Need A Mentor? These Women Have Lessons To Share For Making It To The Top Of Your Profession

Patricia Sabatini
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Patricia Sabatini “asked a handful of women in Pittsburgh to share their secrets and advice for making it to the top. They had lots to say. If there is a consensus, it’s this: Speak up. Cultivate a support system. And have a thick skin.”


It’s easy to forget that only 100 years ago, women didn’t even have the right to vote.

That right, secured in 1920, came a few years after women’s participation in the workforce grew during World War I in traditional female roles such as nurses and teachers, in unconventional jobs vacated by men, and in munitions factories to support the war effort.

Women have since moved into all sorts of male-dominated fields, but there’s still catching up to do. Take the executive suite. Among Fortune 500 companies, just 8% have female CEOs.

In 2015, the percentage of women in the C-suite in the U.S. (top posts such as CEO, CFO and COO) was 17%, according to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. In 2020, it was 21%.

In 2015, the share of women in senior vice president roles in the U.S. was 23%, according to McKinsey. In 2020, it was 28%.

You get the picture.

According to a 2019 study by Working Mother Research Institute, roughly 75% of women say a big obstacle to gender equality in the workplace is lack of information on how to advance their careers.

With that in mind, we asked a handful of women in Pittsburgh to share their secrets and advice for making it to the top. They had lots to say. If there is a consensus, it’s this: Speak up. Cultivate a support system. And have a thick skin.

Stephanie Apostolou, general counsel and secretary, Koppers
Residence: Upper St. Clair
Focus on the things you can control. And what you can control is your own growth, development and performance. Make sure you are putting as much time, effort and focus into your own development and learning and performance and be the best you can be.

Obviously, also be respectful of those around you and understanding.

If you focus on the things you can control and are able to be the best you can be when you show up at your workplace, if you are in the right place, success will follow and you will be appreciated. If you are not in the right place, and people don’t appreciate you, you must find a place that does.

My mom was a professional in Pittsburgh at a large corporation for over 40 years. We shared a lot of stories as I have been working. The workforce she came along in and what I did are very different. It’s not the same as in the ’60s when women were stuck in typing pools. We work alongside men in all sorts of professional settings.

(Today) male domination is much less overt. That is not to say there aren’t situations where the boy’s club exists … When you run into that situation, it can be disappointing, discouraging and distracting. Don’t let it distract you.

I can think of after-work functions or cocktail hours where coincidentally all the men go. Coincidentally, none of the women got the invite. I would say things like that happened early in my career. It happens less and less these days.

Generally, try to stay positive and control what’s in your ability to control.
Kelauni Jasmyn, founder and CEO of the advocacy group Black Tech Nation; co-founder of the investment firm Black Tech Nation Ventures.
Residence: Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood.

My top advice is to stop playing into stereotypes of what it means to be a female leader.

I think we can sometimes buy into our own mental limitations that society tells us we should have. We can tend to bucket ourselves around the expectations of others.

In my heart, I am on the same level as anyone else. I don’t think of myself as a woman or as Black until I’m reminded by outside forces.

Those outside forces can be very loud, and it’s easy to fall victim when outside forces tell you what to aspire to or tell you how you should show up. But I’ve never been one to see those barriers. I try not to.

We know that who you know is the ladder to success. Literally.

A societal boundary is for women not to be too forceful in social situations.

When I see a group of men at networking events, I’ll make a point to insert myself as if they were already expecting me to come. That’s a part of just believing I belong in every space. That came with practice on my part.

I’ve watched women circle around a group of men. Just hang out. The men don’t realize she is circling out of (being uncomfortable) and don’t invite them in. Historically men have had closed groups.

I would beg women to start to recognize ways not to tiptoe.
Diane Hupp, president, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
Residence: Fox Chapel

Find a coach and a mentor. Since I became the chief nursing officer in my former role, I had a mentor to talk candidly with.

Also, when someone comes knocking at the door and asks if you want to take on an opportunity that might not be in your wheelhouse, take it.

About 25 years ago, I was asked to move to the operating room. I didn’t know much about the operating room, but I’m glad (I took the job). It helped me grow.

Engage with [people] outside your immediate organization. I try to manage my time and serve on organizations outside the hospital. That helps you keep networked.

Ask for what you are looking for. I have been one to sit with my leader and say, ‘I have these skills and abilities.’ You need to promote yourself and the skills and abilities that you have. Talk about the achievements you have been able to make along the way that have been right up there despite gender.

I keep looking at what’s next and what I need to get there.
Christina Cassotis, CEO, Allegheny County Airport Authority
Residence: Sewickley

I’m often asked what it is like to be a woman CEO. I can be a bit glib about the question because what am I comparing it to?

So many women went before me who had to fight for the right to even be considered — for school, for a job, for a promotion, for a chance. And in some parts of the world, and even in this country, that is still the case.

So for that — it does matter to talk about my experience as a woman who is a CEO.

That being said, good leaders are good leaders because they understand people. Effective leadership today draws on collaboration with staff and the community.

My advice? Define success, trust your instincts and pay attention to the people who value your contributions.
I’ve faced some obstacles as a woman in aviation — including being asked to fetch coffee on an airplane and in a conference room and much worse. I’ve been told that I’m too ambitious, too opinionated, too much — too often.

However, that has not been the case in Pittsburgh. Here it seems that what I do is what matters, and I’m grateful for that.
Toni Roeller, senior vice president — in-store environment, visual merchandising and house of sport, Dick’s Sporting Goods
Residence: Cranberry

I have to be candid. I’ve never looked at an environment as male versus female. I’ve grown up in retail and worked for a variety of retailers.

It’s been a situation of … showing up with accountability and empathy. Those have been my guideposts.

It’s so important to create relationships across an organization. Their strategies are as important as what you have on your plate.

Lead with empathy. You think about an environment where everyone wants to show up every day and do their best, whether they are dealing with aging parents or school-age kids. We have to be empathetic to (those situations).

When you think about climbing a ladder, rarely is there an individual who can do everything. It really is making sure you are bringing people along in the journey.

I’ve never been someone who looks at the concept of a male-dominated environment as a negative thing. We all come to the table with a lot of value and different experiences.

I realize not all industries are as far along in that journey. I guess I feel a bit lucky where I haven’t had a situation where I felt it was a hindrance to my growth.

Don’t put any self-imposed stereotypical obstacles in your path as you grow your career.
Kelley Costa, owner of Churn, an ice cream and coffee business with three area locations.
Residence: Allison Park

Before I became an entrepreneur in 2015, I was well aware I was functioning in a male-dominated world.

I was in the land of public accounting, and the roles could not be more defined. If something was not completed properly or at deadline, a man had to be put on it to get it back on track.

Men were also seen as more dedicated; after all, women were juggling careers, kids and housework. They even began building different paths for men and women to make their way to the top.

In my mind, there was a lot to prove in the land of business owners. Typically, women were still viewed as having shops such as Etsy, crafts or pyramid companies where they were handed much of their daily tasks. They may not have the responsibility of providing a main source of income, so they were stereotyped as creating hobbies more than operating businesses.

As I began Churn, if nothing else, I wanted to make my own way and change that.

Here is what my years at Churn have taught me thus far:

You need to have thick skin. Everyone has an opinion, and when it comes to speaking to a woman, people seem more than ready to share with them. You will hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Take it in stride. If you can learn from it, do it; but never — and I will say never — let it end you.

Seek support from others. Realize that other business owners may have experience in areas that you don’t. Ask for their advice on things like sourcing products, hiring staff, and managing supply chain disruptions.

Be bold. You need to be able to defend yourself and your business. You need to have clear boundaries. Do not be a doormat to anyone — customers, employees or vendors. Customers are absolutely necessary, but there are a few who do not know where to draw the lines. Help them.

Always remember, you have risked, in some cases, everything to take this shot. Let the general masses decide if it was worth taking, not a handful of naive folk.

If you need better price deals, ask. If you need more delivery days, ask. If you need more product availability, ask. It is your lifeline, try to expend everything to make it happen.

Be able to motivate. You will have to motivate your workers, your customers, and, at times, yourself. If you are not excited about the product or end goal, why should they be?

Men are not going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be coming along. Someone once told me, if you hear a girl bossing around her friends, you think what a b*tch; but if you hear a boy doing the same thing, you think, well that is a leader.

I stand behind the outspoken, domineering girl. It’s your world. Take your shot.

(c)2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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