Experts address issues facing women in business during the NJBIZ panel

Women have come a long way in the workplace over the past three decades, but they still face challenges when it comes to reaching their full potential.

Of the 4.2 million people who make up New Jersey’s workforce, women make up 47%. Although the percentage of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher is slightly higher than the percentage of men (41% to 40.5%), they still earn less.

In addition to being outnumbered and underpaid, women regularly face gender-based discrimination both in the workplace and in business operations.

Despite significant advances in the areas of education, health care and community services, women have not progressed as much in other sectors with many activities still predominantly male, such as natural resources, construction and maintenance (98.8%); law enforcement (86.9%); architecture and engineering (86.7%); and transportation (85.7%).

Since the pandemic, women’s labor force participation rates in the country have rebounded greatly, but thousands continue to sacrifice full-time employment, higher wages, health insurance and other benefits for the flexibility to care for young children and aging parents.

And as New Jersey’s economy continues to recover from the crisis caused by COVID-19, there is increasing focus on what kinds of changes are needed to better support women who are thriving.

During a Dec. 14 NJBIZ virtual panel discussion, female CEOs of New Jersey-based companies spoke about their experiences and offered guidance to the next generation of women entering the business world.

The moderator was NJBIZ editor Jeffrey Kanige, and the panelists spoke:

  • Elene Costan, human resources manager at Berje Inc., a leader in the flavor and fragrance industry based in Carteret
  • Kate Janukowicz, Director of Commercial and Criminal Litigation and Director of Associate Professional Development, Retention and Recruiting at Gibbons PC in Newark
  • Masha Sherman, Chief Financial Officer for Greek Development Inc, a vertically integrated industrial-focused real estate company based in East Brunswick

During the 90-minute discussion, the group explored how companies can add more women to leadership roles, what can be done to retain them, how virtual work environments affect women’s advancement in the workplace, coping with challenges and setting boundaries to maintain work-life balance. .

NJBIZ women in business panel discussion

Clockwise from top left: The Dec. 14 NJBIZ panel discussion on women in business, moderated by editor Jeffrey Kanige, included panelists Kate Janukowicz, Gibbons PC; Elene Costan, Berjé Inc.; and Masha Sherman, Greek Development Inc. – NJBIZ

One of the biggest pieces of advice related not only to standing up for yourself – but also for other female colleagues. And while each of their companies offers some sort of formal mentoring program, the executives also talked about the importance of informal mentoring opportunities.

At Gibbons, Janukowicz said the firm has massive mentoring groups that include members from different practice areas, as well as smaller mentoring groups.

“It’s really open communication, checking in and constantly saying like, ‘Are you moving this in the right direction?’ Is that what you want?’ and don’t lose track of yourself because you’re so bogged down in work and six years later you’re thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Did I want to do that?’”

Sherman said, “It’s about giving back. I personally love mentoring – officially, unofficially – because I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am today and if I can inspire someone and give them practical advice on how to succeed in their career… that’s the least I can do.”

Costan echoed that sentiment, saying, “We need to support each other in life and in the workplace.”

Janukowicz agreed: “I feel the women who work here are the best support and support system. No competition… Makes you look better; it elevates everything… If you’re too rough, it’s not a good look.”

Recruitment and retention

Each executive highlighted the processes used to recruit employees, which differed from company to company.

Janukowicz said, “One of the initiatives we’ve taken here at Gibbons is to become Mansfield certified – that’s a certification signed by more than 100 law firms across the country. One of the things we do in the hiring process with me is to make sure that at least 30% of the candidates we interview for lateral positions as third-year associates and above are underrepresented populations — women, people of color, LGBTQ, and attorneys with disabilities.”

In Greece, Sherman said the focus was “trying to make some of the key processes when it comes to promotions and hiring as objective as possible and set the same standard that everyone is held to, regardless of their background.”

“I firmly believe it starts with the hiring process. What we have done with the departments is develop different tests depending on the position. The tests are really objective and we give the same test, depending on the position, to everyone who comes through the door, regardless of where they’ve been in the real estate industry before or if they’ve been out of the workforce for a while for a few years,” she said. “The test is designed [to measure] thinking ability — analytical skills, critical thinking and resourcefulness. Making the process as objective as possible and putting everyone to the same test has worked really, really well for us.”

Janukowicz urged job seekers to “do as much research as possible and find out as much information as possible” about a potential employer and ask themselves “is this a good fit for me?”

“This is also your career. Don’t get lost in the fact that you want to be chosen. This is your show, you know,” she said.

Replay: NJBIZ Panel discussion: Women in business

Click to register to watch the entire panel discussion!

Retaining talent is just as important as attracting it, executives said.

“As is often discussed, the point is … to keep those people,” said Janukowicz, who went on to highlight some of the company’s retention initiatives, which include offering “relaxed or more flexible work schedules” and “flexible work environments “.

Costan said, “Sustainable leadership is really not just about the environment, but more about what you do to sustain your employees. It’s about gender, it’s about generation and it’s about race. Many companies look to us for certification to demonstrate the efforts we make in recruitment, retention and training to ensure we have diversity. So, I think it depends on both partners — the employer and the employee. You have to be committed to each other to succeed.”

Sherman agreed that it’s “definitely a two-way street.”

“It’s actually about communication. Everyone should know their manager and communicate with them, especially if they are motivated to move to the next level… On the other hand, it is our responsibility in management to really recognize someone who, when offered a promotion, works very hard, but may be hesitant mention this,” she said.

The presenters also spoke about the importance of continuous professional development.

Sherman said, “Sometimes you have to really push your boundaries—your personal boundaries—and get out of your comfort zone. You have to be your own biggest advocate. Even though people in leadership positions, I strongly believe it’s their responsibility to mentor and pay attention, it’s a two-way street.”

Costan urged women to “find a coach and invest in themselves.”

“Make sure you never stop learning… Make sure you know what your skills are and be open to criticism and improvement. Imposter syndrome never goes away and that’s not a bad thing. It continues to teach you,” she said.

Although each company conducts some type of employee review, executives believe that workers also need to track their accomplishments and how they relate to their overall career goals.

Janukowicz noted that in the business world, men are generally promoted “based on their looks or potential,” while women seek advancement “based on their past accomplishments.”

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“It’s harder at first, especially in an industry like ours, where associates are assigned what they’re given… They don’t really have a lot of freedom there,” she explained. “So one of the things we always advocate is to create your business plan, label everything you do — whether you think it’s tangible or intangible. Go to events, attend panels and the like. You meet people and get out there. These are all things you could do with intrinsically good products.”

She added: “Choose yourself.” Get the company out there. Be a good ambassador for your company.”

Sherman said, “We started doing Greek self-checks a few years ago…. [and] I’m a big proponent of it because it’s an opportunity not only to show what you’ve done to your manager [or] to his team. It’s really good to sit down, think critically about what you’ve achieved during the year… It’s also an opportunity again to think critically about setting goals [and] communicating them to your manager, your superiors.”

Sherman said, “For me, it comes down to relatively simple things: first recognizing your own value, what you bring to the table, and recognizing the value of each of your teammates regardless of their gender, their background. Because we all have a unique skill set, we all have something to offer – strengths and weaknesses.”

Costan said Berjé’s approach to reviews is similar to Gibbons’ process and revolves around questions like “Where do you see yourself?” and “What do you need from us to help you get there?”

“We provide training and mentoring… not everyone wants to be a manager, but if they do, great. It’s about going through their career with them, listening, not just assessing them once a year,” she said. “Two-way communication and really listening and trying to do things about it is really helpful for the growth of those employees who have the ability and the desire.”

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