Stronger Leaders, Better Austin: A Panel of Women Leaders Speak Up 

Last month Austin women leaders shared their insights, experiences and concerns about the biggest challenges women in our community face today. The panel discussion explored how women are challenged by pay inequity, the perception of being too ambitious and by company policies and culture that leave many women who are mothers averse to taking risks.

More than 100 gathered to hear from Carla Piñeyro Sublett, CMO, Rackspace; Jennifer Lee, Research Associate, Center for Public Policy Priorities; and Regina Rogoff, CEO, People's Community Clinic. The panel was moderated by Judy Maggio of Leadership Austin. The event was organized by the Women’s Fund of Central Texas, a program of the Foundation, and Leadership Austin.

“In my 17-year career I have seen that women are just as capable as men but many are less willing to take risks,” said Piñeyro Sublett. “Often women lack role models. Men aren’t afraid to go for a role for which they aren’t 100% qualified.”

Piñeyro Sublett recounted a story of when she sought a leadership role at a corporation and was told she was too ambitious. “I left that company,” she said. “But before I did, I told my boss I hoped no one would ever tell his daughter she was too ambitious.”

With regard to elected office, women are succeeding locally with Austin city council having a majority of women for the first time. But Lee noted that at the state level, women have not reached equity. “One obvious reason for this,” she noted, “is that city council is a paid position but state elected leaders are unpaid.”

In her 40-year career, Rogoff has sought the opportunity to speak on the topic of leadership. “Strong leadership requires 3 Rs – relationships, reputation and a willingness to take risks,” Rogoff said. “However for many women who are mothers it’s difficult to take risks if it means you could lose the ability to take off work to care for a sick child.” Rogoff noted that of the 30 largest nonprofits in town—a field dominated by women--only three are led by women. “That’s surprising,” she added.

Inequity remains a prevalent challenge for women as the Women’s Fund’s recent study Stronger Women, Better Austin: A Status Report on Women & Children shows. Women in Austin disproportionately live in poverty, experience a significant earnings gap when compared to men, and are not well represented in top leadership roles. “Women have made education gains in our community,” Lee affirmed, “but the fact remains that in Austin, men with a high school diploma and women with a college degree earn about the same wage.” Lee added, “Most working women in our community are affected by three major issues--earning a living wage, quality childcare and having a safe and affordable home.”

“What about work/life balance?” an attendee asked the panelists. Piñeyro Sublett shared her practical strategy: when working hard on a big work goal she follows it with planned family time.

“For most working women in Austin, work/life balance is a privilege,” said Lee. “If they take off from work to spend time with family, they don’t get paid.” The panelists agreed that creating policies that support women’s dual roles as worker and parent would benefit women—and men—and their families.

Panelists agreed that women leaders have a special opportunity and responsibility to lift up other women.