The old adage that's "it's lonely at the top" is all too real for women in C-level positions. Women CEOs lead 167 of the top 3,000 companies in the US, according to a WSJ article from last February. While that number is double what it was in 2010, women still hold under 6% of CEO positions in those top companies.
In part two of this Mentor Spotlight series, Light Reading's Women in Comms caught up with Clearfield President and CEO Cheri Beranek to discuss how far the needle is moving for women in telecom that are interested in historically male-dominated roles – not only in the C-suite, but also in technical field positions. In addition, Beranek shares her advice for women interested in developing new skillsets, and how to manage work and family life during a pandemic.
Click here to read part one of this series.
Women in Comms: In your time in the industry, have you witnessed a significant improvement or changes to the gender gap?
Cheri Beranek: There are two different aspects of that – one is in field positions, and the other is in office or design positions. Historically in field positions, that's been an extremely male-dominated space in regard to the craft requirements. But I think what's happened in the last few years is just the turnover of people and the need for new skills has introduced opportunities for women in the field.
A few years ago, I was at an event and an executive from CenturyLink who said the average engineer at CenturyLink is a man, he's in his late 50s, and all he knows is copper. Now, that's changed a lot. CenturyLink is in a great place today, but that environment is what created the opportunity for women who wanted the ability to work with their hands, and have a good paying job working for telephone companies and contractors, in technical field positions.
There's a woman at Clearfield who runs our training department, and she worked for Cincinnati Bell climbing poles as a field tech 30 years ago, and now trains others. We offer certified training and have seen a number of women who have been interested in taking that type of skill training and bringing those skills into the field.
In more executive or office-type positions, it's kind of a double-edged sword. At Clearfield, about 25% of our professional positions are women. I had no political agenda to hire women, but we hire the best skill that's out there. As a result, we have a strong concentration of women in management.
Unfortunately, still at the higher ranks, in the Russell 3000, which is the 3,000 largest public companies in the country of which Clearfield is one, just over 5% of the CEOs in those 3,000 companies are women. If we take that down to the technology sector within it, it's only 2.5%.
We still have a long way to go. But the switch that came on with the COVID world and being able to work from home or anywhere is going to open up opportunities that we didn't have before.
WiC: Is there anything that companies should be doing differently to help women in tech move beyond middle management positions? It seems like if you have a pause in your career to start a family, for example, and then go back into the workforce, that it's easy to get "stuck" in middle management, but it's difficult to get to those C-level positions. What are some things that companies can do to support women on that career trajectory?
CB: I've been fortunate; I had male mentors who were really in a position of championing my opportunities. When I came back to work after my second child was born, I was promoted to vice president that day. That was having someone who understood my ambitions, but I was also juggling things because I still checked in with the office every day and often brought my son with me even though I was technically on maternity leave.
The COVID world is going to help companies to allow people to block out time where time management doesn't mean eight to five. Meaning that you can make an appointment with yourself, you make an appointment with your kids, and you make an appointment with the office, but that it doesn't have to be a definitive eight to five standpoint. We all need core hours, but it doesn't have to be the eight to five period.
The other that has to happen is that women have to believe that they deserve it and put themselves out there. There's a confidence that you bring into a room. Over the course of my 30 years, I was often the only woman in a room. You can allow yourself to be intimidated or you can put yourself in a position of not trying to be one of the guys, but use the fact that you're one of the only women in the room to get the attention for what you can do and use that to your advantage.
WiC: Do you have advice for women on continuing education, especially during COVID? I imagine it's difficult to go in-person to a university, but any thoughts on online programs that women can take advantage of or how to continue networking when the opportunities are mostly virtual?
CB: Moving forward, it's not going to be so much about full degrees as it is about learning a particular skill, so just taking an extra class to keep your brain charged and to be able to learn new things and think differently. Find a class that interests you – it doesn't have to be in the technology space. It can be any class that encourages you to think differently.
WiC: We're fortunate that there are a lot of new opportunities like LinkedIn Learning, for example, where you can take those one-off classes.
CB: It's important in this COVID funk. I've really had an issue with the term "virtual meetings" – these are very real meetings, take the word "virtual" out of your vocabulary. If you were involved in a non-profit before, for example, continue to do that but just in a new way.
I've been involved in a couple of women's groups, one is the Women's Presidents Organization (WPO). We meet on Zoom not from a standpoint of having a business meeting, but as a peer network to help each other's businesses, and also to help each other emotionally and spiritually – having somebody to lean on.
I've also been part of a group called C200, which is a national group for women that are C-level executives in enterprise companies, or who have founded organizations that have tapped over $100 million. That group is really involved in working with college students and giving back.
That's helping the COVID funk for me. We need to get to a point where we're just not talking about the spread of the disease, but we're talking about how we can grow our businesses or become better people. I have a lot of people, and I hope I'm one of them, that are "bouncers" – we bounce ideas off of each other. I would encourage people to create bounce groups – be a bouncer for someone else and find yourself a bouncer that it gives you a safe place to talk.
WiC: Maybe work-life balance isn't even the right phrase anymore because everything seems to be blended together. With that in mind, what's your recommendation for women who may feel a bit stretched working from home? You mentioned that Clearfield has core hours, which provides some flexibility, but what's your advice for women that are trying to balance working, but also a new teacher role for their children as well?
CB: It's not a balance – it's a teeter totter, and it's no fun to try to balance a teeter totter, right? You're just sitting across from each other and nothing's happening, and that's where you get into the funk. Allow it to have ups and downs, and go with the flow, and don't get so uptight about it. Enjoy the ride.
Second, make an appointment with yourself. If your kids are old enough, make an appointment with your kids and involve them in the process of setting the calendar. One of the things I didn't do a really good job of myself was helping my kids in time management skills because I did it all for them. I thought I had to do it because I only had so many hours a day that I was at home, so they didn't learn how to do it. If your kids are old enough, have them help you build that time schedule.
Finally, give yourself a break. This is a world that will hopefully never be repeated. There is no prescription on how to do this. Whatever works for you on that on that day, or that minute on that day is just fine. Take a week and write a diary of everything you did and then you'll celebrate what you actually did get done.
— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading