Women strive to close gender gap at biz groups

Women strive to close gender gap at biz groups
© Greg Nash

Trade associations have made strides in gender diversity, with more women taking on prominent roles at industry groups.

It’s a trend advocates are pushing to build on.

Nancy Fletcher, president of the Out of Home Advertising Association of America (OAAA), said that when she first assumed the role in 1991, many thought she was an odd choice.

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“I think it was counterintuitive to have a woman in this role. I don’t think that’s what people thought a billboard person looked like in ’91,” she said.

At that time, there were only four women in a senior position at any outdoor advertising industry.

“Now there are 400 at very senior levels, either running companies or their general counsels or their regional managers,” Fletcher said. “The progress has been great.”

The OAAA represents the $8 billion per year out-of-home advertising industry, which includes advertising on billboards, transportation and in malls.

Similar changes in different industries have brought more gender equality to K Street.

Women account for 41 percent of the CEOs or executive directors of trade associations, according to the Association TRENDS Insight database. The C-suite level of trade associations is now 40 percent female.

But the data also shows fewer women as they move up the ladder. The vice president level is 44 percent female, the director level 55 percent female and the manager level 74 percent female.

“It’s no longer an anomaly to find a woman in the corner office of a prominent trade association. What was once truly an old boys’ network has changed and the glass ceiling has definitely been shattered,” Ivan Adler, a lobbying headhunter, told The Hill.

“Like we are seeing in Congress, more and more women are competing for and getting the top spot at trade associations around town,” Ben Jenkins, a partner at Locust Street Group, told The Hill.

Donna Harman has been president and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), the oldest trade association in the U.S., since 2007.

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Harman was first hired as vice president for congressional affairs and held that job for about five years before taking over the association, which represents the forest products industry and its $300 billion annually in products, including paper and packaging. Harman first came to D.C. in 1983 to work for former Rep. Henson Moore (R-La.) as a legislative assistant and attended law school at night. She later worked at Dow Chemical as a lobbyist and at International Paper before moving to AF&PA.

Both Harman and Fletcher highlighted the changes they had seen as women in the influence world.

Fletcher was hired as president and CEO of OAAA in October 1991, just months after the Senate blocked a proposal in that year’s highway bill that would have banned new roadside signs and removed many others. The move put the outdoor advertising industry under scrutiny.

“There were many times in the early years that I was the only woman in the room. In retrospect, I really didn’t think about it because we were so focused on the job,” Fletcher told The Hill.

Often as the only woman in the room as well, Harman felt she had to bring more facts to the table to gain respect.

“I studied the issue, I learned as much as I could about all of the details and all of the nuances so when I would be in meetings with members of Congress or with administration officials, I was really able to speak to some of the details that I found some of my peers and colleagues might not,” Harman said. “I think that set me apart.”

Harman hailed the changes in the paper industry, where she now finds many women working as engineers at companies. Those changes are also reflected by the growing number of women in industry government relations posts.

“We still have a long way to go. We still have a predominately male work force on our shop room floors in our paper mills. I think that’s changing,” she noted.

The once male-dominated beer industry has seen similar changes, with the number of female brewers and company executives growing and, correspondingly, the number of women in many of the industry’s top lobbying groups.

Among those are Kimberly McKinnish, senior vice president and chief financial officer at the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and Jane Saunders, vice president and general counsel at the Beer Institute.

Both Harman and Fletcher are retiring this year. It is unclear if they will be followed by other women in their posts. Neither trade groups has announced a replacement.

“It was very important to me in industry events that I would get to know the spouses when it was largely men,” Fletcher said about her early days.

Now, she said, fewer women at trade associations feel alone in the room or that they must do more just to stand out.

“I was a young woman looking for credibility and what I kept doing was I went back to school a lot, I got an MBA and a J.D.,” Fletcher told The Hill. “I don’t think women need to do that.”

K Street watchers are hopeful these trends will continue, especially with a record number of female lawmakers in the current Congress and growing pressure on the influence world to expand its hiring practices.

“[There’s] still a long way to go,” Jenkins said.

“But it’s a great — and increasing — trend in Washington.”