By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer
They take field trips to the London Stock Exchange and put one another on top boards. They run companies. They donate to causes. They mentor rising stars. These are Cincinnati's newest elite, a growing circle of powerful women. And when Nancy Zimpher arrives in town as president of the University of Cincinnati, she'll be warmly welcomed into the fold.
"Everybody just can't wait to meet her," says Kathryn Merchant, CEO and president of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
Zimpher's appointment - and her advance reviews as a master collaborator with city stakeholders - are the clearest signs yet that women are shaking up leadership traditions here.
They are directing major health services, running the ballet and the opera, controlling charity funds, leading the region's tourism efforts and helping shape redevelopment downtown.
A woman just became publisher of the Enquirer, the largest media outlet in the region. A woman judge is overseeing the city's police reforms. A woman is in line to take over the Bengals, which would make her only the second female CEO in NFL history.
All this in a city whose exclusive business groups, the Commonwealth Club and the Commercial Club, didn't admit a single woman until 1996. Now there are eight female members - still a small percentage, but another sign of change.
"I would just tell the guys, 'Hey, you better look in your rearview mirror, because something's gaining on you,' " businesswoman Janet Reid says with a laugh. She's incoming chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati, the first woman to hold that position in the organization's 165-year history.
Reid remembers when things were different. She started her career at Procter & Gamble, and she has fond memories of two men who became her mentors there. In the early '80s, they gave her advice that still makes her laugh.
No pants, no purse
One said she should never wear pants, because that would be intimidating, and that the odder she looked, the more brilliant she would have to be. The other advised, "Janet, if you're going to be successful at P&G, you cannot carry a purse."
Try as she might, she couldn't quite manage without one, she says.
In those days, Cincinnati's business community as a whole was a buttoned-down bastion of maleness. White men got things done in the community, building on their trust in each other.
To some extent, that's still true. But, increasingly, today's complex problems demand leaders with more diverse perspectives, experts say. As women come up through academic, corporate and other professional pipelines, more of them are assuming leadership roles.
Procter, for instance, is well-known for putting women in charge of some of its biggest businesses. Deb Henretta and Susan Arnold, for example, are among Fortune magazine's top 100 most powerful women in business.
The highest-ranking female at P&G is Charlotte Otto, global external relations officer. Like her boss, company president and chief executiveA.G. Lafley, she exemplifies the good corporate citizen. Among other activities, Otto since 2002 has been chairwoman of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., where she has helped focus its mission on ensuring a safe and clean downtown.
She's also active in the social networks, where business often gets done. There's the Queen City Club - Otto is one of three women on the board - and the Commonwealth Club, which requires a vote of the members to admit new businesspeople.
Both organizations are decades old and predominantly male. But for the past 10 years, Cincinnati's women leaders have had their own equivalent: The Women's Capital Club, in which women invest money together.
A network of women
Otto is a member. So are U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott, who is overseeing the Cincinnati police reforms, and Reid. There's also Thompson Hine law partner Patricia Mann Smithson, retired Cincinnati Bell executive Barbara Stonebraker, E.W. Scripps vice president Denise Kuprionis and 34 others.
Besides investing together, the women support one another's causes and talk about where the city is headed. They have visited the Toronto and New York stock exchanges, and this fall they'll be doing the same in London.
Otto once made a presentation to the group about the Banks project to remake Cincinnati's riverfront. Reid expressed interest and soon found herself serving with Otto on the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, which is overseeing the project.
Another key network for women is the YWCA's Career Women of Achievement program. It brings together annual award winners with rising female leaders, and it does so in a way that is racially diverse, says Peg Wyant, a venture capitalist and former P&G manager.
Many of these women are eager to welcome Zimpher, the new UC president.
As the unofficial ambassador to incoming superstars, Otto will soon be inviting both Zimpher and the Enquirer's new publisher, Margaret Buchanan, to luncheons with other women leaders.
Otto started the tradition last year, when Valerie Lemmie arrived as Cincinnati's city manager.
"I am just so excited about what's happening here," Otto says. "There are women now in some of the most important roles in the community. I think that's part of a transformation that's happening in our city that's going to take us from good to great."
A mix around the table
Nonetheless, this city was built largely by men.
"We should be very proud of these things (with women leaders), but we ought to be proud of the A.G. Lafleys of the world, too," says John Williams, who spent 16 years as Cincinnati's chamber president before retiring in 2001. "We ought to be proud of the great people we've got."
He and others believe a mix of genders, races and backgrounds around the table brings about more exciting ideas.
Experts also have found that women tend to lead in different ways than men - ways that can enhance organizations. They're comfortable, for instance, in relatively free-flowing management structures as opposed to strict chains of command, says Sally Helgesen in her book, The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership.
This lends itself to collaboration and consensus-building, two other traits associated with women.
"I think maybe, because of that, women tend to be better listeners," says Merchant, CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
"That's not to say women don't come to meetings with fully formed ideas of what's the right thing to do. But part of the process of finding solutions is listening to what people have to say and finding common ground."
The Bills and the Joes
Merchant pushed for such an approach by the Metropolitan Growth Alliance, a group formed in 1997 to encourage cooperation between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
"The founders were all white males. I used to call them the Bills and the Joes," Merchant says with a smile. "Often, I was the only woman in the room."
With her foundation providing the funding, the Growth Alliance put together the Great Cities Symposium, which brought in outside experts to talk about knowledge-based economies, rivers as focal points and the like.
Merchant understood that grass-roots people, not just corporate leaders, had to be part of the discussions, says James Votruba, president of Northern Kentucky University.
"She knows how economic development is tied to environmental quality is tied to core-city development is tied to unresolved issues of race," Votruba says.
"Not a lot of people can do that."
Enquirer reporters Mike Boyer, Mark Curnutte and Greg Korte contributed to this report.
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