didn’t necessarily agree with, but I hope at the end of the day, they always know I did it with my integrity.”