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'Say 'yes' to discomfort,' and other leadership tips from 6 women in business

A group of women executives and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the unique challenges that women face in moving into leadership positions. Here's what they had to say.

It's no secret that women are underpaid at work, and underrepresented in the C-suite, especially at tech companies. But how can young women interested in leadership positions overcome the obstacles?

On Monday, six business leaders tackled this question at the University of Louisville's inaugural Women in Leadership Forum. Panelists included:

  • Dana Bowers: co-founder of iPay Technologies
  • Divya Cantor: lead medical director for Kentucky's Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Camilla Schroeder: president of Advance Ready Mix, the largest concrete producer in Louisville
  • Margaret Handmaker: director of Louisville's Bloomberg Innovation Teams project
  • Nikki Jackson: regional executive of the Louisville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
  • Diane Medley: managing partner and co-Founder of MCM CPAs & Advisors

The panel addressed a series of questions about women in leadership positions. Here are their answers.

How does history impact the ability for women to move into leadership positions?

The panel talked about the importance of remembering that women, for many years, didn't have the same basic rights as men—and that history still impacts the ability for women to move forward in their careers. Until relatively recently, "women couldn't vote, couldn't own property," said Cantor.

Handmaker talked of the challenges she faced while she was in grad school. "When I went to law school, I couldn't have a credit card in my own name. My income couldn't count toward our mortgage. It wasn't even a century ago," she said. "Don't take it for granted."

"Only 5% of women are Fortune 500 CEOs," said Cantor. "That's wrong. Every male and female should know that.

"We have the background of history," said Cantor. "We need to know, so we can do better."

What obstacles stand in the way of women moving into leadership positions?

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Several panel members talked about the unique challenges that face women who are trying to juggle a career and family—and the fact that it's absolutely not possible to succeed in both without some kind of support system in place. "You have to have a village to raise your child and have a career," said Cantor. "That's not easy or attainable for everybody."

"If women choose to go right through and have C-suite as a goal, that's fantastic," said Schroeder. "But you have to have a great support network for that. I was a divorced mom for a long time, and that's even more stressful. You're the sole caregiver when your kids are sick. You're the one who's called, when you're sitting in a meeting. That is a setback. It can take longer for women to succeed."

Also, women leaders are often more intensely scrutinized than their male peers, panelists said.

"People are looking at us," said Schroeder. "There's a lot riding on the decisions that women make across different industries."

SEE: Anne-Marie Slaughter offers an alternate reality check on the future of women, tech, and the workplace

Advice for young women

"Saying yes to discomfort" was the most important thing Jackson said she did, when it came to her career. When she entered her current role, she hadn't managed large organizations before. "I hesitated, and was very uncomfortable taking that position," she said. "Yet I knew it would be career changing. "

The panel agreed that women often judge themselves too harshly as well, saying "I'm not good enough," far more often than men, and they emphasized the importance of risk taking.

"It's okay to not know everything," said Cantor. "I'm willing to learn, I'm willing to read. There's a risk-taker in me, I know it's okay if I don't know everything when I start.

"Women are perfectionists, and that can hold us back," said Cantor. "It's okay to jump in with 75% of the information. In a business environment, you need to be flexible."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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