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Area women leaders discuss their successful paths and obstacles

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2011 - Women in leadership posts -- whether public or private -- face many of the same challenges.

Among them: when to shed the traditional female role of "team player" to "step up" to wield power as a true leader.

That, in essence, was the dilemma and message Wednesday night from three area women leaders participating in the latest Holden Public Policy Forum -- "We Can Do It: Women in Power" -- held at Webster University.

The participants: St. Louis Alderman (and corporate accountant) Lyda Krewson, AT&T Vice President Debra Hollingsworth and former Missouri economic development director Linda Martinez, who's a partner in a major law firm.

Their aim was to offer encouragement to their audience, which included many young women, while also being honest.

Krewson and Martinez told of humorous -- yet sobering -- episodes early in their careers when clients declared they wouldn't work with a woman. (In Krewson's case, the client called her "a girl.")

Hollingsworth observed that the career world for women has improved, but women are still more likely to be judged by how they look and what they wear. She singled out the treatment that Hillary Rodham Clinton received during her 2008 quest for the White House, when commentators critiqued her hair or clothes.

Former Gov. Bob Holden, who served as moderator, observed with a chuckle that he had two women who served as his chief of staff during his term (2001-2005). In both cases, he said, legislators often feared those women more than him.

Jefferson City currently has a mixed record on women. There's only two women holding statewide office -- Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill -- and 46 women in the legislature (41 in the House and five in the Senate). And other than state budget chief Linda Luebbering, there are few high-profile women in the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon.

Martinez, who had served a brief but rocky tenure as Nixon's economic chief, declined to talk about her experience. But she and Krewson said that it was wrong to judge the public progress of women by the current numbers.

"Things go in waves," Martinez said "You have to take a long view."

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