The times have never been more testing for women. And yet, in some ways, women have never been more powerful.
That was a theme that resonated throughout the third annual Westchester Women’s Summit (WWS), held on Friday, March 10, at the Sonesta White Plains Downtown hotel.
“…Now women are facing yet another layer of challenges,” said New York state Attorney General Letitia James, one of two groundbreaking African American women whose remarks bookended the day-long event. (CNN political analyst April Ryan, the longest-serving African American female White House correspondent in history, delivered the breakfast keynote to some 300 attendees.)
Unemployment, balancing work, home school and caregiving were just some of the challenges that James — the first woman of color to hold statewide office in New York and the first woman to be elected the state’s attorney general — listed in her afternoon talk.
“Women lost a million more jobs than men during parts of the pandemic,” she continued. “That’s because the parts of the economy that shutdown first were hospitality, retail, education, health care, all industries dominated by….” Here James held up her hands for the audience to finish her sentence with one word — “women.”
Key findings from the Westchester Women’s Agenda’s “2022 Report on the Status of Women in Westchester,” www.wwagenda.org presented by Lisa Boillot at the luncheon, echoed many of James’ comments. In a county that has become increasingly older and diverse yet remains one of the most expensive places in which to live and work, the report concluded, women struggle more than men and Black and Hispanic women struggle more than White women across all sectors. Some of the statistics that jumped out included:
Crisis calls to domestic violence hotlines are up 39% over pre-pandemic levels;
The cost of childcare in the county rose 21% in the last decade to $22,836 annually — among the highest in the nation — and yet childcare is one of the most poorly paid occupations;
Women make up only 26% of the leadership/board positions of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Westchester, and none have female CEOs. Meanwhile, women in leadership positions at the top 10 nonprofits in the county have declined from 78% to 55% (from 2015 to 2022). Only three of these groups are now led by women.
Still, women continue to make incremental advances. Women in county government positions increased from 37% to 46%, while voter registration by women increased 26% — accounting for fully 52% of the electorate.
James drew attention to Equal Pay Day (Tuesday, March 14) — the date that symbolizes how far into the new year women have to work to equal what men earned the previous year. In New York state, full-time employed women make 84.5% of the weekly earnings of similarly employed men.)
“Do you want to be paid the same as men?” she asked the assembled. Getting a tepid response, she said, “Oh, come on, do you want to be paid the same as men?” To which the crowd then responded with “whoops” and hollers, with some even shouting “more.”
She galvanized the throng as did the luncheon’s Trailblazer panel — Fiona Bruder, president, Americas, George P. Johnson Experience Marketing; Kimberly B. Davis senior executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs at the National Hockey League; and Dee DelBello, CEO and owner, Westfair Communications Inc., parent company of the Westchester and Fairfield County Business Journals and the e-newsletters Wake Up With Westfair and News at Noon. Their conversation was moderated by Dana Tyler, anchor of CBS News New York at 6 p.m. Some of the takeaways from that conversation:
Know your worth — No doubt it’s challenging being a woman in the man’s world of the NHL, but Davis, whose résumé includes 20 years as a JPMorgan Chase executive, said, “I knew I could make a contribution in hockey” with her three Ps — “preparation, passion and purpose.” It’s not a question of wanting a seat at the table, she added. Women “earned a seat at the table.”
“Empathetic leadership is now enshrined” — Great leaders care about their teams. And they don’t stop being parents and caregivers just because they’re working. At George P. Johnson, Bruder has responsibility for managing GPJ in the Americas, plus the IBM global account and its global demand generation event portfolio of 10,000-plus events. But that hasn’t stopped the mother of three from picking up her son at school.
Acknowledge the team — “We have a dedicated team that understands the importance of real local news. We’re on the same pathway. And that’s what works,” said DelBello, who was regional director of public relations for Bloomingdale’s before she purchased the bankrupted business journals and turned them around. She follows in a tradition, she said, that dates in this country at least from 1738 and Elizabeth Timothy, the first woman newspaper publisher in North America.
Look the part — Warming up the crowd before the luncheon, the elegant Tyler said you should always look your best, which doesn’t require a designer’s budget. “What’s you’re A outfit? It’s among whatever you can afford.”
Echoing Tyler, Kendra Charisse Porter, image consultant and wardrobe stylist at HonorYourStyle, offered a workshop on “Your Style, Your Brand: Using Fashion as a Tool,” one of 12 seminars in various disciplines held throughout the day. Clinical psychologists Stephanie Roning, Ph.D. and Madeline Levitt, Ph.D., of NewYork Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine demonstrated how you can make anxiety, part of the DNA-wired flight-or-fight response, work for you in confronting challenges. There were also 31 nonprofit sponsors in the Discovery Village and 22 vendors at the “Wine, Women & Chocolate” reception.
But by far the most moving experience we had was listening to Geri Mariano, https://justcallmegeri.com/ an inspirational speaker and inclusion consultant, on “Finding and Using Your Voice.” This is a woman who was born at White Plains Hospital with diastrophic dysplasia (dwarfism), permanently affecting the development of her bones and cartilage, and promptly abandoned by her birth parents at a time, 1967, when you could still legally do that in a hospital. Her foster parents loved and nurtured her, giving her their name. But they could never formally adopt her, Mariano said, for fear of her losing her health benefits.
Nonetheless, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a master’s in therapeutic recreation from Lehman College. Along the way, she has fought for handicap ramps, like the one at the Wampus Brook Park Gazebo in Armonk, and higher wages for home health aides. (Problematic hip surgery has now confined her to a wheelchair.)
She continues to use what she self-deprecatingly called her “high, squeaky” voice to tell her story and describe the social isolation people with disabilities often experienced. High-pitched it may be, but hers was a powerful voice at a conference dedicated to helping women find and use theirs.