Feeling the Woman of Power
San Diego has been carrying on a quiet love affair with powerful women for years.
By Amber Cyphers
For a city still sometimes perceived as a conservative backwater, San Diego has some surprisingly progressive quirks, and one of the more interesting is the area’s abundance of smart, talented women in positions of considerable influence. From Anne Evans, chair of Evans Hotels and a Federal Reserve Board appointee, to the legendary Deborah Szekely, owner of Rancho La Puerta and The Golden Door spas, who makes a point of starting a new adventure with every decade of her life. From Tina Nova, president of Genoptix, a biotech powerhouse, to Diane Rose, the innovative mayor of Imperial Beach, it seems powerful, influential women are everywhere. But is this a sign San Diego loves a woman in charge, or an illusion?
According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, in 2002 California had more women-owned firms than any other state. That same year, Susan Nowalski, president of AMN Healthcare, was the highest-paid corporate executive in San Diego, pulling in $15 million. On the surface, it looks like women should be celebrating. We found plenty of influential women who agreed San Diego is a haven for professional women—at least to some degree—but there were caveats.
Carol Wallace, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, has made that award-winning center one of the top-rated facilities in the world —one that will collect $26.4 million in tax revenues for the city this year.
“It seems that in [the convention industry] women are well-represented at the top,” Wallace says. “I think part of it is because women can be very organized in how we approach planning and how we approach management.
Look at the home,” she says, laughing. “Women are the COOs.”
While Wallace acknowledges she’s in an industry that’s open to women in general, she says San Diego is atypically welcoming.
“I think you have a lot of women in San Diego who are excellent at reaching out to new women and co-opting them in—making sure they meet the right people, get to the right programs—and giving them advice. I found that unique here.”
Still, even though we seem to have moved well beyond the stage of “every man an executive, every woman an executive assistant,” we’re hardly living in a garden of absolute equality. There is still a tendency to stereotype women—most notably in corporate environments but also in some traditionally male-dominated public offices.
United States Attorney Carol Lam tells of the time she was second-chairing a major case in the San Diego office, and the prosecution team was debriefing a man who was a cooperating witness. In the room were the lead prosecutor—a man—six male FBI agents and Lam. Halfway through the meeting, she says, the witness looked over at her and said, “Can I have a cup of coffee?”
After a shocked silence, one of the FBI agents, who knew Lam well enough to anticipate her reaction, jumped to his feet. “I’ll get it!” he said, and ran out of the room to fetch the coffee.
“I was very grateful to that FBI agent,” says Lam. “I certainly hope I’m judged by my capabilities and not my gender. But as a woman who holds a job that has always been held by men, I have to confess I enjoy breaking the mold. I think what really counts in this job is one’s experience. I’ve been a federal prosecutor for 16 years, so I’ve had a long time to get comfortable in this role as a woman.”
Still, she says, “I do think the West Coast generally seems to have an open-mindedness that may make it easier for women to gain acceptance in areas of public influence.”
Joyce Glazer, a noted philanthropist and Salvation Army National Advisory Board member, was vice president of public relations for a large banking organization before she came to San Diego. When she arrived here, she says, she immediately noticed a difference in the number of influential women, particularly in the nonprofit sector.
“I’m a member of the downtown Rotary [Club 33], and the president of the club is a woman,” she says. “There are some pretty powerful women in this community, some women with a lot of credentials.” Another organization she cites is the San Diego Women’s Foundation. “It was founded four years ago,” she says, “because San Diego was one of only a few large cities in the nation that didn’t specifically have a women’s foundation.”
Mentoring and networking are recurring themes in explaining why San Diego seems so women-friendly. So is the idea that women excel in entrepreneurial areas—and San Diego has a great business climate for entrepreneurs.
Gail Naughton was named dean of San Diego State University’s College of Business in 2002. Before that, she was a biotechnology innovator. As cofounder of Advanced Tissue Sciences and inventor of its core technology, Naughton spent more than 15 years holding key management positions and developing patented technology.
“In general, San Diego is the friendliest business and academic environment I’ve been involved in. It also is an extremely creative area and very entrepreneurial,” Naughton says. “I never felt I had to prove myself in San Diego because I’m a woman. People were very, very willing to go out of their way to bring me into their circle. That continues to be true.
“It’s a combination of not only a very rapidly growing creative culture in San Diego but also groups like Athena [a networking group for women in biotechnology] that have gone out of their way to help women feel comfortable, to give them the tools and network they need to move up the ladder very rapidly,” she says. “There are far more women in rapidly advancing positions here than I’ve seen in New York, Boston or Atlanta, for example.”
Julie Meier-Wright, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Development Corporation and former secretary of trade and commerce during Pete Wilson’s governorship, agrees.
“When I was recruited down here,” Meier-Wright says, “I came to a region that was extremely welcoming and, at the time, had huge numbers of women in elected office—from a female San Diego mayor and several members of the City Council to women on the Board of Supervisors. I think women benefit as professionals in entrepreneurial regions doing cutting-edge things, and that description fits San Diego. ... I think those kinds of environments are more open-minded. They’re much more concerned about talent; they’re collaborative.”
Nikki Clay is a partner in Carpi & Clay, a government-relations firm. She’s also a former president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership and a member of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego Taxpayers Association and the Holiday Bowl board. She was the first woman president of the Holiday Bowl, in 1996.
“It was a fun, wonderful year,” she says. “We joked a lot about the fact that I was the first woman, but we had a great time. Lisa Richards just finished up year before last as the second woman, so this is a group that likes working with women and certainly doesn’t feel intimidated having women as president of a bowl game.”
Clay is another believer in the importance of mentoring and networking, noting that women in San Diego have a strong tendency to support each other.
“We have a lot of great women role models,” she says. “If you look at the current and former legislators in San Diego, we’ve got some pretty amazing women: Lucy Killea, Dede Alpert, Chris Kehoe. And these women are very generous with their time.
“One thing I think differentiates women in this community is that in leadership roles they tend to be consensus-builders. I have seen it at the Downtown Partnership. I saw Anne Evans chair the Chamber of Commerce, and Lisa Briggs [as executive director of the San Diego] Taxpayers’ Association. They have a leadership style that is very strong.”
When asked about women in positions of power, the first words out of District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ mouth are “I notice there’s not enough.
“The glass ceiling is still there,” she says. “Even in government, we don’t have enough women in management positions, and part of that is a function of [a tendency to promote] from within. Because women were underrepresented to begin with, it takes a long time to get up to that level.”
Says Patti Roscoe, chairman of PRA Destination Management: “I think women get to a certain level in their company and—I don’t care what men say—there is a glass ceiling. A woman has to balance being smart and tough and one of the boys with being feminine. It’s still true: We have to do more homework; we have to be smarter; we have to understand their world. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work and a great sense of humor.”
Phyllis Schwartz, president and general manager of NBC 7/39, says she works with quite a few executive women in San Diego and has noticed a lot of extraordinary women in charge at nonprofit organizations. But, she says, she hasn’t stopped to wonder if that was an anomaly.
“Many, many women are in the upper echelon of the television industry,” she says. “I came up at a time when there were fewer women than now, but it was definitely accelerating at a very fast pace. So now you get the payoff. I think I was getting into the pipeline right when there was an explosion of women having more opportunities, and now it isn’t unusual to see women general managers.”
There has been some attrition locally. When Schwartz arrived four years ago, there were three female television general managers in town—an unusually high number for a market this size. Now she’s the only one.
Local politics is another area that has been losing women. While San Diego has for years welcomed female politicians, fewer and fewer appear to be accepting the invitation.
“Generally speaking, I have always found the community very open to new people,” says state Assembly member Christine Kehoe, speaker pro tem and chair of the legislature’s Lavender Caucus (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). “If you want to get involved with an organization, if you’re willing to pitch in, people will definitely find a spot for you, and you can usually advance yourself and take on more responsibility.”
Kehoe says being a woman may, in fact, have given her an edge in running for office. Referring to 1992—the year Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and many other female candidates were elected—she says the trend continued for a while in California and particularly in San Diego. She points to Lucy Killea, Dede Alpert, Susan Davis and former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk as examples. But she also notes that fewer women seem to be going into politics now.
San Diego Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins agrees. “We’ve actually lost women, not gained,” she says. “If you look at the state level, the Women’s Caucus in the Assembly is definitely losing members. We’ve certainly lost women on the City Council. We used to have a 5-4 majority, and now there’s only two of us.”
The decreasing number of women in elected office has caused some concern. Emily’s List, which typically concerns itself with pro-choice, Democrat women in federal elections, has started to get involved at the state level, because it feels too few women are being groomed to fill the ranks of those who are retiring.
Meanwhile, there are still only a handful of female CEOs of major corporations.
For its 2004 report on the status of women executives, Athena did a survey of publicly traded companies headquartered in San Diego, representing a wide range of industries, from just under 60 to more than 6,000 employees. The results were markedly different than the anecdotal evidence. Only 3 percent of the total board members were women, and 83 percent of the companies did not list a single female board member. Only 7 percent of executive officers were women, and 67 percent of San Diego companies listed no female executive officers at all.
San Diego may love a woman in charge, but it appears many San Diego corporations do not. It’s a pity, because, as Julie Meier-Wright says, “I think the number of women in business is one reason San Diego is a nice place to be—and that’s not selling the men short.”