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Women battle gender bias.

Alaskan women business owners and managers say they've succeeded through persistence and hard work, by proving their abilities and by learning from role models.

The last 10 years have brought a marked improvement in the level of respect accorded female entrepreneurs and employees, say many Alaskan women. But they agree that women still have to work harder and do better to succeed in business, reflecting the persistence of stubborn, if sometimes subtle, forms of gender-based discrimination.

"Being a woman in business is not easy and not for the weak-kneed. Women who have their own businesses have a million times tougher row to hoe," says Linda Henrickson, owner of Anchorage-based Linder Construction. "Men say things to me they would never, never in a million years say to my husband."

Henrickson still bristles as she describes the double standards and insults she endured during her early efforts to become established in a male-dominated industry. But quality work and knowledge of the construction business allowed her to gain ground despite the resistance. She says many women have learned to deflect sexual come-ons without sacrificing personal integrity or their professional standing, and men, despite the social conditioning that relationships with women are primarily sexual, are getting the message.

"Men are much more aware than they used to be of the words they use and body language that are offensive to women," Henrickson says.

Although not all women have been equally affected by sex discrimination, experiences with gender barriers of one kind or another are common. Jody Hoffman, owner of Hoffman Management Co., an Anchorage residential property management firm, has no hair-raising tales to tell about Byzantine encounters with male counterparts, but says men still have trouble relating to women as peers in the world of business. "Men typically feel more comfortable dealing with other men," she says.

Sue Linford, president, general manager and major shareholder of Linford of Alaska, a food distributing company headquartered in Anchorage, agrees there is more work to do on the issue of gender bias in business. "Women have to work harder and maybe use a little more psychology," Linford says.

Like many women, she has encountered a tendency to take women less seriously. Linford is especially concerned with the status of women in the broad social sense. "Women control the bulk of wealth in this nation, but we are not represented on corporate boards in proportion," she explains. "A lot of it has to do with our culture, with male ego, not with whether women are qualified. Those of us with a few more stripes have been fighting this for a long time."

Women say that issues of sexism confront female entrepreneurs and employees alike, though discrimination can take somewhat different forms. For employees, lower pay and limited promotional opportunities are common gender-bias problems. For entrepreneurs, cutting favorable deals with suppliers and gaining access to capital are prevalent obstacles to success. For women who are also members of a racial or ethnic minority, these problems can be magnified manyfold.

While some data on the performance of women-owned businesses are available on a national basis, much more thorough research has been done on sex discrimination toward female employees, chiefly in the area of salaries. Estimates of the number of businesses owned by women in the U.S. range from 4.1 million to 5.4 million. According to federal projections, women will own 50 percent of U.S. businesses by the year 2000.

Data collected by the Census Bureau show that small businesses owned by white men had far greater revenues than those owned by women during the 1980s. In a 1987 survey, businesses owned by white men averaged annual receipts of $189,000, compared with the average $70,000 in receipts generated by white, female-owned businesses. Minority firms owned by women are faring even worse: For the same period, receipts ranged from $64,000 per year for Asian-owned businesses to $32,000 per year for American Indian/Alaska Native-owned businesses.

The National Women's Business Council, created by Congress in 1988 to review the status of women business owners nationwide, identify barriers facing them and make policy recommendations, has revealed several important findings about women-owned businesses:

* Businesses owned by women fail at a rate 7 percent to 11 percent higher than those owned by men;

* The most significant barrier to the success of women-owned firms is lack of capital;

* Women in business generally take fewer risks in terms of expansion, usually because of undercapitalization.

In a more encouraging light, gross receipts of women-owned businesses nearly tripled between 1982 and 1987, according to the council.

Additional gains recently have been noted by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners in Washington, D.C. Foundation statistics indicate 1992 will likely be the first year when more Americans work for women-owned enterprises than for Fortune 500 companies. The foundation says women own 28 percent of all U.S. businesses, employing nearly 11 million people.

Foundation data also contradict the widely held view that businesses owned by women are in retail or fringe areas of the economy. Instead, the report says, female entrepreneurs are found throughout the economy, in agribusiness, manufacturing and construction. This trend is reflected in Alaska, where female entrepreneurs have succeeded not only in traditional areas, but also have breached business enclaves that used to be the exclusive domain of men.

Besides outright discrimination, the kind of gender issues women say they most often encounter include:

* Self-imposed psychological barriers, resulting from early sexist conditioning that teaches women to aim low, especially in the business arena;

* Internalized sexism, another form of social conditioning that convinces women that female stereotypes are real and can lead them to judge, criticize and hold back other women as much as men sometimes do;

* Failing to grasp or adapt to the unwritten rules of a male-dominated game, which can lead to miscues about mutual expectations and diverging views on many subjects;

* Stereotyping by male colleagues. As one woman expresses it, having learned the rules of the game, some women are penalized for playing like men, who feel threatened when women don't conform to their long-held notions of female behavior.

* Pressure of family responsibilities. Although women say progress is being made in equalizing responsibilities for bread-winning and family nurturing, it is still common for female entrepreneurs to oversee family matters.

* Lack of female role models, which contributes to the problem of overcoming self-imposed barriers, not only because women have difficulty envisioning their success, but because the lack of role models reflects a lack of female mentors with whom women can readily relate.

One of the national programs designed to help women succeed in business directly addresses the mentoring issue. The Women's Network for Entrepreneurial Training (WNET) program is intended to match successful female business women with proteges who are starting or expanding their businesses.

According to Joyce Jansen, business development specialist for the Small Business Administration in Anchorage, WNET has not been very successful in Anchorage or Fairbanks. "It's been tremendously difficult to get business owners to commit to these programs. The bottom line is they just don't have the time," says Jansen. She adds that networking breakfasts, where women meet and exchange information and ideas more as peers than as mentors and proteges, seem to work much better. "Women are just gung-ho to exchange ideas. I've seen networking work extremely well in that environment. They can make their connections and they can follow up on them if they want to. There's no pressure," says Jansen.

Three Testimonies. Discussions of three Alaskan women who own or manage businesses outline varied and widespread experience with gender issues and the many faces that bias can take. Linder Construction's Henrickson, an Alaska Native, was exposed to construction management during her high school years and early employment. She gained additional skills in college.

Henrickson always wanted to own her own business, but she learned early how a male-dominated industry could treat a female newcomer: "If a man comes to a job site and says he has certain experience, he'll be taken at his word. If a woman comes to a job site, they'll make her prove herself above and beyond anything they would ever require of a man."

Before Alaska's most recent recession, she equally co-owned a successful construction company with the man who eventually became her husband. After private construction capital dried up, they closed their firm and made do until Henrickson's husband convinced her to open a new firm with her as the majority shareholder, enabling her to tap military and rural construction dollars that continued flowing from the federal government.

Even with a strong male ally and her experience, she's had to struggle. "I went about getting my minority certification, and that is not easy. Because I don't look very Native, they turned me down," Henrickson says.

When she attempted to qualify for the state's bidder list as a female contractor, she was turned down because her husband had greater nail-pounding experience. "They completely discounted every bit of my experience. It was demeaning. I've been turned down for everything I've ever applied for. I just have enough tenacity, veracity, audacity to try again," Henrickson adds.

Henrickson does not depend on her female/minority status, but focuses on preparing solid bids. For her, doing good work and continuing to grow has provided the most satisfying revenge for the early slights.

"I know I have the brains. I know I have the crew," she says. "I relish being able to prove them wrong. I think of myself as a better person because I know how to handle it without getting offended. It took me quite a few years to learn."

Linford started the food distribution company Linford of Alaska with her husband nearly 20 years ago, then left the business when the two were divorced. Upon his death in the mid-1980s, the urging of employees convinced her to return.

Linford says her industry, like so many others, is still dominated by men. While she is philosophical about some of the barriers that exist between her and some of her peers, she is blunt in her resentment of political leaders who have no ear for the concerns of women in the broader social arena.

According to Linford, gender issues are not equally evident or important to everybody. "A large portion of our customers could care less whether a woman is in charge of the company. They want the best product and the best price," she says. "If you treat each other with respect, gender doesn't matter in our office. If you move outside the office into the competitive arena, it does."

Linford notes that some of the behavior in business circles that tends to shut women out is habitual, but not intentional. "I find that there's a lot more contact between men. I'm kind of out of that loop. If I want to be included, I have to make the move," says Linford.

Linford says women also have had to learn how to communicate with men without offending or threatening them. "I'm always trying to figure that out. By nature, I'm not very assertive. We can overcompensate and shoot ourselves in the foot. And yet, you don't want people walking over you anymore."

Ultimately, Linford believes that, "business is business, and we're all being dumped on by government. Women want to be recognized as a voice in business, but not the only voice."

Mary Shields is general manager of Northwest Technical Services, an oilfield support company located in Anchorage and affiliated with PDS Inc. of Dallas, Texas. She also is legislative chair of the Alaska State Federation of Business and Professional Women. Shields says women's perceptions of discrimination and the way they choose to deal with sexist behavior can be heavily influenced by their early upbringing and contact with men.

"I had a marvelous accepting, promoting father which set my tone for dealing with men," says Shields. "Some of my best friends and mentors are men. We recognize that males and females are different, but it doesn't play in the job arena. Most men now have learned that when we say no, we mean no."

Shields notes that acceptance of women as business peers varies among men according to age. "I think there's less resistance among men between the ages of 32 and 55, but more resistance among men who are older and younger than that," Shields says. She attributes negativity among younger men to the perceived threat of competition from women for jobs and benefits in a recessionary economy.

Shields says many women start businesses as a way of resolving pay inequity in the salaried workplace. She reports that women -- salaried and self-employed -- only earn an average of approximately 66 percent of the amount that men earn.

With the gains they have made, women are entering a new phase of the struggle for parity with men in business. Many women say that for men, the more subtle, even unconscious, forms of sexism are like a blind spot and drawing attention to the problems can be difficult. Says Henrickson, "To be a woman in business you have to have a lot of balls. There's tremendous benefits to being self-employed, but you have to be very strong to persevere."

Go Michalski

Classic Toys, Classic Woman

Go Michalski knows how to pick 'em. With an intuition that a horse-race handicapper would kill for, the former educator has started or helped start four Anchorage businesses in the last 12 years and has done very well with all of them, continuing to expand a small retail empire despite recession and skepticism from her bank.

What enables Michalski to succeed is the art of identifying a market niche based on an apparently unerring sense of latent demand. Largely, her own needs and tastes have been her guide.

Take Country Classics, for example. This initial venture with her sister, Jana Millen, was germinated in their mutual love for quilting.

"That grew out of a hobby we had. We saw a need for things we couldn't find locally," Michalski recalls. Identifying potential based on personal needs was pretty hard to sell to a bank. In 1980, the sisters were told, as so many women are, that banks are not in the businesses of financing the hobbies of housewives. After being turned down by four banks, they borrowed from their father.

"We started on $10,000, which is really nothing at all, but we had every intention of running it as a business," Michalski says. And they did, though getting started wasn't easy. It took six months to get their bearings, to figure out where and how to order fabric and accessories, to find a suitable location. And to learn the importance of having backup inventory.

The night before the store's grand opening, some of the sisters' friends gave them a party at the store. In the spirit of supporting the venture, the guests cleaned the new entrepreneurs out of much of their stock.

"At two in the morning, we're at home scrounging our own personal supplies to stock the store. We went to Safeway and Fred Meyer and bought items, including every bit of blue enamelware they had. Looking back, it's just laughable," Michalski says.

County Classics was an instant success, producing good receipts from the day it opened. Michalski explains, "It produced a nice income. We became successful enough that we didn't have time to quit. But it didn't bother us, because we found we liked being in business." So much so, that in 1986, the owners sold Country Classics to devote more effort to an even more lucrative venture, Classic Toys, which Michalski and Millen opened in 1985.

By 1986, the toy store had proven itself sufficiently strong to warrant opening a second location. Within a year, the initial store on Benson Boulevard was doubled in size, followed shortly by the opening of a bookstore, Once Upon a Time, devoted completely to young readers. That led in 1990 to formation of the Alaska Book Fair Co., which contracts with school districts to supply books for annual book fairs. Recently, in April, Michalski launched her first solo venture. That store, Classic Woman, specializes in high-quality clothing for women in larger sizes.

Michalski acknowledges that her early and convincing success in business has shielded her from some of the gender-based difficulties faced by other woman. Having a working spouse has made it easier to nourish her businesses with its own capital. But her experiences have also been teachers, and she is an avid student.

"We have a very conservative borrowing philosophy. If we can self-finance, we do that," says Michalski.

She also has learned to present her merchandise creatively and to avoid putting money into those areas that some people think are the well-deserved perks of self-employment; fancy offices, for example.

"In retail, you've got to put money into what you can sell. The more inventory you have, the more you can sell. You have to be able to make a commitment to appropriate inventory," Michalski points out. She has focused on higher-quality merchandise, with enough spread that customers can pick up something for a few dollars.

Michalski advises developing a good personal relationship with a banker and paying close attention to the market. She says, "You've got to know what your identity is and stick to it. You can't be all things to all people."

Despite her good fortune, Michalski says she has encountered stereotyping. "I think there's a general perception that women in retail aren't making any money, and that they're doing it for a hobby. This same perception is not held towards men in retail," Michalski argues.

"And suppliers don't take women seriously going into business. Initially, men are taken more seriously. You have to persist. Once you have a track record, that's your clout -- it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman."

Running a business is serious work, she emphasizes. "If you don't have a business that's profitable, no matter how much you love it, it won't be there in three years. Things stop being fun if you're not making any money."

Michalski adds, "I think you have to like to gamble."

Maria Elena Ball

Mexico In Alaska

Years ago, Maria Elena Ball confronted a closing-time customer across the counter in her cubbyhole restaurant in Mountain View. Instead of producing the money for his bill, the man produced a knife.

"The cash register is closed," Ball remembers telling him. In almost the same instant, she swiftly backed away and stood by her stove. Looking straight at the man, she pointed to the rack above the stove and said, "You see that third knife -- that's the one I'm going to take if you come any closer." The man abruptly left.

This is what Ball means when she advises other business women to act the part, to project on the outside the way you want to be perceived, even if your insides are churning with panic. That's just one of the lessons that experience has taught the owner of Mexico in Alaska, a popular Anchorage restaurant that has beat the survival odds more than once.

Ball arrived in Alaska in 1968 with a dog and $50 after a solitary highway odyssey. Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs, Ball knew she wanted to own her own business, but took her time thinking through the options.

"I had the name of the business before I knew what the business was going to be, because whatever it was going to be, it was going to be me, and I have Mexico in my blood. I had to do something I was familiar with, but more importantly, it had to be something that I loved," she says.

Ball considered and rejected a Mexican bookstore and theater (too small a market) and a tortilla factory (too many machines). She eventually settled on a restaurant and began shopping for the equipment she would need: stove, oven, refrigerator. As she shopped for and found each item, Ball made the required down payment and asked the puzzled merchants to hold the item until she called for it. Knowing that payments on the equipment wouldn't begin until delivery, she accumulated her kitchen appliances and stored them with the merchants around town until ready to assemble her kitchen for business.

Ball recruited her sister to help her and found a cubbyhole that could fit five tables. Keeping her regular night job at the Hotel Captain Cook, Ball opened Mexico in Alaska.

For the first five months she maintained a grueling schedule: midnight to 8 a.m. at the hotel, go home, sleep one hour, grab a shower, open the restaurant at 10 a.m., close it at 10 p.m., go home and sleep for another hour before the hotel shift. Ball remembers days when she grossed $20 or $30, even less.

With no storage, Ball often had to make trips to the grocery store. Customers brought their own chairs or sat on cases of beer.

Eventually, Ball began to plan for a new location. She borrowed $20,000 against her house to buy the present Old Seward property, but couldn't secure a loan to build. "I went through practically every bank in town. The fact that I was a single female was worse than being Mexican," Ball contends. "What I had to fight for was men to take me seriously. They make the rules and they rewrite them whenever they want to."

Ball eventually prevailed, but only when a male customer offered to form a partnership with her and use his entree to raise capital. Before long, Ball confronted another of the many faces of gender bias: A contractor who came to install the stove hood in her new location tried to overcharge her for the work.

"The man screamed at me, threw his tools down, jumped up and down, but he didn't get paid for more than one hour," she says. "That wouldn't have happened if I had been a man. It took a long time for business people to take me seriously. They don't believe you're capable of handling the responsibility. They don't trust females."

Ball's restaurant opened in the new location in 1983. But celebration was short-lived. Being a restaurant owner, she was one of the first to feel the ultimately widespread effects of Alaska's mid-1980s recession. As early as 1985, her business abruptly dropped off.

Accustomed to the familial loyalty of her customers, Ball was mystified. She recalls, "It happened just like that. I waited a couple of months thinking it would get better. There was no money coming in, and I was getting behind more and more."

Ball soon fell dangerously far behind in her payroll taxes; she was reluctant to let her staff go and kept thinking it would get better. With penalties and interest, her Internal Revenue Service tab came close to $50,000.

Ball dug in her heels and improvised a strategy of diversification: She offered customers meal credit in exchange for advances of $1,000 or $2,000. She also opened a Spanish-speaking video-rental outlet when she learned it required no capital to start. In addition, Ball taught Spanish and English classes, cleaned houses and rented the basement in the restaurant for storage. And, she started making burritos for sale in local retail outlets.

Ball had no sooner saved the restaurant than she began losing close family members in rapid and tragic sequence: her parents, the sister who had opened with her, a brother, an uncle, a grandfather.

Through all of this, Ball's famous gracious rapport with her customers has seen her through. Restaurant work, she says, is not an attraction per se. "It's knowing how much they enjoy what I've made," Ball explains.

She says many people have urged her to open additional locations or obtain a hard-liquor license to improve her economic prospects. "I didn't do it when I was starving and I'm not going to do it now, and I'll tell you why: It isn't the money; I don't measure success by how much money I'm making, but how content and peaceful I am. It's not a job for me, it's a way of life. Part of my restaurant is my personal service. You can't replicate that with a franchise."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; Alaskan women business owners and managers
Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Kenai Peninsula.
Next Article:Wanted: capital for women.

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