Women & Power

It was a celebration of sorts. Immediate past president John Burns had argued for the admission of women to Milwaukee’s Downtown Rotary even as some of his male colleagues donned black armbands in protest. It was 1988 and a handful of female members were completing their first year as Rotarians. Burns donned a special outfit for the occasion and proceeded to the podium – in drag. Arms outstretched so that the pillow beneath his dress protruded prominently, he intoned the Rotarians’ motto: “Service [to others] before self.” His joke fell terribly short of salving the situation. Says one of the…

It was a celebration of sorts. Immediate past president John Burns had argued for the admission of women to Milwaukee’s Downtown Rotary even as some of his male colleagues donned black armbands in protest. It was 1988 and a handful of female members were completing their first year as Rotarians. Burns donned a special outfit for the occasion and proceeded to the podium – in drag. Arms outstretched so that the pillow beneath his dress protruded prominently, he intoned the Rotarians’ motto: “Service [to others] before self.”

His joke fell terribly short of salving the situation. Says one of the female Rotarians: “We nearly fell through our chairs.” In the years since, Rotary has changed. Ten percent of its 360 members are women, and the organization has its second female president. But when I related this story to two male interns, they were sure I meant 1888, not 1988. I didn’t. Milwaukee’s Rotary, creator of both the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) – the bastion of the city’s CEOs – and the Better Business Bureau, began admitting women members a mere 15 years ago. But the impression is typical of the way many people, especially males, view gender equity. They assume that was taken care of years ago.

Most professional women in metro Milwaukee will tell you, though, that women are not, even now, full and equal partners in the leadership of Milwaukee or Wisconsin. This is true three decades after substantial numbers of women graduated with the proper academic credentials (see “Women’s Census: Where the Girls Aren’t,” page 46), making it incredible to suggest that women have not been in the pipeline long enough. “If men’s attitudes don’t change, the pipeline will burst,” predicts attorney Deborah Patel, president of Professional Dimensions, an organization of executive women.

The barriers for Milwaukee women today are “subtle, but they are there in terms of who makes key decisions in this community,” says Julia Taylor, executive director and chief executive officer of the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee. Few women sit at the city’s vital decisionmaking tables. “I walk into meetings and I ask myself, ‘Why am I the only one of 12?’ ” says Mary Ellen Stanek, managing director and chief investment officer of Baird Advisors. And “what does it say about a community that for years has tolerated its Catholic girls’ college prep school, Divine Savior Holy Angels, being so academically inferior to its Catholic boys’ school, Marquette University High School?”

You can see the gender disparity when you examine the November 2001 Economic Development Task Force Report prepared by the GMC. Of 24 individuals involved with the study, only one was a woman, Alverno College President Sister Joel Read, and Read says she told GMC President Bob Milbourne that her name shouldn’t be attached because she didn’t attend the meetings. (Milbourne, she says, included it anyway because she’d offered suggestions after reading a draft.)

You can see it, too, say other women, in the way Gov. Scott McCallum’s hired hand, Morris Andrews, gathered state leaders in the North Woods, an overwhelmingly male entourage, to agree on a state education policy. Among the uninvited was Elizabeth Burmaster, only the second woman ever elected superintendent of schools in the state’s 154-year history but clearly the electorate’s designee on matters involving schools.

Five years after the Rotary incident, I was asked to write about Milwaukee leadership (“The Powerbrokers,” February 1993). After the story appeared, professional women complained that there weren’t enough women on the list. So I met with these capable, intelligent women employed in responsible positions, and they raised serious issues concerning women and power, but no one would be quoted. To speak up on this subject in Milwaukee would mean being dismissed as a rabid feminist, they said, or worse, being excluded entirely. “For a woman to have power and influence in Milwaukee,” one woman told me, with others agreeing, “you need to do it behind the scenes.” (It may be no accident that two of the three most powerful women here today are from outside the city and were not subject to this socialization.)

“Keep quiet and be good soldiers. That’s exactly what the male establishment wanted them to do,” says Sister Kathleen O’Brien, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs at Alverno College, where she teaches women’s leadership. “I’m not a loud feminist,” she says, “but I am sitting here quietly seething… listening to the things men say. What we have done to women and minorities is say that if they are powerless, it’s their problem. They have to fix it. But power comes from position, and you change the culture from the top.”

I didn’t write about the things the women told me in 1993, but I began collecting information. Then, last October, I stopped at Lynde Uihlein’s office shortly after the death of her mother, philanthropist Jane Pettit. Uihlein was on the phone explaining why her Brico Fund, a foundation dedicated to the advancement of women and girls as equal partners in society, was planning to reject a grant request for a program aimed at adolescent girls. When The United Way of Greater Milwaukee has addressed the lack of adequate representation of women on its board of directors, Uihlein said, it could reapply. I left Uihlein’s office realizing it was time to re-examine the issue of men, women and power.

Things have changed. This time, there are women with significant power in Milwaukee, and they are no longer keeping quiet. “God bless [Brady Corp. CEO] Katherine Hudson and [UWM Chancellor] Nancy Zimpher,” says O’Brien. “They have made being visible acceptable.”

There are also men who understand the importance of including women in decision-making and the cost of excluding them. But many do not, and it’s no coincidence that college-educated women are leaving the state at twice the rate of their male classmates! The GMC’s Economic Development Task Force lamented the brain drain as “perhaps the biggest concern in Wisconsin,” noting that “the state is losing far more than its share of young college grads to other states [100,000 in the 1990s].” The GMC formed a task force to find ways of making the region more hospitable to minority professionals, but it never mentioned the gender disparity.

Had there been more women on the task force, this might have occurred to them. It’s too bad it did not because, some argue, this gender inequity left unchecked will affect the state’s economic future and your wallet, even if you’re a male.

Wisconsin Public Radio “Career Talk” co-host Pat Alea, a Madison-based organizational change consultant, likes to point to a November 20, 2000 Business Week article that summed up a series of research studies. It concluded: “Female managers outperform their male counterparts on almost every measure: motivating others, fostering communication, producing high-quality work and listening to others.” Only on strategic planning and analyzing issues did male and female managers have similar scores.

Unlike previous studies, which relied on opinion surveys or experiments simulating business situations, these were based on actual performance reviews. “Contrary to stereotypes, women outperformed men in all kinds of intellectual areas, such as producing high-quality work, recognizing trends and generating new ideas and acting on them,” the article said, citing several studies, one including 58,000 managers.

Given all of this, you’d expect organizations hungry for talent to promote women to top management in droves, says Alea, but they are not, although Wisconsin women face fewer obstacles nowadays to garnering middle-management posts. In a report released last August by the UWM Center for Economic Development, Director Marc Levine, Ph.D., along with researchers Ryan Ranker and Lisa Heuler Williams, found “a crack” in Milwaukee’s glass ceiling. Studying data from the EEOC workforce survey, they concluded that between 1990 and 1999, 70 percent of Milwaukee’s new managerial jobs went to women. Their report netted little attention for its disturbing revelation: “Despite these encouraging trends,” the authors wrote, “Milwaukee remained near the bottom of U.S. metro areas in the proportion of women and minorities holding managerial jobs in large enterprises. The region has a long way to go simply to reach the median of major metropolitan areas.”

“It’s a factual thing. There are not enough women in leadership in Milwaukee,” says Zimpher. “When I look at the GMC, I think, ‘Thank God for female university presidents.’ So when people say, ‘The GMC looks this way because to be a member you have to be a CEO,’ I say change the rule. Because… you have to lead until the world catches up with you.”

While Milwaukee crept up the metropolitan rankings for women in supervisory posts (from 44 to 39), Minneapolis leapt 20 spots (36 to 16). To prime the pump there in 1991, some of the largest corporations in the state and a Republican state senator organized the “Minnesota 100,” pairing 100 “outstanding women” with 100 business leaders in year-long relationships across company lines. Their mission was to “end the stalling of women in middle management.”

Not only did the city’s ruling executives get to know talented women, they had a vested interest in their advancement. Today, Minneapolis attracts women in substantial numbers from other states, including ours.

It seems less likely that what happened recently in Milwaukee would occur in Minneapolis. When the board of Milwaukee’s United Way was given the names of 15 women who run their own businesses as potential nominees for board membership (to remedy the board’s gender imbalance), few of the men knew even one woman on the list.

But while the “Minnesota 100” began its work, Milwaukee held a kickoff breakfast for its United Performing Arts Fund drive. Johnson Controls CEO Jim Keyes urged the executives present, all of whom had been invited because they earned more than $60,000 a year, to make “a leadership contribution.” Only three women were in the room. “They were serving the food,” says an attendee.

In 1994, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson formed the country’s first ongoing state Glass Ceiling Commission. But when he couldn’t get the Legislature to fund it, the commission had to borrow staff from other agencies to fulfill its mission. That included establishing an employer compact where businesses would voluntarily set goals for adding women and minorities in upper management, creating the Diamond Awards to recognize companies with a significant number of women and minorities in top management, and generating names of qualified women and minorities for businesses to consult when making their boards more inclusive.

“We knew we had to have corporate CEOs involved or nothing would change,” recalls Carol Skornicka, senior vice president and general counsel of Midwest Express Airlines. Thompson and U.S. Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole gave keynote speeches. The commission offered workshops teaching CEOs to communicate that they wanted women and minorities to play key roles, then hold managers accountable for advancing them. With TV cameras rolling and 1,000 in attendance, the first Glass Ceiling Awards were distributed in 1995. But when the lights dimmed, the commission’s responsibilities were aborted, diluted and pawned off on others.

The employer compact never got off the ground, says Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, commission co-chair. There weren’t enough companies with women and minorities in top management to give awards to “so we had to change the rules and recognize companies with programs in place to help women advance,” says Skornicka.

When the Glass Ceiling Commission gave its last awards in 2000, its database of women and minorities had already been dumped on UW-Madison Business School. “Companies rarely consulted it, and it was expensive to maintain, so we discontinued it,” says Helen Capellaro, business school PR director. “It was in and trendy to address the glass ceiling in the ’90s. You could get a lot of Brownie points. But when you couldn’t get that anymore, the state government disappeared on us.” The commission has not met since 2000, though not for lack of work.

In 1999, Madison Magazine declared the ’90s “a great decade for the rise of women to posts of political power in Dane County.” The same can’t be said of Milwaukee. Even “rural Wisconsin elects far more women than urban Milwaukee,” says Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a gubernatorial candidate.

“Why don’t more women run for political office here? Because women always think, ‘I don’t know enough. I’m not good enough at x, y, z.’ Men don’t think those things. It’s socialization,” says former state legislator Rosemary Potter, now a consultant.

When UWM’s Zimpher arrived in Milwaukee, she says she was warned to “take it nice and easy and other things that all subtly referred to gender.” She laughed off the warnings, and her subsequent risk-taking helped her become the most powerful woman in Milwaukee today.

Several years ago, when the UW-Madison Business School asked some Milwaukee women to discuss the obstacles to advance-ment they face, it found a striking difference between businesswomen in the state’s two largest cities. “The Milwaukee women were very edgy about coming out and discussing it,” says Capellaro.

Perhaps this is because in Milwaukee, women are still viewed as the workhorses of organizations, not corner office material, speculates one female exec with experience in both cities. “The guys get the glory jobs; the women do all the work,” says the female president of a Milwaukee corporate division.

Even a sterling track record doesn’t guarantee a woman won’t encounter stereotypes. For 15 years as executive director, Susan Dragisic led the city’s United Performing Arts Fund to one record year after another. Across the country, only Los Angeles raised more money. But when she was interviewing for the post of executive director of United Way of Greater Milwaukee two years ago, a board member asked Dragisic whether she thought “the corporate leadership in this community” was “ready for a woman head of United Way.” The board member who asked the question was another woman.

On May 9, 1994, four months after she became the first female to head a major Wisconsin public company, manufacturer Brady Corp. CEO Katherine Hudson gave a speech that made her both a local hero and a villain. She said the ceiling keeping women out of top management isn’t glass, it’s steel, recalls one woman exec. The occasion was a rare joint meeting of the male CEO-dominated GMC and the city’s executive women’s groups, Tempo and Professional Dimensions (begun in the ’70s as an option to Rotary when it didn’t admit women).

Nearly eight years later, women still refer to Hudson’s “woodshed speech” because the city’s male leadership was taken behind the woodshed and spanked, verbally anyway, for failing to welcome women into the halls of power. Hudson’s speech inspired what many women call an “Aha!” moment, in which they realize they are smart enough and work hard enough but that the playing field is uneven and they will need help righting it.

In the years since, when these annual joint ventures have occurred, the female organizers have habitually deferred to the GMC men, complains Alverno’s Read, “and I am furious at them. They don’t take it over and say, ‘I am in charge,’ perhaps because all the male bosses in town are there. But sometimes women don’t see themselves as equals, and they betray themselves in their actions.”

But at the 1994 meeting, Hudson stepped up to the plate. This is what she said: “I speak to women all the time, so this is for the guys. You miss out on one-half of the potential of your worlds, your markets.… There are certain things that may be different for women, and guys don’t see them. Look how you spend your time in the corner office surrounded by guys. How do people get tapped for new jobs? Do you post the job description with all the hiring criteria? Or is the job filled by word of mouth? How many women do you have in profit-and-loss positions?”

Hudson then remembers saying, “When you’re in a meeting with 10 guys and one woman, and the woman says, ‘We ought to do A,’ everyone ignores her, and a guy says the same thing, and then it’s ‘Oh, yeah. Let’s do it.’ Do you realize that if there is only one woman or minority in that room, they are invisible? But that if there are three, it’s okay? There is actually behavioral psychology research on this – The Rule of Three.”

(“Until you get a critical mass of women,” YWCA’s Taylor adds now, “people don’t see that each woman executive is different, like men.” Until then, the actions of one woman become generalized to all of the rest, as they have inside one of Milwaukee’s largest companies. There, the failure of two female supervisors is so often recounted, says a woman executive in the company, “it has ruined it for every other woman. They won’t get a chance. But no one ever mentions all the men who failed in those posts.”)

Hudson didn’t stop with The Rule of Three. “At Kodak [where she headed a $2 billion division], everybody was in at 7 a.m., out at 7 p.m. or you were slacking off,” she said. “But if you’re more flexible, everybody benefits. You have less turnover and fewer devastated people. If you don’t do this, you’re not thinking about the $15,000 it takes to find and train a worker to replace every one who leaves. Of course, if there’s a crisis, everybody works 24 hours a day until it’s over.”

When Hudson finished, the room was quiet. One male CEO leaned over to a female executive, whispering, “it was nice seeing you, but I guess we’ve all been taken to the woodshed.” He took Hudson’s message better than many. “A quarter of the men who were there are still mad about what she said,” says Paul Purcell, CEO of Robert W. Baird & Co.

Afterward, Hudson put her money where her mouth was. She tore out Brady Corp.’s punch clocks, instituted flexible hours and gave Groucho Marx glasses to top managers, telling them to lighten up. Together, they completed 20 acquisitions, expanding operations to as many countries. Brady added 1,800 employees, more than doubled annual sales to nearly a half-billion dollars and increased shareholder dividends every year. While Hudson grew the company at a compound annual rate of 16 percent, she made the once rule-bound Brady a place where initiative, not waiting for permission from a patriarchal superior, is rewarded.

More than one female executive points out that few of the male CEOs who heard Hudson’s speech could match her performance, although even those with underperforming and foundering companies, such as Wisconsin Energy’s Richard Abdoo and Cobalt’s Thomas Hefty, play bigger roles at Milwaukee’s decisionmaking table.

Eight years after Hudson’s speech, relations are not much closer between the GMC and the women’s groups. Last winter, the GMC’s Stanek, Tempo’s Susan Stein and Professional Dimensions’ Patel waited in Milbourne’s office for the GMC president to arrive for a scheduled meeting to arrange another joint gathering after a year’s absence. Milbourne never showed up. One member of his staff explained that his previous meeting was running late; another told them he had a sick child at home. Weeks passed, and as this was being written, Milbourne still had not called to explain or reschedule.

When Maria Monreal-Cameron became Hispanic Chamber of Commerce director, she looked forward to joining the Coalition of Hispanic Agency Directors. Approaching the meeting room, she heard voices and laughter, but as she entered, an uneasy silence settled over the all-male group.

“I thought because I’m so new in my job, you didn’t have a chance to invite me,” Monreal-Cameron says she offered. “You don’t understand,” several of the men said. “This meeting is only for social service agencies.” Monreal-Cameron got up and put on her coat. She said, “Okay, you obviously don’t want me here, so I will leave, but I know the real reason you’re excluding me and I have the wherewithal to challenge you.”

She won. Monreal-Cameron attended every meeting after that. Since then, she has become a recognized force on her own. While Monreal-Cameron refused to leave, other women do. Most callers who complained about the lack of women in the 1993 “Powerbrokers” article have since left corporate jobs. Half have started their own businesses; several do consulting, like Lisa Berman Cabaniss. “It’s not despair behind this,” she says. “It’s reality. You devote most of your waking time to work and still feel you’re not making the most of your talents. There is a whole group of us who have left, and you would practically have to set us on fire to get us to go back to corporate jobs. Personally, I’d rather starve.”

In 1993, Wisconsin’s Glass Ceiling Task Force, forerunner of the Glass Ceiling Commission, found that 80 percent of women who said there was a glass ceiling at their previous company listed it as an important reason why they left. That’s consistent with the surprise findings of accounting firm Deloitte & Touche’s 1995 inquiry into the unusually high turnover among its up-and-coming female employees. Contrary to the belief of top management that the women wanted to stay home and raise their children, more than 90 percent were working elsewhere.

This corporate exodus may be fueling the 40 percent rise in women-owned firms (to 21,677) between 1997 and 2002. That growth rate is more rapid than the national average and more than three times the rate for all employer firms in Wisconsin, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. “Women are saying that if we’re going to have to work this hard, we’re going to put our lives in our own hands,” says Joan Lloyd, organizational change consultant. The real challenge for corporations becomes getting and keeping the bright women here.

Even young males are beginning to see it that way. Earlier this year, Catalyst, the Washington, D.C.-based research center on women in business, surveyed 5,000 male and female Gen-Xers. Rather than perks like gym memberships, it found that both males and females wanted “programs and policies that will help them balance their work and personal lives” and “strategies to help navigate advancement.”

The implications are not good for organizations wedded to the old definition of a proper executive work ethic as requiring a 60-hour work week, judging performance by face time rather than accomplishments. But that is still the case in many companies. “There is no question Wisconsin is much more conservative in its definition of work ethic than other places,” says Terry Ludeman, chief labor economist with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. At most Wisconsin companies, the expectations of workers remain the same as they were when only one parent worked, even though a greater percentage of women work in Wisconsin than in any other state.

Does this help explain why, over the past decade, Wisconsin has lost twice as many college-educated women to the brain drain as men? (Women also graduate in greater numbers.) “This is a very important issue, and it’s not talked about,” says Louise Root-Robbins, UW System coordinator for women’s issues. “Younger people want a life outside of work,” she says. “We’re so far behind on this,… but employers here don’t look at why kids are leaving. They just say, ‘Oh, they got a better offer.’ But number one, our taxes are too high. Our wages are too low [Wisconsin women rank 46th among the 50 states on pay equity with men] and there is this whole area of work-life balance. We’re just not in the game.”

In mid-January, Ludeman told GMC members that the flight of young women has ominous implications. “It was just the kind of group who needs to hear this,” he says, “96 percent white male CEOs.” Tracking 16- and 18-year-olds from 1990 to 1998, when they turned 24 to 26 years old, “Wisconsin lost 4.7 percent of males and 9.3 percent of females to other states,” confirms Dale Knapp, senior researcher for Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance.

The number of females aged 22 to 30 drops off considerably, too, says Ludeman. “Not only are we losing educated females, we’re also losing the childbearer, and Wisconsin is already aging much faster than the rest of the U.S.” While the rest of the country has returned to near baby boom birthrates, Wisconsin’s has dropped 30 percent.

By 2015, “Wisconsin will be up against a wall,” predicts Ludeman, with more residents turning 65 than 18. The labor force won’t grow and “it will be hard for companies to even replace retirees.” GMC members asked what they could do to ward off the drastic effects on the state’s economy. He told them: “Become more hospitable to minorities and immigrants and get women into areas where we haven’t traditionally allowed them.”

kimberly wedell experienced an “Aha!” moment while recounting her story.

Wedell was the sole woman principal in the Milwaukee office of the worldwide human resources consulting firm, William M. Mercer Inc., and the only woman on its operating committee. She headed the office’s communications practice, which helps large firms tell employees about changes in benefits. Wedell’s practice wasn’t as “important” as the retirement or healthcare practices of her male colleagues, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to enjoy her job and grow her practice.

Her staff was all women, most with children, and when she would bring up their need for flexibility to the operating committee, her male colleagues would say, “We can’t do that.” They weren’t rude to her. “They were just so unaware of why these issues would be issues to me,” she says. “They probably thought, ‘We’ve got this covered. We’ve got a woman on our operating committee.”

Wedell worked from 5:15 a.m. until 7 p.m. “I was putting in so many hours,” she says, “I just lost sight of parts of my life.” If you’d ask the name of her son’s dentist, she didn’t know, yet because Mercer liked its executives to entertain clients, she learned to golf, although she was never invited to an outing.

By 1997, she’d begun thinking she wasn’t any good at her job. “In absolute frustration [and with plenty of self-doubt from years of not being taken seriously],” Wedell quit, without another job. She joined Professional Dimensions, where, to her amazement, she met three African-American women starting their own bank. “I didn’t even think you could do that,” she says. “But that’s what got me on fire. That’s what gave me the vision.” The women opened Legacy Bank, and Wedell, with two former Mercer employees, started her own communications practice.

Today, The Roc Group has offices in Mequon, Chicago and Muskegon, Michigan, with affiliates in San Francisco and England. Most of Wedell’s former staff left the old firm and work for her on a contract basis, giving them the flexibility they’d wanted. Many of her old clients seek services from her firm. She’s brought in lots of new business, too. “I guess I am pretty good at this after all,” she says. Her clients include Northwestern Mutual, Journal Communications, Snap-On Tools, Briggs & Stratton, Johnson Controls, Miller Brewing, the University of Chicago and other large employers.

“For someone who left feeling totally washed up, the last four years have been the most exciting period of my life,” she says.

“Driving home, I experienced an epiphany of sorts,” Wedell e-mailed me later. “…It dawned on me that although I felt like the illegitimate child on Mercer’s operating committee, the fact was, I was the only one with an MBA… yet I was the one who felt inferior!”

Philanthropist Lynde Uihlein is even more reclusive than her notoriously private mother, the late Jane Pettit, and though few even know her name, she is poised to have more influence on the uneven playing field than just about anyone else in Wisconsin. She has begun using her Brico Fund’s mission, equality of girls and women, as both carrot and stick, putting pressure on local wallets. Things began to change in 2000 when she underwrote the first local study of gender bias in youth programs. Looking at United Way, it found that girls’ programs received a half-million dollars less than boys’ programs.

A quiet revolution began when United Way then took up Uihlein’s concern about the gender balance of its board. In 1991, women accounted for a third of the seats. By last October, it was just 17 percent. “We had drifted,” says United Way President Dragisic.

Word seems to be spreading that Uihlein is looking at different criteria than did her mother. Not-for-profits that exclude women won’t get funding. For 50 years, the board of Milwaukee’s Boys and Girls Clubs was the ultimate male bunker. Last November, it departed dramatically from its previous succession plan, choosing Mary Ellen Stanek as its chair-elect. In January, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra followed suit, naming its first-ever female president-elect, Judy Jorgensen. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been qualified women. Jorgensen, a retired Waukesha County Technical College dean, had already led MSO’s annual fund drive and headed its governance committee.

Uihlein is working on other fronts, too. In January, Planned Parenthood and Wisconsin Citizen Action offered a day of intense training for women interested in running for political office. Event planners would have been happy to see 30 women in attendance; when 130 showed up, they were ecstatic.

Uihlein is also behind the YWCA-sponsored “Living Room Project,” a statewide grass-roots effort based on the belief that women get together for book clubs and PTAs but rarely consider the issue of women and power. Already there are some 30 groups. Says Madison-based Executive Director Kate Peyton: The Living Room Project is “a call to action, not another coping mechanism. It will help us say, ‘Here’s the data – we can do something more about it besides cry.’ ”

When the city’s most powerful women discuss gender and power, they take solace in the emergence of a number of male CEOs, the “guys who get it.” By this they mean men who realize the importance of a diverse decisionmaking group and are willing to stand up to the old boys’ network to make it happen. The same names come up: Manpower’s Jeff Joerres, Baird’s Paul Purcell and Journal Communications’ Steve Smith. Others say there are “promising signs” that Edward Zore, head of the 2000-pound gorilla, Northwestern Mutual, will be one, too.

“You want to take these people and get ’em in faster because it will really help the corporation. I consider it essential to have people with diverse backgrounds and views,” says Joerres, who just hired Executive Vice President Barbara Beck to run Manpower’s U.S. and Canadian operations. “How do we make Milwaukee an electric place? The kind of place I know we can be? We have to challenge ourselves… break all the traditional rules of how people get invited to the table. It’s time to bring in fresh and energetic talent.”

Purcell says putting women in positions of power is so important that he’s made it part of his strategic plan “because despite what everybody tells you, women have had to be better than men in this business. [Baird Advisor’s Stanek has beat the industry average for bond funds in 10 of the past 11 years.] Women are outliving men. The women will end up with the assets, and women like to deal with women. And when it comes to civic leadership, somebody’s going to finally get it right and stop thinking, ‘You’re a woman and I’m a guy’ and realize we’re partners.”

There are other signs things are changing for local women. Last winter, the Rotary Club formed a focus group to figure out why it has such high turnover of its female members. It also established policies to create a friendlier climate for a diverse membership. Many women say it’s time for the GMC and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to do the same soul-searching.

Certainly, opportunities have been lost. The past decade “should have been a time when women and people of color moved ahead, but in good economic times, no one wants to rock the boat,” says YWCA’s Taylor. Now that may be the silver lining in the dark cloud of the current recession. Given the leadership void in Milwaukee, it couldn’t be a better time for women to step forward.

Clearly, women like Zimpher are. Together with MMAC President Tim Sheehy, Firstar Bank President Jay Williams and SC Johnson Senior Vice President/General Counsel Jo Anne Brandes, Zimpher has organized a remarkably inclusive ongoing metro-area economic summit that dwarfs the GMC’s in size and scope, involving seven counties and stakeholders from six arenas, including labor, business and education. “That’s the new day,” says Zimpher.

Is the most powerful woman in Milwaukee confident the budding revolution will succeed? “I don’t know yet, but I’m on a committee trying to do that,” she says.

Perhaps this can become Milwaukee’s “Aha!” moment.

Mary Van de Kamp Nohl is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.