Panelists discuss women’s progress in business

Women hold 47 percent of the nation’s jobs and 51 percent of the available slots at Fortune 500 companies, Maura Donahue, board president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, noted this week.

“That’s the good news,” Donahue, a partner and executive vice president of DonahueFavret Contractors Inc., said in Baton Rouge at LABI’s discussion forum on Louisiana Women in the Global Economy.

The bad news, Donahue continued, is that women occupy less than 15 percent of Fortune 500 executive offices, less than 17 percent of board memberships and only 22 percent of the chief executive offices.

Donahue asked other members of the forum at LABI headquarters for their views as to how women can continue to make progress at the nation’s corporations.

Determination trumps a lot of roadblocks, said Sandra Woodley, president of the nine-campus University of Louisiana system.

“Confidence is important,” Woodley added. “So, don’t be afraid of a challenge.”

Being honest with one’s self about one’s abilities and working hard to overcome any personal weaknesses is absolutely necessary, Woodley said.

“We should own our weaknesses and find a way to rise above them,” said the leader of the state’s largest higher education system.

Sonia Perez, president of AT&T Louisiana, said a college degree remains extremely important for anyone hoping to achieve professional and personal success.

“It’s not important where you go (to college),” said the University of Texas graduate. “It’s important that you go.”

Perez, the daughter of migrant workers, noted that the cost of an online master’s degree at Georgia Tech is only $6,600.

Although Perez earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism, she emphasized the importance of encouraging girls to become proficient in STEM studies — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

AT&T wants more women in its workforce, Perez said, before noting five of the nine presidents in the firm’s southeast region are women.

Innovations in communications are occurring so rapidly, the need for STEM-savvy employees is growing exponentially across the nation, Perez said.

“Right now, we’re going to need a million people to fill all the jobs we’ll have in 2020,” Perez added.

Ann Duplessis, a former state senator from New Orleans, is senior vice president of retail banking, marketing, private banking and insurance at Liberty Bank and Trust Co.

Duplessis said she learned an important lesson early in her former role as a state legislator: Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

“All you have is your word,” Duplessis said. “People watch you. People read you.” She told the LABI audience that people inside and outside their companies will know “whether you are real or not.”

Maya Bennett, a public school teacher in East Baton Rouge Parish, also works as a real estate agent for Harris Manor Realty LLC.

Bennett urged parents and other relatives of young girls not to lower STEM expectations for those children.

Give a girl a Barbie doll, if you wish, Bennett said, before adding, give her a microscope and stethoscope, too.

“Expectations are critically important,” Bennett said. With success in STEM studies, “the possibilities are endless.”