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Are "Unwritten Rules" Still Holding Back Women in Corporate America?

University Club of Milwaukee

Even though GM made big news by appointing a female CEO, one leading Milwaukee businesswoman says Corporate America still has a long way to go.

Lori Stortz has reached a high level in her field - Managing Partner in the Milwaukee office of the accounting firm McGladrey. But, she says, as she looks across the business landscape in Wisconsin, she sees too few women in executive leadership roles and serving on corporate boards.

"There's still woeful underrepresentation of women in those key seats," she says.  Stortz contends that worse yet, that underrepresentation can't be ascribed to inexperience on the part of the women in business.  

"There have been very accomplished, well-educated women in business and civic leadership roles for more than thirty years in Milwaukee," she says.  "My personal opinion is that [there are] unwritten rules, as well as folks who tend to promote, like to work with, and consider people for position of importance who are like them."

Stortz believes there's a "business imperative" for hiring authorities to cast a wider net that results in hiring the best candidate, which, she says, "could very well be somebody that is not in their direct circle of influence."

And Stortz says that even women who have risen through the ranks face distinct challenges and unwritten rules.  "You realize one day that just working really hard and doing a good job isn't necessarily going to allow you to advance in an organization."

She points to differences in opportunities given to male and female employees within her own industry.  For example, she says auditing work is typically done  at a client's office - a task that can require overnight or international travel.  

"Leaders might think they're being benevolent and kind, and will look at women with young children and say, 'She doesn't want to travel - she doesn't want to be away from her baby.'  And that may or may not be true."  

Not offering those opportunities, Stortz says, can have a ripple effect that extends far beyond that instance.  "[Those assignments] would be really career-defining assignments and great clients that would help her build her résumé to really advance."

Stortz says those kids of examples have inspired her work in mentoring women in business - through organizations such as Tempo Milwaukeeand Professional Dimensions, as well as her alma mater, UW-Whitewater.  She says mentors can help younger employees navigate those unwritten rules and offer encouragement.  

"As humans, when we're going on a path and we're walking through life and a career, there are going be things that happen to us that are disappointing and frustrating," she says.  "And having somebody who can frame that - has gone through disappointment and discouragement - and help you see through that, is critically important."

Stortz concedes that she probably would have benefited from seeking out mentors when she was younger.  "I wish that some of the things that I've learned along the way - many times the hard way - I had known before.  But part of that was on me, and not really understanding the importance of mentoring."

Lori Stortz talks with Mitch Teich about the other pressing needs she sees facing the greater Milwaukee area.