50 Most Powerful 2018: A Powerful Force

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This year, the No. 1 ranking on Orlando magazine’s 50 Most Powerful People list goes not to a single leader but rather a collective force.

Its members come from all walks of life, ranging from government and politics to business and nonprofits, from law and philanthropy to the arts and LGBTQ issues. They are the women of our community—specifically those who appear on this year’s list.

They are being honored as one, even though their voices, opinions and accomplishments are wide ranging. Yet, their push for equality, the causes they champion and the mentoring of those following in their footsteps are of a common and courageous bond.

Their individual achievements are noted on our annual list of the 50 Most Powerful, which, of course, includes both men and women. But for the story you are about to read, we asked some of them, as well as other influential female leaders, to give us their views on the issue of women and power, based on their experiences and in light of the fast-moving events that characterize the #MeToo movement.

Val Demings, Patty Sheehan (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

For years, the Orlando power structure—like much of society—has been dominated by men.

Certainly, there are notable exceptions, including two-term Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs; Orlando City Attorney Mayanne Downs; Orange County School Superintendent Barbara Jenkins; U.S. Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings; and Central Florida Expressway Authority Executive Director Laura Kelley.

But their numbers are relatively small compared to their male contemporaries, especially considering that women make up slightly more than half of the population and about 52 percent of the voting-age population.

Take politics, for example. In Florida, only 14 of the 40 senators are women; in the state House, women have 28 of the 120 seats. Only one woman, Attorney General Pam Bondi, serves in the Florida Cabinet. Nationally, 23 members of the 100-strong U.S. Senate are women, and there are 84 female representatives in the 435-member U.S. House. There has never been a woman president or vice president.

In fact, the United States ranks 96th—right behind Pakistan—for political empowerment of women compared to men in top federal government leadership and parliamentarian positions, according to the 2017 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report.

The political landscape could be changing, however. Record numbers of women are running for Congress as well as state offices in Florida.

And a generation of teens nationwide has been awakened, demanding immediate gun law changes after the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., school shooting that claimed 17 lives. Her impassioned speech calling for change transformed 18-year-old senior Emma Gonzalez into a leader of the #NoMore movement. It already has led to a Florida law raising the legal age to buy weapons from 18 to 21 and allows authorities to seize guns from mentally unstable individuals.

“Women are stepping forward with an enthusiasm and self-confidence that I have never seen before,” says Deirdre Macnab of Winter Park, former president of the Florida League of Women Voters.

There’s little doubt that women are speaking out louder than they have in many years, most prominently and visibly by marching and demonstrating against sexual assault and harassment, commonly referred to as the #MeToo movement. Powerful men such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and NBC Today show host Matt Lauer have fallen as a result of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. Weinstein was recently indicted by a grand jury on rape and other sex charges.

Female anger and dissatisfaction crystallized on Jan. 21, 2017, when the Women’s March drew an estimated 1 million people to Washington, D.C., shortly after Donald Trump was sworn in as president. The protesters contended he does not respect women, in part because he was recorded on tape bragging about groping women’s genitals. That same weekend, nearly 10,000 people marched at Lake Eola in support of women’s rights, with a similar number gathering a year later at the downtown Orlando park.

“I think things will change,” says Linda Chapin, who served as Orange County’s first mayor in the 1990s. “The women who are motivated to run for office right now is a reaction to unacceptable behavior at all levels. This may be a real group of real reformers, and heaven knows this is what we need.”

Nearly all of the women interviewed for this story could recall at least one incident when they were touched inappropriately, spoken to in a sexist or disrespectful manner or much worse.

“You start remembering things that happened over the years and this flood of memories comes back on how helpless and powerless you felt,” says Carol Wick, a women’s rights activist, corporate consultant and licensed marital and family therapist. “I’ve talked with my friends. And then we thought, ‘This [the public discussion and backlash] is what we hoped for, and powerful people were being toppled.’ ”

Wick remembered being harassed when she was 17 or 18 by her boss at a Midwestern grocery store. He wanted her to go away with him for a weekend. “I told my mom and she said, ‘I guess you’re going to quit.’ ”

Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who in 2000 became the first openly gay politician elected in Orlando, says she once was asked out on a date by a college professor, who continually picked on her in his class after she rejected him.

“It was emotionally horrible,” she says. “There was no way I was going to sleep with my instructor.”

Sheehan, who dropped out of the class, says harassment has continued to this day. Recently, she says, she was bullied by a man who attempted to physically intimidate her over a disagreement about city matters. She would not name him.

Anna Eskamani, who is running for a state legislative seat, says she, at age 28, has had “so many” #MeToo moments. They range from what she described as issues over consent and intimacy with an ex-boyfriend, to people spreading mean-spirited, unfounded rumors about her having affairs with male politicians.

“There’s no way she’s doing this on her own. There has to be a male involved,” she says, recounting the allegations.

For Glenda Hood, former Orlando mayor (1992-2003) and Florida secretary of state (2003-05), it was an issue of disrespect by male colleagues or the kind of language they used with her. She recalled her time as the first female chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce when a fellow board member would introduce her as “the little gal from Orlando.” Finally one day, when it was her turn to introduce him, she said “and now let’s hear from the little guy from the Panhandle.” Afterward, he thanked her for the lesson.

“Sometimes I would work through it with humor or I would even dismiss people on my staff or team from the room and then they [the offender] would have to deal directly with me,” says Hood. “You can’t let it fester inside you where you’re not paying attention to what the work is for that moment. You have to confront it and deal with it head on.”

Besides bringing these injustices to light, women are also trying to shatter a longstanding habit of, for one reason or another, automatically handing authoritative positions to men.

Downs, who in addition to being city attorney also is the first female managing partner of a major Florida law firm, says: “People find comfort in what is familiar. People find great comfort in men. The world, for a long, long time, has been run by men.”

The president and managing director of GrayRobinson, Downs says men dominate in her chosen field of trial law because they are presumed to be superior to women. It is a “form of combat. And women are not presumed to be good in combat,” she says.

But she believes that obstacle can and will be overcome with “demeanor, competence, work ethic, confidence and experience. That is the formula for overcoming the presumption or for being successful,” she tells women lawyers in speeches around the country.

When Downs was in law school, she says, her class was about half men and half women. But now, at pretrial court hearings, she often is the only female lawyer there, along with dozens of male attorneys. The legal profession, she says, needs to find a way to keep women in law after they have children.

“It takes a long time to change things and a long time to pull that rope,” says Downs, a mother of two.

For better or worse, women often are expected to handle the bulk of child-rearing duties, even when they work full time. Kelley, who is the first female director of the Central Florida Expressway Authority and its predecessor agency, says balancing family and work is difficult.

“I always worried, as a young mother, the amount of work I did and the impact on my children,” says Kelley, a mother of two. “The feedback from my kids is that I inspired them…Then as they were growing up, I think they would tell you that they had a mother who worked hard and progressed. Sorry, no guilt.”

Women of color often face even more difficulties in their professions. Just ask Demings or Jenkins.

“I was poor, black and female and I was reminded of that many times,” Demings says. “My mother would not allow me to get caught up in the stereotypes or to feel sorry for myself or wish I was richer or a different color or a different gender. She let me see the strength in me. She said, ‘Nobody defines you; you define you.’ ”

Stephanie Murphy, Barbara Jenkins, Laura Kelley (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Before her election to Congress in 2016, Demings was a member of the Orlando Police Department, where she worked her way up from the patrol ranks to become the first female chief in the city’s history. Her husband, Jerry, was OPD’s first black chief and is now Orange County’s sheriff (and running for county mayor).

During her tenure as chief, violent crime was reduced by 40 percent. Some of her tactics were controversial, like disbanding well-established units that weren’t working.

“I could have maintained status quo and kept my head down or I could swing for the fences and I swung for the fences. And I got a home run,” she says.

To her, being the first female police chief meant excellence was the only option. She didn’t want anyone blaming failures within the department on the fact that it was being run by a woman.

“There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being the first because I knew I was setting the standard for all of the women who followed me,” she says. “I feel like it’s a calling to help other women and girls realize their potential.”

Jenkins says she shocked colleagues in 1989 when she got a job as an Orange County public school principal, even though she was pregnant with her daughter.

“There were other, older females that were principals who said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so glad you did this. I wanted to have another child and I was worried about how it would be looked upon as a pregnant principal.’ And now it’s no big deal,” Jenkins says.

Jenkins became the first female superintendent at OCPS in 2012. She always thought it odd that in a female-dominated profession, such as education, there were very few women in leadership roles.

Now, with 131 female principals and 71 male principals in Orange County, the scales are tipping. Orange, Osceola and Lake County public schools all have a female superintendent.

“It’s always been an assumption or a predetermination that those positions [superintendent and upper-level  administrators] were for men,” Jenkins says. “Here in Central Florida, where we’ve had a female police chief and a female mayor more than once, I think we see more and more women gaining equal footing in those high leadership positions. But in [OCPS], it took a while to put a female at the helm.”

Back in the 1990s, women arguably played a more prominent role in running Metro Orlando: Chapin was Orange County mayor; Hood was Orlando’s mayor; Toni Jennings was the state Senate president and later lieutenant governor; Martha Haynie was Orange County comptroller; and Rita Bornstein was president of Rollins College. Women also headed the boards of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, the District 5 office of the Florida Department of Transportation, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Florida Citrus Sports. And a woman, Rear Adm. Louise Currie Wilmot, commanded the Orlando Naval Training Center, now closed and the site of the Baldwin Park development.

“We all supported each other and pulled for each other,” Chapin says. “We demanded a lot of ourselves and expected a lot of each other. The women who were best at it had unusually supportive spouses—or none! All of us assumed we had to work twice as hard.”

Once they stepped down, many of them were replaced by men. Chapin is not sure why more women did not move to the forefront.

“Did we simply use up all the likely prospects in that first wave? Did other women watch us and decide it was too hard, demanded too much?” she says. “Did a growing conservative movement in national political life make it unfashionable? I hope someone will write a doctoral thesis and explain it all.”

Hood thinks it was a problem of outreach to young women, who she says have a difficult time reaching for leadership roles when many are simultaneously experiencing their most productive professional years and starting families. Better job training could also ease the intimidation often associated with high-level positions.

“So we need to reach out and support younger women and let them know, ‘You can do all of the above.’ You don’t have to be superwomen but you can certainly take on those roles and balance it with your family,” she says.

Why do we need more women at the top? “We’re much better at it,” Hood says.

“I think women are better at building collaborative partnerships. I think we’re able to check our egos at the door and seize an opportunity when we see it,” she says. “Shame on us as a community if we aren’t supporting our younger generations and women, in particular, to take on these leadership roles.”

Carol Wick, Diana Bolivar (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

Diana Bolivar, owner of a local management consulting firm, says fearlessness is one of the most important qualities in a leader. She learned to be fearless in the hardest way possible: by facing her own death.

When she was 15, a serial rapist attacked Bolivar near her Massachusetts home as she walked back from a mall. The attacker cut her throat, but she fought back ferociously, grabbing the blade of his knife so tightly that one of her fingers was severed. Eventually he gave up but only after kicking and breaking her ribs.

Her survival—three surgeons spent 18 hours repairing her hand—led her to become a stronger person.

“I receive every pain and suffering with gratitude because I believe that is one of the ways we grow as human beings. You can let misfortune make you bitter and become a victim, or you can fight and learn from it and help others who haven’t been able to move past their tragedy,” says Bolivar, a former president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando.

“I’ve not held all men to the same standard because of what some have done to injure me,’’ she says. “And those that aren’t good, I bless and release.”

Bolivar has four rules for women in leadership: “Be impeccable with your work, never make assumptions, always do your best and when you arrive at the negotiating table, come in with facts, not emotion.”

She believes Orlando has embraced female leadership but that Hispanics still must work to gain a foothold in the city’s power structure. “The Hispanic community needs to be more supportive of each other and not be afraid of competition,” she says. “If you see a Hispanic leader doing well, support that leader.”

Linda Chapin, Glenda Hood (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

For U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, whose family fled Vietnam in 1979 and was rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy, success was a matter of following her father’s advice in the new land of opportunity: “Work hard. Focus on your education. And play by the rules.”

That led Murphy, of Winter Park, to become the first woman in her family to graduate from college. She then decided to show her gratitude to the U.S. government by later working as a Department of Defense analyst and becoming the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress.

Along the way, there were mentors in Washington such as former presidential national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. And there were trusted local advisers, including Cari Coats, a longtime Orlando business executive and Rollins College entrepreneurship program executive director. But there were also #MeToo moments, which led Murphy to support sexual harassment training in Congress. She had already made the training mandatory for her staffers before both houses approved a requirement late last year.

Murphy stresses the need for more women, diversity and youth to bridge a huge gender, technology and generation gap in Congress in the 21st century. “The diversity that makes this country great isn’t yet reflected in the halls of Congress,” she says.  “Only two percent of Congress is millennial and yet 30 percent of the workforce is millennial today. And it will be 50 percent by 2025.”

She adds: “Women and young people are realizing that elections matter.”

Orlando business and political strategist Kelly Cohen believes women still have a lot of power today; they just aren’t as high profile as some of the women of the 1990s. She noted women who are at high levels in the nonprofit sector, sports areas, in economic partnerships and in government.

“I think there has been great movement made, but on boards, I don’t think there are as many women. There is a lot of room for women on community boards and we need more CEOs,” Cohen says.

Also a lobbyist and managing partner for Southern Strategy Group, Cohen herself is a key player in economic development and political fundraising. A lawyer by training, she was a fundraiser in 2002 for then-State Sen. Buddy Dyer, now Orlando mayor, who was running for state attorney general at the time. It was her job to approach potential donors around the state for financial support.

“There were not a lot of female political fundraisers at the time,” Cohen says. “I was in my late 20s…You had to prove you knew how to raise money and get things done [sometimes in] male-dominated places such as country clubs. Candidly, people weren’t sure if I was there to get them a drink or coffee, or if you were actually competent to do the deal.”

Breaking in, much less getting ahead, in business or politics takes more than hard work, women say. Support from family, friends and mentors is invaluable, especially when assertive women often are tagged as being a “bitch” or worse.

“That’s a way to disown a woman’s idea, to call them names,” says Margot Knight, who formerly ran United Arts of Central Florida and now directs an artists’ program in the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Francisco.

Knight says she always tries to collaborate and be inclusive in her decision-making. She never walks into a meeting, she says, without thinking “there’s more I don’t know than I know.”

Her advice: “Show up, listen, and be very clear about your own values. You have to have a clear sense of who you are and what you are willing to do.”

Chapin says her parents were instrumental in the success she found, first in the business world as a banker, then in politics. “They encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be, to ignore the barriers that were there,” she says.

Macnab credits her parents and grandparents as well with teaching her that “if you do something you love, you won’t work a day in your life” and to “leave everything better than you found it.”

Jenkins believes more female mentors are needed, saying women often need an extra nudge to keep moving up the ladder.

“If there are more women making the decisions, then I think you’ll see more equality or at least that wage gap start to dissolve,” she says. “If we have more females coming into power, you will continue to see more change.”

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