Kimberly Hunter arrived in Asheville 13 years ago from her native Southern California expecting to find a vibrant textile industry where she could further her career in fashion.
“I moved here sight unseen, never heard of Asheville,” says Hunter, who now works as the entrepreneurship program manager for Mountain BizWorks. “Then got here and realized that [what I had read] wasn’t necessarily true!”
With her career plans suddenly up in the air, Hunter began brainstorming ways to fit her skills to the Asheville market. “I looked around and thought, ‘What’s similar to fashion and textiles?’” she remembers. The answer, it turns out, was the wedding industry.
“There’s a catwalk, there’s a runway, there’s people strutting down the catwalk while people clap,” she laughs. “So I started a wedding business that I ended up converting into an event meeting production company.”
Hunter is just one example of local female entrepreneurs who have used Asheville as a springboard to bring innovative visions to their chosen profession, either by starting their own business or rising into the leadership ranks of established organizations.
As more women work toward leadership roles in the local workforce, female business leaders and local organizations are working to provide the encouragement and resources necessary to help them attain equity and advancement in the workplace. Sharing their wealth of experiences, these community leaders are hoping they can lay the groundwork for the next generation of successful women professionals.
Numbers and realities
In 2010, the Asheville-area labor force participation rate [for women] was roughly equal to both the state of North Carolina and the U.S., at almost 60 percent, according to Julie Anderson, a research associate for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, citing a 2013 report her organization produced on women in the Asheville metropolitan area.
Yet women still earn less than men on average, about 80 cents to the dollar, notes Anderson. While the wage gap has narrowed slightly in the past decade, “the reason why is that men’s wages went down more than women’s,” she reveals. “That’s not the good way to close the wage gap — we need to be moving in the other direction.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the types of industries where women predominantly find employment locally follow traditional trends. While health care (75.2 percent of the total workforce) and education (62.4 percent) show strong percentages of women employees in Asheville, other industries, such as maintenance occupations (3.2 percent of total industry employees) and the IT sector (1 percent of industry employees), are still largely male-dominated.
But statistics, says Hunter, may not show the innovation women are bringing to a host of industries. “We’re finding that in many wellness or outdoor-based businesses, women are taking a scientific approach to those business models,” she notes. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with just being in a certain industry, but what they’re bringing to other industries that incorporate tech and science.”
According to data gathered by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, there were 10,468 women-owned firms in Buncombe County in 2012, up 26.9 percent from 2007. During that time period, annual revenues from women-owned businesses increased $449,764,000.
Asheville was recently ranked 23rd out of 383 metro areas nationwide as the “Best Place for Women Entrepreneurs to Launch Their Business” by the GoodCall consumer data center. GoodCall’s report cited “robust educational values for women, a thriving post-recession economy and a high density of female business owners” as factors why Asheville ranked higher than many other locations in the country.
Climbing the ladder
Within established companies and industries, women accounted for 43.2 percent of management occupations in Buncombe County in 2014, up from 42.1 percent, while median earnings for women in these roles rose from $35,400 in 2010 to $46,500 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of the larger employers within the Asheville region, several report a majority or significant percentage of women making up their total workforce. “Our management team is 45 percent female,” says Tracey Johnston-Crum, director of public relations for OMNI Grove Park Inn, “and our overall workforce is 50 percent female.”
At the Biltmore Estate, 55 percent of its employees are female, according to Vice President of Human Resources Vicki Banks. “It’s nice to see so many different organizations and things you can get involved in as a woman [in Asheville], to kind of build your professional skills,” she says. “I know here at Biltmore, there’s more women than men in those roles, which is a little bit unique.”
In the Buncombe County Schools system, women have long played a crucial role across the various levels of employment, says Cynthia Lopez, the school system’s personnel director.
However, she notes a shift toward female representation “in areas where we didn’t historically have it, like in our high schools, at the principalship level. In our maintenance department, for example, we’ve just hired a female who’s a specialist on climate issues, which has generally been a role where we’ve mostly had males.”
Closing the gap
WNC native Laura Webb, the founder and owner of Asheville’s Webb Investment Services and a board member of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, recalls the skepticism she encountered taking an investment class as a student at UNC Chapel Hill. “The funny thing was, I’d sort of inquired into the class, and the professor totally dismissed [the idea].”
Undaunted, Webb took the class and continued on to work with various investment firms in the Southeast after graduation. “I was able to get my securities license; at the time, I was the youngest person in the system to get that,” she says. “Then I went to work for a large money management firm and ended up being the first female regional VP there.”
Webb’s accomplishments, however, remain an outlier in the investment world. “It’s a male-dominated business; most of the women worked in support roles,” she says. “In my industry, there’s still only 12 to 17 percent women that are financial advisers, and fewer that own their own businesses.”
Why the disparity? Dixon Hughes Goodman assurance manager Kendra Ferguson, who also leads the company’s local Women Forward committee, says DHG has identified three primary barriers that still exist for women seeking leadership roles in the workplace: a lack of career advocates, or established women leaders to help other women access leadership roles; a lack of visible role models within workplace leadership for other women to aspire to; and societal norms that conflict with the demands of a profession.
“Without a volume and diversity of women role models, it is difficult for many women to aspire to partnership and to leadership roles in a firm,” says Ferguson. Additionally, “women have traditionally absorbed most of the child care, elder care and household responsibilities.”
Hunter concurs that women often seek different metrics for determining what type of job suits them best. “Balance, the ability to come and go as needed, based on other priorities such as home life, and that also feed other parts of that person’s nature [are important to many women],” she notes. “It’s really related to how they think and see growth. That you’re not in it alone, to have equal accountability and equal say, as well as the ability to make independent decisions.”
But as the ideas around what constitutes good leadership in professional settings change, Banks believes that women will have more access to leadership positions, based on their proclivity to focus on collaboration. “Leadership is no longer a dictatorship, or the old-school ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. Leaders are now embracing the coaching perspective,” Banks notes. “Even in the leadership courses that I go to that are taught by men, they acknowledge that those type of skills seem to come a bit easier to women.”
Empowering women to reach their potential in the business world, or branch out into nontraditional female roles, often means enforcing the message at a young age, notes Anderson. “There’s some concern that maybe there just isn’t enough sort of frank information for younger women, when you’re still in school, about the potential earnings for different occupations.”
To combat bias in the workplace and develop a supportive framework for young women, established female leaders need to move to the forefront, says Tony Baldwin, superintendent of the Buncombe County Schools system.
“I’ve got two daughters and a granddaughter,” he says, “and I do think it’s important for those daughters and granddaughters to have in front of them strong female leadership models, so that they understand that we live in a country and environment where they have just as much a chance to be maybe even president of the United States.”
Baldwin notes that his district is making an effort to encourage students to consider occupations and skills that they may not have before. At the Nesbitt Discovery Academy, for example, administrators make a conscious effort to bring in female leaders from science, technology, engineering and math-based careers.
“Having that role model in front of students, recognizing that there is a difference in terms of the number of females versus males that are going into these STEM careers, [is crucial],” he says.
Symbol of success
But finding an appropriate role model and mentor can be difficult, notes Anderson. “If most of the people at the top are men, they may not consciously be giving that sort of informal support and information to women coming up through the ranks. It’s hard to imagine yourself in certain roles if you never see someone like you doing that sort of thing.”
Providing that female role model is a mission professionals like Paula Wilber, vice president of sales for Biltmore and the first female chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, take to heart. She says unity and a stronger voice are needed from women leaders across the spectrum to overcome bias in the workplace.
“[There is] misunderstanding of the abilities and capabilities women hold,” Wilber notes. “There’s a need for more women-based associations that promote the connection of women in business on a local level.”
Connecting young female professionals with established women in their chosen business, says Webb, can “encourage young women to take risks and push themselves — providing that proverbial hand on the back. You can’t do it for them, but you can give them that nudge.”
A helping hand
Developing a strong network of colleagues that one can reach out to can also provide a vast array of resources to young women entrepreneurs. “Having friends and peers in and outside of your business can really help you leverage and be more successful,” says Webb. “Getting feedback on personal issues, practice management issues, financial planning issues — I have at any given time this network I can go to.”
Organizations and local community groups also play a role in facilitating support networks and events for young female entrepreneurs. DHG recently hosted its second annual Women Forward Asheville event on Oct. 6, which featured successful female leaders from the Asheville community.
Similar to DHG’s event, Webb has organized the first in what she hopes will become a series of meetings called WomanUP (Unlimited Potential) on Nov. 10, sponsored by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
WomanUP’s breakfast kickoff event will feature keynote speaker Pamela Ryckman, the author of Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business, in addition to an awards ceremony recognizing local female business leaders in three categories: Best in Business; Woman Executive of the Year; and Outstanding Women in NonProfit.
Webb says that Ryckman was chosen to be the keynote speaker due to her book’s powerful message on being a woman in a leadership role who’s also comfortable in her own skin. “When I was coming up, we were supposed to look and dress like men: Wear your suit, all that,” she notes. “What’s cool is now, that’s not the case. You can be a capable, strong leader and not have to be in this mode. I noticed that and really took it to heart.”
Beyond gender roles
Ferguson says events like Women Forward not only offer an “insider” perspective on panelists’ personal paths to professional leadership and the challenges faced along the way, but can have a valuable impact on men attendees as well: “Many of the men in attendance had not yet heard of or had any experience with some of the challenges described by our panelists.”
Having males recognize the inequities in the system, even if they do not knowingly partake in them, can be key to solving the imbalance, says David Worley, a partner with Worley, Woodbery & Melton Public Accounting firm. He cites a report by the American Institute of CPAs which notes that while “women represent more than 50 percent of the accounting graduates entering the profession in the last 20 years, [they] make up only 19 percent of the partners in accounting firms nationwide.”
“In my case, having male partners for nearly all of my accounting career, the transition to female partners has been both rewarding and revealing,” says Worley, who will be retiring at the end of the year and handing the reins of his business to his two female associates, Rhonda Woodbery and Cassie Melton. After years spent working with male partners, Worley notes that “in Rhonda and Cassie, I find the best partners that I have had.”
When looking at base statistics such as the wage gap and women’s employment in certain industries, an often overlooked component is the inequities faced by women from minority communities.
“A lot of times we just talk about women overall and their wages, but when you look at black women or Latinas, their wages are much much lower than women overall,” says Anderson. “If there is sort of double discrimination based on both gender and race, that is going to make this a tougher problem to tackle.”
According to statistics compiled by the IWPR on North Carolina, Hispanic women have the lowest median annual earnings of any ethnic group, at just $23,000, while African-American women earned a median annual income of $30,000, both lower than the $35,000 median income for women in North Carolina overall.
Baldwin says that schools must make a more conscious effort to ensure that young women are not only exposed to female role models, but ones they can identify with culturally. “It’s not only male/female: We believe we have to serve our Hispanic and African-American students in the same way,” he notes. “It’s important for us to try and attract and retain leadership and role models that are Hispanic/Latino or African-American.”
Beyond education, making a concerted effort to support minority business leaders can go a long way toward reducing inequality in the workplace, says Hunter. “[Mountain BizWorks] very much focuses on where the pools of minorities are who are looking to start a business, and what resources we have that they can connect to, to help them grow that business.”
While she acknowledges that inequity is a reality in the current workforce, Hunter believes that a change in the way we approach how we look at these issues as a community can have long-term positive effects. “When equity is about access to excellence, equity will rise. When it stops becoming a gender thing or a race thing, and we’re just giving people access to excellence, and that becomes the equalizer, so many of the dynamics shift.”
Working toward the future
While women still face obstacles in attaining that access to excellence in many regards, business leaders and organizations around Asheville believe that the city and surrounding area are the perfect place to effect change in the system.
“You look at some of the women entrepreneurs around here — I feel like this environment is pretty open,” says Webb. “There’s a lot of capable, powerful, thoughtful, lovely women who are not just business owners, but are leaders in this community.”
For her part, Wilber says established leaders should do more to make time to reach out to young women professionals. “Offer to speak at educational forums, volunteer or work with your own business to implement an on-the-job internship program,” she advises, adding that younger women must be encouraged to stay true to their dreams and take a leap of faith when the situation calls for it. “We all learn lessons along the way, [and] should you fall on your face, I always say, ‘Well at least your are headed in the right direction. Pick yourself up and keep going.’”
Anderson believes that residents should explore the reasons behind wage and employment inequality, and recognize the fact that it affects more than just women.
“Women being underpaid really has ripple effects that go all the way up to the national scale — it not only impacts the family, but is much broader,” she says. “I think once we accept that, things like paid family leave, paid sick days, schedule predictability, more aggressive pay transparency and more affordable quality child care will follow.”
“Success is different for everybody,” Banks notes. “What does that mean for women, and especially women who may take a few years off to be with their children and then come back into the workplace? Having resources available to them to stay up to speed in their field, and businesses being more flexible and recognizing that there’s different needs for women than men, is important.”
In that sense, Asheville can serve as a model to the rest of the state and country, says Hunter. “I know firsthand that it’s possible, it’s happening, and the opportunities are increasing whether you’re a woman or not,” she says. “All things are not equal, but if you just want it, and you’re willing to look for the resources and ask for help and get in there and do it, this is the region for that.”