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Women Leaders in the East Bay

Three local women sit down with Diablo to talk about what it’s like to play with the big boys.


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Claudia Wentworth wanted to install solar panels on her roof but realized she needed a better design—so she invented one. Now, six utility patents later, she employs 100 people at her Shadelands company, Quick Mount PV.

Catharine Baker was a partner in a top law firm until concerns about her children’s public school education motivated her to run for a seat in the state assembly. She made history as the first Republican in the Bay Area to be elected in eight years and the first to flip a seat in more than 30.

Pamela Kan went to work at her family’s manufacturing business in Pittsburg to help her father run the plant. Fifteen years later, she’s the president and CEO, traveling the world to close sales and negotiating with the United Steelworkers union.

These three leaders have risen to the top at a time when many women are still struggling for equal opportunities in male-dominated fields. But a shift is on the horizon. With recent legislation for paid parental leave and a serious female contender for president, a conversation on the roles of women in positions of authority couldn’t be timelier.

We sat down with these inspirational figures to talk about what it takes to get ahead, what still needs to be fixed, and the one thing women should never do.


 

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Catharine Baker

Dublin

Assemblywoman, 16th Assembly District: Baker’s historic 2014 election was the first time a Republican had been elected in the Bay Area in more than eight years and the first time a Republican had flipped a Democratic seat here in more than 30 years.
Bragging Rights: Wiley W. Manuel Certificate for Pro Bono Legal Services, State Bar of California; vice president of the Dougherty Elementary School Site Council.
The Aha Moment: As a parent who had served on school committees, Baker realized she needed to be a larger part of the conversation on educational changes. She went to principals and school board members in her district, and they all suggested she run for the state legislature to lend her voice.

 

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Claudia Wentworth

Alamo

CEO of Quick Mount PV: Walnut Creek–based Quick Mount PV manufactures photovoltaic and solar thermal mounting systems.
Bragging Rights: 2015’s Most Influential Women in Business by the San Francisco Business Times and 2014’s Top 10 Women in Solar by The Energy Collective.
The Aha Moment: Wentworth’s home was one of the first roof-mounted GRID-tied solar applications in California. As she designed the system, Wentworth realized that while she was installing a 20-year product on her roof, the flashings only had a five-year life span. Because she grew up in the aluminum business, she knew how to make an aluminum mount that would last.

 

Photography by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

Pamela Kan

Walnut Creek

President of Bishop-Wisecarver Group: Bishop-Wisecarver Group, made up of three manufacturing and engineering companies, builds custom machinery.
Bragging Rights: 2016 Enterprising Women of the Year; appointed to the California Workforce Development Board by Governor Jerry Brown.
The Aha Moment: Kan has been inspired in her career by wanting to maintain her family’s legacy in the company. Leading by example, she sees women playing a key part in continuing the strength and role of manufacturing in the economies of the state and nation.


 

Q: How are the roles of women in the workplace changing?

A: Claudia Wentworth: I’m seeing a lot of qualified women coming into the workforce, which is really nice.
Catharine Baker: In politics, I’ve seen positives. Recently, in the assembly, four of the big five positions are women. That is quite extraordinary. But that’s new. We have 80 assembly members, and [currently only] 19 are women. So there is still a ways to go.

I’m also seeing more women taking leadership roles in public service. I see it in leadership organizations and service organizations that aren’t elected.

You know, I needed those role models when I was growing up. I think women are a major wave of the future in both political parties.

 

Q: Equal pay between men and women is a hot-button topic right now. Have you faced this issue?

A: Pamela Kan: I’ve interviewed both male and female candidates, and what I’ve seen more than anything is the need to instill more self-confidence in women. When I ask a man about his salary request, a nanosecond later, he’ll say the amount he wants. When I ask a woman, she’ll say, “Well, whatever you think” or “It would be really nice if . . .” And I just want to say, “State your worth.”
Wentworth: The really top executives come in and request it.
Kan: Yes, but mid-managers on down, I don’t see the level of confidence to be able to say, “Here’s what I want, and I’m totally confident in asking for that amount because I’m worth every single penny.” Women come in asking for less than what men ask for, which creates a disparity in the same job.
Baker: Exactly. For my first few jobs, I didn’t know I could have asked for $12 an hour and ended up asking for $10. They said they would have given me $12 if I had asked for it.

But this is a much more complex issue. There are some institutions that lock women into lower pay. Once you’ve undervalued yourself or accepted that lower pay, there’s a limit to how much you can rise. Even in the assembly, many of the women are paid less than their male counterparts, and part of that is because they’ve been locked into that salary.

 

Q: Do you think we are moving in the right direction in terms of equality and respect for women in the workforce?

A: Kan: If I do my job well, then the respect comes. But if I keep trying to put it in someone’s face that I deserve the respect because I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry, I don’t think the guys I work with actually respect me for that.
Wentworth: It takes time. I work hard. I’m good at math and reading financial statements. I’m a good business strategist. Unfortunately, we don’t sit down at the table as equals.
Baker: I don’t mind if someone notices that I happened to succeed in an area that doesn’t have a lot of other women. [But] I don’t want it to be the primary distinguishing factor. When I was going to run for office, I met with an individual to seek his endorsement. Eventually, I got out of him the question, “You have kids—shouldn’t you be at home?”

 

Q: What do you say to those who believe you should be at home with your kids?

A: Baker: I tried to make the point that I was doing this for my kids. I think any politician can get up there and say that, but I truly was running because of how our school system was affecting my own children and the other families and children around me. I was also doing this because my family was 100 percent behind me.
Wentworth: I worked full-time all along, and I don’t think my children ever felt like they were loved any less. Sometimes, I worked at home; sometimes, I worked at the office; but my relationship with them was never based on whether I was working [or not].
Baker: Yes! I’m still the chauffeur and homework advisor and first aid manager and chef—just like I was then. Trust me: I got this. I wouldn’t have made this decision if I hadn’t really internalized this conversation, any more than when you’re starting your business or accepting positions on boards that are going to take time and make demands from your family and your own personal needs.

 

Q: What challenges have you faced as you’ve risen to positions of authority?

A: Kan: I remember I was at a conference in Denver. When I went to dinner and thought I’d sit at the bar to eat because I was alone, I was told to leave.
Wentworth: Why?
Kan: As a woman, I couldn’t be alone at the bar. It was seen as soliciting. So they said, “If you want to sit, we’ll give you a table in the restaurant, but we will not serve you in the bar.” This was probably 1992. Can you imagine that now?
Baker: As a younger [law] associate, it was part of our training to be mindful when asking a client to dinner. Say my client had come to town for a deposition and we needed to work over dinner, [I needed to] have other people around to have a chaperone.

 

Q: Some women struggle with getting a point into the discussion and being heard. How have you managed this?

A: Kan: In my industries, which are all male-dominated, the first thing I do is get on a committee. I work my way up that committee, and then I’m on the board. That’s how I have a voice.
Wentworth: The rooms I’m in are mostly male, and if I think something needs to be added to the conversation, I’ll be pretty persistent to say it. But I also don’t have to prove every point, and I know I have to listen and participate.

Often, though, when I bring up a point, it will go around the room, and someone else will bring it up again on his or her own. And sometimes, if there is a woman in the room, she’ll say, “I thought Claudia already came up with that.” So it’s good to have that support.

 

Q: There’s been talk about things women shouldn’t do in the workplace, such as being direct—which is criticized as being bossy—or using words such as just, which lessens the power of their messages. Do you agree?

A: Kan: The challenge is when women are in positions of authority and they speak with authority. The distance between here and being a b---- is really short. If a man speaks with authority, he has much more space before he’s seen as a jerk. People are going to react to a woman stating her opinions or being authoritative or being really smart in a room with men. She has to learn to take it, but then she also needs to learn how to say it differently.
Baker: If your speaking style is to put just in front of everything [I just want to ask one more question], part of building your confidence is to be conscious of how you might lessen your point by this. Learn to get better at it, and do what will work to get you to be on a more confident track. Find what’s going to work for you in your own situation, but try to push yourself to be aware of your message.
Wentworth: Sometimes, somebody who comes in to meet with me says, “It’s like” or “You know,” and I typically find that it is a way for her to catch her breath. I see more women do that than men, and it’s frustrating. But I tell her, “Stop, and just tell me what you want to say.”

 

Q: What advice would you share with women who struggle with not being taken seriously?

A: Wentworth: Do a good job. Be yourself. I don’t think I could be anything other than who I am. When you lay out the facts and articulate your purpose, the conversation becomes more important than gender.
Baker: As women in leadership roles, we might each be the one person that other women need to hear say, “I have your back, and I support you in the work that you’re doing.”

 

Q: What do you think of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement and the conversation around how women can become equals in the workplace?

A: Baker: We need to ask for what we think is going to work. We have to have the confidence to ask because I wouldn’t be surprised if a gentleman were to walk in and say he needs more to support his family or he wants the opportunity to take on that extra case. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what works best for you to succeed.
Wentworth: I’m surprised it has to be a movement. That’s really where we were 40 years ago.

 

Q: What are some ways in which you hope to encourage and inspire young girls?

A: Kan: We’ve been a national and local sponsor for First Robotics for about five years. I was at the national event, and a young girl came up to our booth where we were showing our product. She asked me questions, and then she said, “So what do you do?” And when I told her, she said, “Really? Girls can be engineers?” She was stunned.

The reason I continue to [sponsor those events] is to make sure the younger girls see as many women in these roles as possible.
Baker: On a policy level, I serve on the Select Committee on Youth and California’s Future, and on STEM education committees. Our sole mission is to promote STEM education for boys and girls in our school system. I am also a big supporter of local programs—those through which I can connect with girls and our schools.
Wentworth: I had the fun experience of teaching science and technology at the elementary school level for seven years. We’d do lots of experiments, and I’d explain that there was math and equations behind the science. I’d see the kids, and especially the girls, get excited. And they were little.
Kan:  I see that in First Robotics all the time. They say, “Oh! Maybe now I should go to math class.”

 

Q: What advice do you have for women who are just beginning their rise in the workplace?

A: Baker: Help each other. There was an intern when I worked for a congressman, and on her last day, she still didn’t know how to use the fax machine. I refused to let her leave the office without knowing how to use it because her next job would want her to know. It wasn’t her job as a woman to know how to use the fax machine, but I couldn’t let her leave without basic skills.
Wentworth: Whether a male or female, if he or she is willing to make the effort to learn, be his or her mentor.  
Baker: And don’t fiddle with your hair!

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