As an insurance agent, Elizabeth Turner's workplace was dominated by men. Her contact with women on the job was limited and not that invigorating. Then, when she left to form her own insurance company, a different sort of isolation set in.
"There was really no one to talk to at my level," she said. "When I was working (as an agent) and there were other people who were my equals, I'd sit down in the office and chew the fat or go out to lunch or go out after work. But when I started working for myself, there was really no one to talk to. When I got employees, I couldn't really talk to them. They didn't get it. The guys I used to work with didn't get it, because they thought I was crazy for going out on my own, anyway. So I became an outcast from them."
What Turner needed was some good old-fashioned moral support--from someone who understood the travails of a woman starting her own business. Eventually she found it and, to her way of thinking, from a most unlikely source: other women.
"I wasn't looking for women at all," Turner said. "I'd never known any successful women. Then I met the people at Contacts and said, 'Yeah!' "
Now the president of Contacts of Orange County, a group of about 35 women, Turner found what hundreds of other management-level and women business owners in Orange County now swear by: membership in women's organizations.
With memberships ranging from about 20 to more than 100, the groups typically offer members a chance to meet other successful women, hear a wide range of guest speakers and compare notes about the rigors of being a woman in charge.
While they can provide practical help, such as business contacts, the groups also provide something akin to sanctuaries, many women say. Meeting once a month, the gatherings provide a place where women can let their hair down without being seen as unprofessional, where people realize that tears in the workplace aren't a sign of weakness, where success doesn't have to be apologized for, and where others instinctively knew about the juggling act of being a business executive and a wife and mother.
Betty Shaffer is an internal consultant in personnel staff development for the county. It is her third step up the ladder in county government, a ladder that she says has some slippery rungs. "I think there's a perception out there that things are different now in the work world, that women have made so many strides that we're accepted and that everything's OK," she said. "Certainly, we've made tremendous achievements in being accepted in the ranks, but the truth is there are still a lot of feeling there about women being in high-level positions."
It was that problem--working in a male-dominated environment--that led Shaffer in search of a women's group, and she joined Women in Business. "One-on-one, I've had some real friendships with men at work where they were supportive of me, where they did mentor me and . . . teach me the ropes, so to speak. But without sounding too simplistic, it's difficult for men who have dealt in a male environment and know the game to understand what it's like for women who are coming into the game and have to learn the rules. And some of those rules are not written down. Some are not shared with women . . . so you feel isolated, like, 'There's something I don't know that everybody else knows.' When talking to other women, though, you don't feel so isolated. You say, 'It's not me; other people have felt that way.' "
It is that sense of shared experiences that women point to most often when discussing their organizations.
"Women don't sit around and talk about being discriminated against," said Sheila Ivary, president of the 160-member Women in Business. "It's much more subtle than that. It's a camaraderie, a shared experience that's common to all of us."
Especially with women who have attained executive or managerial positions, she said, there is an unspoken knowledge that most, if not all, have seen sex discrimination. "I don't think that has gone away," Ivary said. "It's just very much underground. I'm not trying to sound martyr-ish or anything like that. It just takes a long time for society to change."
Another key reason for the proliferation of women's groups is a simple one: They're a lot of fun.
"We can let our hair down a little bit," said Sandy Huff, a vice president and part owner of Elizabeth Turner's insurance company. She is also a past president of Contacts of Orange County. "We were all achievers, some at a very young age and, all of a sudden, you achieve so much and become successful, but you don't play anymore. I think with our group we learned how to play again."
Ivary used almost the same words in a separate interview. "If you're playing a role and maintaining an image in the workplace, it's nice to know there's someplace to go and have some camaraderie and let your hair down a bit," she said.