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UC Irvine panel cites progress in female leadership but also ‘resilient barriers’

Kerry Phelan, left, president of global franchise management at Lionsgate Entertainment, answers a question from the audience Monday during the second annual Athena40 Global Conversation at UC Irvine. Other panelists are former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez; Dr. Stephanie McClellan, chief medical officer at Tia; and Susan Parks, president and CEO of Orange County United Way.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Though more women are rising through the ranks to positions in the executive suite, the fight for female leadership isn’t over, according to a panel discussion at UC Irvine to commemorate International Women’s Day.

“As we know, women’s leadership is a global priority. Recent years have seen dramatic gains in women’s social, political and economic leadership. Yet, simultaneously, nowhere in the world do women hold equal power to men in influencing and exercising authority worldwide,” Catherine Bolzendahl, an associate professor of sociology at the university, said Monday.

“Reflecting the recent gains we’ve seen, but also the resilient barriers, the United Nations has declared women’s empowerment as its third millennium goal and gender equality as the fifth of its sustainable development goals,” Bolzendahl said.

In light of those issues and in honor of International Women’s Day, which this year is Sunday, the UCI School of Social Sciences partnered with the Athena40 initiative, which every two years selects the top 40 “forward-thinking” women who create positive change and support other women and girls in their efforts to thrive.

Monday’s event was part of its second annual Global Conversation.

The panel was held in tandem with discussions in eight countries around the world focused on progress made in women’s empowerment, challenges women face and what can be done to diversify leadership in industries across the board.

L. Song Richardson, right, dean and chancellor’s professor of law at UC Irvine, speaks during Monday's panel discussion at UCI about female leadership. Other panelists are Dr. Stephanie McClellan, left, and Susan Parks.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Madelaine Afable, a senior finance analyst who said she has been at UC Irvine for five years, said she was interested in the discussion "to see how leadership for women is really, especially for me looking for my career [and] seeing where my path is here at UCI. I want to expand my career and hopefully be in a leadership position and see what that entails, what I have to work on and how to get there.”

Kathy Gomez, a 1993 UCI alumna, said the panel’s topic made her excited to learn more about female empowerment and leadership and that it was “awesome” that UCI was hosting a panel like that.

The panelists included former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez; Kerry Phelan, president of global franchise management at Lionsgate Entertainment; Susan Parks, president and chief executive of Orange County United Way; Dr. Stephanie McClellan, chief medical officer and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Tia women’s healthcare; and L. Song Richardson, dean and chancellor’s professor of law at UC Irvine.

Throughout the hour-long discussion, they talked about their personal experiences and hardships as they worked to climb the ladder, answered questions about the progress they feel has been made and what could be done to promote diversity and inclusivity in leadership positions.

“Great leadership is great leadership,” Phelan said, adding that it isn’t defined by gender but by differences in styles. “There are big benefits of having women leadership ... but we’re a far cry from 50% of senior leadership positions in this country.”

Panelists gather at UC Irvine on Monday during the second annual Athena40 Global Conversation on female leadership.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“When I think about what women’s leadership means, I agree that I would love to get to a time where we don’t need to have this discussion because leaders are leaders,” Richardson said. “Yet we cannot escape the fact that given the culture in which so many of us have experienced our lives and grown up in, it is hard to talk about women’s leadership without being stereotypical about it.”

Panelists also discussed issues such as unconscious biases and gaps of time between when women graduate and find full-time jobs. The speakers emphasized the importance to members of the audience of finding women in higher positions to coach them, and taking action in one’s industry to ensure hiring committees work for diversity.

“Structurally, what are the changes we can make in our institutions?” Richardson said. “We have criteria for promotion and sometimes it is more difficult for women to meet those criteria just because of the things that we do. That’s what I mean by the structural changes that need to happen.”

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