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NIU Today | Overcoming challenges, seen and unseen

For women, barriers in the business world have long been referred to as “the glass ceiling” — a phrase coined in the 1980s to represent the invisible hard-stops to success often faced by women and other traditionally underrepresented individuals. How women overcome invisible barriers during the best of times and the worst of times is being celebrated during National Women’s History month under its 2022 theme: “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.”

“We talk a lot in our group about how the pandemic hit women particularly hard,” said Kate James, senior accountancy major. A highly engaged student, James is a member of NIU College of Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan’s student advisory board, among many other collegiate organizations. Most notably, the dual-enrolled master of accounting science major serves as president of the student organization Women in Business Professions (WIBP).

Member of the Women in Business Professions student organization.

“Our faculty advisor is marketing Professor Denise Schoenbachler. Professor Schoenbachler was featured in a recent webinar with a panel of successful NIU College of Business alumnae. It was eye-opening for us in WIBP to hear their discussion about how COVID-19’s impact on the economy became known as the ‘shecession,’” James said.

Hard data indicates reasons why. Per the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, of the 20.5 million jobs lost in April 2020, women made up 55% of those looking for work. Collectively, their rate of unemployment was nearly 2% higher than that experienced by men. Women of color fared worst of all, with a more than 20% unemployment rate for Hispanic women. And while the job market has seen recovery over the past two years, many women continue to shoulder the brunt of seismic professional and economic shifts.

In the context of COVID-19-induced barriers as well as legacy roadblocks, Michelle De Jean, director of marketing for the NIU College of Business, sat down with James for a conversation on WIBP and what it means to bring others along.

Q: Perhaps it’s best to start with an overview about Women in Business Professions (WIBP).

KJ: Absolutely. WIBP is made up of students from all academic ranks, ages, genders and majors. We discuss women in business fields, issues related to business success and overall success in life. The average number of members range from 35 to 45 students. Our members come from all backgrounds — academically, racially, ethnically, financially, socially, geographically. We’re intentional and enthusiastic about inclusion because it’s important to make room for everyone at the table. It’s important to include everyone in the discussion of women in the business environment.

Q: WIBP promotes inclusivity to such an extent that you invite men to join the organization and participate, is that correct?

KJ: It is. Men also need to be part of this conversation and aware because they work with women. It sounds obvious, but it’s important to remember that if the individuals who have historically had more opportunities advocate for women, there’s a better chance positive, lasting change will happen. Also, discrimination can go both ways. It’s just as illegal for women to discriminate against men as it is for men to discriminate against women. The core issue for us is inclusion, awareness and hopefully real change. So, while our group invites everyone, we focus on women in business because unfortunately, inequality issues and biases still exist against women and other traditionally underrepresented groups. Our organization focuses on addressing those issues so that we can find ways to overcome them and promote skills to empower individuals.

What does “bringing others along” mean to you? What might that look like?

KJ: An example comes immediately to mind. It touches on advocacy, but it also touches very much on creating healthy self-awareness and confidence. NIU President Lisa Freeman gave a presentation to our group and spoke about the importance of women supporting women. A piece of advice she gave that really resonated for me was to create connections with individuals who will advocate for you. In other words, create a group of connections with people who will speak positively or highly of you when you’re not in the room. A significant insight from conversations in WIBP is that a huge part of women potential comes from advocating for yourself — again, self-empowerment requires awareness and confidence. It also comes from having others advocate for you. By including everyone in our conversations, we create more awareness on women-related issues. This the chances that someone will advocate for women — whether they increase advocate in general terms or if they advocate for specific women they know and work with.

We’ve all been living in an time, so much so that the word “unprecedented” has become cliché. Still, the changes and challenges have been enormous in both size and quantity. This is true for everyone. So in a world of upheaval, was it difficult for the organization to be active?

KJ: When the pandemic first hit during the spring 2020 semester, I admit I found it disappointing to cancel all the events we had planned. It was also my first semester on the executive board, so I missed the opportunity to work in person with the other board members. At that time, I was vice president. I assisted the then-president with making tough decisions that impacted the organization and its general members. Student organizations across the board had a difficult time in just about every way, from recruiting new members to getting other members to be active. Everyone was trying to adjust to dramatic changes in the way we operated and interacted with each other. That situation continued even in the fall 2020 semester when I became president and had to continue to help group members navigate some tough unknowns. For example, we wanted to offer as many of the same events as we did before COVID-19, but it was difficult to convert some of them to virtual events. This was especially true with service-related events; it was tough to find ways to create them on a digital platform. My friends who are also in leadership roles in other organizations felt the same way. Fortunately, with resources like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, we soon were able to continue our professional meetings and continue our discussions.

You mentioned service activities. What are some of these activities that WIBP offers?

KJ: Throughout my time in this organization, WIBP members have volunteered at the TAILS animal shelter in Sycamore. We also create get-well cards and “thinking about you” cards for patients in hospitals or nursing home residents. We conduct food drives to help alleviate hunger in the community. We take pride in helping to keep Barsema Hall clean by assisting in that effort. Our biggest service event is the blood drive we organize every semester. This event is open to all College of Business students. Donating blood through our blood drive also provides an opportunity for business students to complete a service requirement in the college’s Passport program, which the college requires for graduation and for which students receive a co-curricular degree along with their academic degree. When I first joined WIBP, we collaborated with an area health center for the blood drive; the center was so supportive that they offered a scholarship to the most active WIBP member based on the number of students who donated blood. Unfortunately, this scholarship opportunity is no longer available because of COVID-19. But our blood drive is still a great event that benefits university students as well as the larger DeKalb/Sycamore community.

Sounds like the pandemic impacted several elements associated with operating the organization.

KJ: Yes, including budgets and funding. During that semester I decided to cut the active member requirements in half and didn’t require members to pay dues. With support from the WIBP leadership team, I did this in the hopes that this action would encourage students to join the organization and would help retain us members. It seems to have had a positive effect.

Thank you for the conversation, Kate. Before we wrap up, one last question. What’s your measure for success, both with WIBP and for yourself, personally?

KJ: From the president’s perspective, my success measures focus on operational issues: the number of individuals who attend events and member retention from semester to semester. I also measure success based on feedback from our general members. I want to learn what members think about the events, whether they like them, whether the events are useful or beneficial. I also want to know our membership views on whether they feel that I and the rest of the executive board are easy to reach out to, are approachable and connect well with them and other members.

From a personal perspective, I measure success from an opportunity or experience based on what I learned and if I gained anything new. For example, I would say my experience as WIBP president has been a success for me personally because I used my leadership, communication and organization skills, but I also gained more professional skills as well as new relationships with others.

The biggest takeaway for me from the experience is that I now have a better understanding of myself — how to conduct myself professionally, how to work efficiently with a team and how to be more confident in myself and my abilities. I have grown so much, beginning with being a general member to serving on the executive board and then to leading this group. It’s a worthwhile and rewarding path and one I genuinely encourage other members to go for.

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