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St. Petersburg leaders look to the next frontiers in gender diversity on the job

Margie Manning

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Gender equality panelsts at USF St. Petersburg's Kate Tiedemann College of Business (from left): Scott Smith, president, St. Anthony's Hospital; Kanika Tomalin, St. Petersburg deputy mayor and city administrator; Selisse Berry, founder, Out and Equal; Lynn Heckler, executive vice president and chief talent officer, PSCU; and Cal Jackson, director, diversity & inclusion global programs, Tech Data

Most businesses still have work to do in providing gender parity.

The next frontiers in gender diversity will include increased access to C-suite position as well as opportunities for women of color and transgender individuals, local corporate, government and civic leaders said during a panel discussion as part of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Kate Tiedemann College of Business Women and Leadership Initiative.

“While we’re making progress there’s still tremendous work to be done,” said Lynn Heckler, executive vice president and chief talent officer at St. Petersburg-based credit union services organization PSCU. “The hard work is taking this awareness and somehow turning it into true action and sustainable change. That is difficult work because we’re working against social norms that have been deeply rooted in our society for years. The roles of women, the roles of men, and the rules of business that were written by men. They were there first. Now we have to look at systemically how do we create change in our workplaces.”

The healthcare, technology and financial service industries all lack women in executive positions, panelists said.

“We don’t have gender parity,” said Scott Smith, president of St. Anthony’s Hospital. More than four of every five front-line workers in healthcare — 83 percent — are female, but only 43 percent of the C-suite and other executives in the industry are women, he said. “I think that’s the real challenge, where we need to make some improvements. Ultimately we’re better served with more reflective representation.”

In the tech industry, there’s a similar situation, including at Tech Data (Nasdaq: TECD), an IT distributor in Clearwater and the largest publicly traded company headquartered in the Tampa-St. Pete area, with 14,500 global employees.

“We are 50-50 when it comes to men and women in our organization, but that number changes greatly as you move into the C-suite,” said CaI Jackson, director of diversity & inclusion global programs at Tech Data. “I work for the chief human resources officer,  and she is the only woman officer in our company and the first in in our 45-year history. She’s been there three years.”

If technology isn’t doing a good job, financial services are doing worse, particularly Wall Street firms and large national banks, where there are no female CEOs, Heckler said. Community banks have a better record on gender parity, as do credit unions, but the statistics on credit unions can be misleading, she said.

“In one breath, I’m proud to tell you that 53 percent of credit union CEOs are female …but when you start to stratify by asset size, looking at credit unions that are over $1 billion in assets and mega credit unions over $5 billion in assets, the number of female CEOs drops off precipitously. There, we look like the rest of corporate America,” Heckler said.

On the positive side, awareness around gender parity as well as historic inequities around women of color are rising, Jackson said.

“The women’s movement previously separated itself between white women and women of color who wanted to include the fight for civil rights and they pushed them out. They also pushed out lesbians as a part of that, so it was straight white women who wanted to get the mic and get in front of the cameras,” Jackson said. “We know now the intersectionality of all of those dimensions of diversity have to be a part of building gender equity in all of our organizations.”

Many companies have adopted a version of the “Rooney Rule,” a National Football League policy that requires NFL teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs, Jackson said.

“More companies are saying you are not going to move forward with that hire at a VP level or above if you don’t have a diverse candidate … You must have at least one, two or whatever number persons of color and women within that slate. Not just in the slate, but interviewed face to face, before you move forward,” Jackson said. “Many of them, believe it or not in 2020, have for the first time sat in front of a woman of color CIO, chief information officer over IT, and realized she’s not a woman of color CIO. She’s a phenomenal candidate.”

Businesses also need to treat transgender individuals on an equal basis, said Selisse Berry, founder and former CEO of Out and Equal, a nonprofit organization focused on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer workplace equality.

“Transgender people in general are unemployed and underemployed. Historically when people would decide to transition, they would leave their current job, and then apply for a new job with a new identity,” said Berry, who recently moved to St. Petersburg. “Our role at Out and Equal is to help people understand you are losing not just an employee, but the skill set and training this person has been through. Wouldn’t it make sense for you to continue looking at your own policies and to make sure that person feels comfortable?”

Local government can play a role by educating and creating consensus around the morale mandates of equality, said Kanika Tomalin, St. Petersburg deputy mayor and city administrator.

She cited a recent pay audit by the city.

“We looked at our internal pay policies and did a test to make sure we are not paying anybody who does the same job with the same experience different pay,” Tomalin said. “Usually when we are dealing with budget implications, sometimes our aspirations get mired in practicality. We haven’t been able to afford our aspirations. But there was zero debate that if any woman was being paid less than a man for the same work that we would change that, even without knowing what the price tag was.”

The audit did not find disparities in pay, she said, and the city has now “hard wired” the practices to make sure that remains the case and the audit happens regularly.

The next step for businesses and other organizations is beyond numbers, Smith said.

“At some point in time you have to internalize that we are better off as an organization by not being insular. It’s easy to be insular, to go out and recruit people who look like you and groom people that answer the way you want them to answer. It’s harder to grow an organization with a strong culture that’s willing to challenge one another,” he said.

Change is coming, Heckler said, addressing an audience largely made up of USF St. Pete students.

“This generation is going to be the generation that fixes it,” she said. “Demographically the Millennials and Gen Z population are naturally diverse. We’re not going to have to focus on diversity because diversity just is for them. We’re going to have to focus on inclusion in the corporations and creating the environment where I can cast a net, get diverse employees, but if I don’t have an environment where they feel welcome and comfortable and able to contribute, to bring their whole self to work, they’re going to go.”

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