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Women reflect on joys, obstacles of being leaders in Northeast Michigan

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena Mayor Pro Tem Cindy Johnson speaks in a meeting at the Alpena Township building last week.

ALPENA — “Leadership is an out-front, arrow-in-your-back kind of thing,” said Joann Gallagher, one-time CEO of one of Alpena’s notable industries. “And you have to be able to roll with that.”

As the country steps toward an election in which a woman will be on the presidential ticket, a sampling of local women reflected on what it means to be both a woman and a leader in Northeast Michigan.

There are challenges, to be sure, they agreed.

But, leadership as a woman comes with its joys, too, they said — and Alpena is, by and large, a community supportive of its leaders, regardless of their sex.

Gallagher was 13 when her mom took ownership of Alpena Furniture, earning sideways glances from other business owners and even friends.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena leader Jackie Krawczak practices a presentation about resilience, one of the traits she said anyone needs to be a leader.

“They had no idea about her drive. And her intelligence. And her strength,” said her daughter, who learned from her mother, Dorothy LaFleche, that leadership as a woman meant breaking expectations, taking risks, and accepting not always being accepted.

Today’s women leaders still, sometimes, have to do the same, Gallagher said.

As the chief operating officer of Thunder Bay Manufacturing in the late 2000s, Gallagher learned to emotionally walk away from criticism that came along with being a woman who was in charge in a man’s world.

Leadership isn’t easy. Not for women, and not for anyone, Gallagher said.

“And, by the way, not everybody should be leaders,” Gallagher said. “If we’re all leaders, we’d be in a heck of a mess.”

News Photo by Julie Riddle A wall at City Hall bears photos of Alpena’s mayors, including two women.

“PART OF THE TEAM”

When women do choose to lead, communities — and families, in particular — are the better for it, according to former Alpena Township Supervisor Marie Twite.

During her time as an elected township official, Twite noticed other female leaders pushing for improvements more likely to be made by a woman: the addition of baseball diamonds and other activities for youth, the development of local parks, supporting the creation of service jobs people could do in their homes, and the like.

Early in her career, Twite said, many women were stepping into leadership roles.

“Now, it’s back to the men,” she said.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Laura Ellery-Sommers, Alpena Township treasurer, explains the steps that may lead a stay-at-home mom to take up a leadership role in a community.

Of the 113 sheriffs, judges, prosecuting attorneys, and drain commissioners elected since Alpena County was founded in 1857, two have been women: the current prosecuting attorney, and probate judge Mary McLean, from 1953 to 1964.

It was almost 40 years until a woman sat on the County Board of Commissioners, and then another 20 until a second woman was voted in, in 1995.

Today, one woman sits on the eight-member county board. The Township Board of Trustees includes five men and two women.

Only five women have been on the Alpena City Council.

One of those five women, and the current Mayor Pro Tem, has been called “the B-word,” she said — and she doesn’t mean “bossy.”

“The other one,” Cindy Johnson said wryly, seated in her chair in the council chambers in Alpena’s City Hall.

Women in politics have to be vocal to be heard, Johnson said, and that can mean asking tough questions and not allowing interruptions — traits that, in women, are pegged as, well, “the B-word.”

Society doesn’t use similar words for men who are assertive, Johnson said.

The vast majority of people with whom she serves are supportive of women as leaders.

Of course, there was the man who literally yelled at Johnson during a public meeting for asking a question — the same question that was accepted when it came from her male counterparts.

There was, too, the committee member who told her to sit on her hands during a meeting because her body language offended him.

“It’s things like that that women should never have to tolerate,” Johnson said.

Many slights against women leaders are less blatant, such as women being expected to take notes at meetings, she said, and most are done without malice.

She still brings them to people’s attention, though.

“If I don’t speak up, I don’t make it easier for the people who come after me,” Johnson said. “It’s those little things that make the job for women in government easier, so that people look at them as part of the team.”

JUST COMMON SENSE

The Alpena County Courthouse is full of elected women leaders, from the county clerk to the treasurer to the register of deeds.

“If they can do it, I can do it,” Laura Ellery-Sommers thought as she decided to run for Alpena Township Treasurer in 2016.

Already an elected official for 15 years as a county commissioner, Ellery-Sommers was inspired by other women in leadership roles to continue serving the community in a new position.

Leadership had never been her goal as a young woman, when all she wanted was to be a stay-at-home mom.

From one volunteer position to another, one job to the next, she kept surprising herself by stepping into greater responsibility, until she found herself on a ballot.

Opportunities for leadership, even on a small scale, offer women stepping-stones to taking charge in bigger ways, Ellery-Sommers said.

In the late 1960s, Florence Stibitz was new to Alpena and on the board of her kids’ hockey league when she got pregnant.

A man told her that meant she couldn’t serve on the board anymore.

Shocked, Stibitz ignored the man and went on to be the president of the Michigan Community College Association, a long-time Alpena Community College Trustee, a Zonta Woman of the Year, and more.

When she was a young mother, the League of Women Voters offered babysitting with their meetings, Stibitz said — assistance that was enough to get her out of the house and to launch a lifetime of taking charge and making change.

Though not an elected official herself, she’d like to see more women on local ballots.

Alpena County is 50% female, almost on the nose, according to the latest census.

With equal numbers should come equal representation among elected officials, Stibitz said — “It just seems common sense.”

“CHANGE IT ALL TO ‘SHE'”

When Carol Shafto got involved with Alpena politics, all of the city’s ordinances used male pronouns only.

When she pushed to make the city’s language more gender-inclusive, she was pooh-poohed by male leaders.

“If pronouns don’t matter, let’s change it all to ‘she,'” said Shafto, who was elected to the city council and served as the city’s second female mayor.

Today, women are accepted and even expected on ballots, from city and township offices to governors to vice presidents, Shafto said.

Getting women to put their name on a ballot is still a challenge, though, Shafto said. When she encourages a woman to run for office, she’s often told they’re too busy running a home.

Few men are held back from leadership because they have to take the kids to soccer practice, Shafto surmised.

Leadership doesn’t require an election, said Alpena resident Eileen Budnick, a former top-level bank executive and current president of a local chapter of Zonta International — an organization that removes hurdles that keep women from thinking of themselves as leaders.

Women in Alpena own banks, Budnick said. They own accounting firms. They are CEOs of power companies and have founded nationally recognized businesses.

Leaders are made of women who go out and get what they want, Budnick said — and who know they’re worth it.

They’re also made, she added, by the support of a community that looks out for the women who need a hand believing in themselves.

TOOLS FOR THE FUTURE

When Jackie Krawczak started working as the head of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce in her early 20s, she heard plenty of comments about choosing a career over raising a family.

Men, she speculated, don’t get comments like that.

She’s seen Alpena-area women back out of politics and other leadership roles because they didn’t like the negativity that came with being in the spotlight. Many times, with their tendency to self-criticize, the biggest obstacle to a woman being a leader is herself, Krawszak said.

She’s been told she’s too blunt, and that people don’t like her because she’s female, and that, as a woman, she should never have gotten the leadership position at the chamber, Krawczak said.

“I don’t have time to play those games,” Krawczak said.

She’d like to see Alpena intentionally develop leaders of both sexes, teaching skills like resilience, curiosity, and positive attitudes — factors she said are needed by both men and women in leadership positions.

Girls on the Run, a program aimed at developing confidence in girls through physical activity, tells girls their voice matters, said Cathy Goike, the program’s coordinator.

Girls, especially in the junior high years, don’t want to be too smart, too fast, too strong — don’t want to stand out from a crowd. In those early years, they develop self-defeating behaviors and negative self-talk that accompany them into womanhood, Goike said.

A community needs to give girls tools while they’re young, Goike said — tools to give them emotional strength they can carry into adulthood, and tools to help future women step boldly into leadership roles in their homes and communities.

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