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The third panel of our popular Women’s Empowerment Series continued the momentum. The topic, “Claiming your seat at the table,” inspired lively and candid conversation from our four high-achieving panelists. The night was full of laughter, advice and intimate revelations – proof that gathering women together in a room is always a powerful experience.

 

On claiming your seat at the table…

Very frequently people will say, “So what do you do for New Jersey American Water?” I’ll tell them I’m the president and they’ll go, “Oh, how nice.” I had one man actually say, “Well, woo-hoo!” I just laugh and move on, because there’s no reason to waste any energy there.
Cheryl Norton

When I started 19 years ago, there were very few seats. If you wanted one, you had to hustle and put the time in. I come from a very specific age group of journalists who hit the ground running and raised their hand for everything. We still work holidays, and we still work weekends. And now we have these interns coming in, and they’re like “I want a show.” I was like “Yeah, I want a show, too, but you have to put the work in and you have to get out there.” I don’t want to sound like my grandmother, but you do have to pay your dues.
Alicia Vitarelli

When I started at the Air Force Academy, it was 19% women. Ten years prior was the first women’s class, so I walked into it knowing it was going to be a nonstandard experience. The opportunities have expanded, so there’s more women at the table, but it’s still a very small number. It’s not uncommon for me to walk into a meeting and be the only female.
Jacqueline Breeden

 

On feeling out of place…

I almost turned down a job because I didn’t think the men were going to buy into reporting to a woman. But it didn’t take long at all to establish the fact that we
were in it together, and we were all part of one team.
Cheryl Norton

I was more cognizant early in my career, it was a little more intimidating then. But based on what’s required of you, you rise to the occasion. I’d like to think I’ve been doing it long enough that I’m gender neutral in a lot of ways, and I don’t think about it anymore.
Jacqueline Breeden

 

On sexism…

There’s a huge lawsuit in New York City. Five women I worked with at the beginning of my career are taking on the station, saying they can’t age gracefully the way
men can in this business.
Alicia Vitarelli

When I was an air crew member flying on big C-5 airplanes, I’d go back and eat my dinner after an 8-9 hour flight. I remember looking at the crew table reading material, and there was a “Men’s Health” and a “Maxim.” Not that I was offended, but you need to have the social awareness that you’re on a crew with a female, and maybe that wasn’t an appropriate place to put that.
Jacqueline Breeden

 

 

On social media…

I still need to learn how to step back from social media. I’m on it more than I
should be.
Helaina Semmler

The idea that the amount of likes could translate to something tangible is scary to me. My friend’s daughter said, “If I don’t get 100 likes on a picture, it’s a bad day.” There’s a lot of confidence that’s hinging on this glossy presentation. For me, the whole thing is to be authentic. Of course, we’re not all going to take a picture of our pile of dirty laundry and put it on Instagram.
Alicia Vitarelli

 

On pivotal moments…

Starting your career with the biggest and most tragic event you can think of on American soil, in your hometown, is really powerful. What I learned from 9/11 was how to listen to people. Before I thought I should be showing up prepared with all the questions already written. But then I needed to just listen to people and not know what my next question was until I heard what they said.
Alicia Vitarelli

I gave up doing orthopedic surgery because of the rampant sexism at the time. I had an MD, but not a specialty. I called my medical school and asked about radiology and they told me someone had just dropped out, so there was an opening. Even though the reason it happened isn’t great, I ended up in a great place and at a great practice.
Helaina Semmler

My husband was medically disqualified from flying for the Air Force, thankfully not from flying commercially. That really threw him for a loop. Now he’s the dad coming through the gate, and his wife is getting saluted. It was a very humbling experience for him, and that probably helped me in my own growth as a female in the military. I had someone at home who was struggling in his own way with what it meant it be with a strong female partner.
Jacqueline Breeden

 

On doing it all…

My daughter was 5 when I moved into management and leading a big team. And my husband worked a lot too. The way I did it was before I went to bed, I put a load of laundry in the wash. When I woke up in the morning, I put it in the dryer. And then I’d get her ready for school and fold that laundry before I went to work, take her to daycare and drop her off. She had to be picked up by 6, so there were a few nights when I’d call my husband frantically, because he was closer to her daycare than I was. You just balance it all. My gosh, how did I do that?
Cheryl Norton

The experience of trying to raise a child and have a career gives you an edge, to be quite honest, as a mom and as a female in the workplace.
Jacqueline Breeden

Women are still doing it all. But it’s because you feel you need to be everywhere and you want to be everywhere, so you make it happen somehow.
Alicia Vitarelli

Some days were hard, but overall I love my job and that makes it easier. If you don’t love your job, I can’t imagine how hard it would be.
Cheryl Norton

 

On personal sacrifice and guilt…

I have a lot of mom guilt from being in the military. I got six weeks of maternity leave. At eight weeks, I was deployed. My husband stepped up and became a single dad for, thankfully, only about five or six weeks. My two daughters have their own stories to tell as military dependents. My youngest went through three high schools before she graduated. But that’s where my guilt is. It’s more their sacrifice than mine.
Jacqueline Breeden

Everyone comes from a different place, but many women had a mom at home and a working dad. So we looked at that picture and said, “Ok, I’ve gone to college. I have this degree. I have this incredible opportunity, the doors are opening. But I should be at home, too.”
Alicia Vitarelli

My daughter is 24 now. She’s a mom of a 3-year-old and lives with us. It’s been an amazing experience to watch her become a mom and to see her get stronger and stronger. She told me three months ago, “Mom, I want to be like you.” That makes me feel good, but it also makes me kind of sad, too. I said “Well, I’m not sure I want you to take the same path I did, but I want you to be happy in life. I want you to have what makes you happy.”
Cheryl Norton

 

 

On Diversity…

I make an effort to hire for diversity – not just women, but diversity of thought. But more than hiring, I try to help women throughout the business get that opportunity to have a strong mentor, to be able to learn another side of the business and to believe they can do whatever
they want.
Cheryl Norton

For that older guard in every field, it’s harder for them to accept females in any role. But for the younger guys, it really is a different world, and they are much more accepting.
Helaina Semmler

Men in the military today are much more accepting of women in leadership positions than they were when I got started. Back then, it was very much the old guard still rotating through. That generation was not used to seeing women in the military at all, let alone in leadership positions.
Jacqueline Breeden

February 2020
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