Last week's installation of Lynda Williamson as the first female president of the Rotary Club of Statesboro proved to be a celebrated milestone of just how far women have come as respected professionals in Statesboro's business community.
After receiving a standing ovation by the predominantly male Rotary Club founded in 1937, Williamson spoke in an appreciative tone as she accepted the club's top position of leadership.
"I stand before you humbled, honored, and excited about the opportunity to lead this club with such a rich history of great leaders and service to our community," Williamson said.
Surprisingly, Williamson, a project manager with the Georgia Power Company and the first female to hold a position on the Sea Island Bank's board of directors, is not the only female president of a local Rotary club. Recently, Georgia Southern University associate dean of the college of business administration Mary Hazeldine was installed as the third female president of the Rotary Club of Downtown Statesboro, Statesboro's other Rotary chapter founded in 1995.
What many may have considered highly unlikely just 20 years ago seems "par for the course" today. As Statesboro has grown, so has the number of female professionals serving in various positions around the community.
"When I started working in the emergency room at Bulloch Memorial Hospital in 1989, I was the only female physician with hospital privileges," said Carla Branch, a local doctor who now works in private practice with the Statesboro Family Practice Clinic.
Branch said perceptions have changed a great deal since she began practicing medicine.
"I always felt accepted by physicians and hospital staff, but patients were uncomfortable," she said. "I'd walk into a room and they'd assume I was a nurse. They would look at me warily when I announced I was the doctor. With the influx of more female physicians, the community seems very accepting and comfortable with it now; it's the 'norm'."
East Georgia Regional Hospital now has 11 female physicians with privileges, and its CEO Bob Bigley expects to add another five in the next year.
"Half of the physicians coming out of medical school today are women," Bigley said. "When I started in this profession, we never recruited female physicians, because there just weren't any. Now we target them."
Hazeldine said even though it has become much easier for women in the workplace, there are certain skills that young women should try and develop.
"They need to know how to lead others, and bring them to a consensus when working through a problem or project," she said. "It also is very important that they find a mentor who is a great leader and learn from that mentor."
Dawn Cartee is the first female president of Ogeechee Technical College in Statesboro. Cartee also cites a mentor as having helped her along the way, but has additional advice for young women.
"Never do anything to jeopardize your integrity," Cartee said. "Sometimes you will need to make decisions that will cause you personal hardship just to maintain your integrity. You have to conduct yourself for the long run. Integrity is the only thing you take from one job/career to the next."
According to the United States Department of Labor, women comprised 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force in 2007, and are projected to account for 47 percent of the labor force in 2016. With the increasing presence of women in the workforce, accomplished business and professional women are becoming much more common place, and with that the myths that surround their success.
"Many people assume that successful women don't have a life, that we work all of the time, and therefore are not good parents," Williamson said. "My job with Georgia Power as well as my other business interests complete me; they don't make me. You have to make time for work, time for community which enhances your work, and time for family."
Other local women who have broken barriers and quieted naysayers over the last two decades include Peggy Chapman who was and remains the Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce's first female president, in addition to serving as the executive director of the Development Authority of Bulloch County, and attorney Susan Cox who served as the first female chairman of the board of the Statesboro-Bulloch County Chamber of Commerce in 1992.
"One of my classmates at law school actually asked me if I didn’t feel 'guilty' for taking a man’s place in our class, because the man could use his law degree to support his family," Cox said. "I replied that if that man had my grades and LSAT score, then he could be there in my place and that I did not feel at all guilty about getting a law degree. The fact that he even asked me that question shows you the mindset at the time: I was taking a man’s place and my degree would probably go to waste because once I got married, I’d be staying home."
That assumption by some male colleagues has proven false time and time again as professional women like Georgia Southern's first female provost and vice president for academic affairs Linda Bleicken go about their business every day setting an example for those around them.
"I don't often think of myself as a trailblazer," Bleicken said. "Rather, I often think of the great honor I have to serve in this capacity--and the great responsibility involved. The responsibility is not simply to do a credible job in this role, but also to serve as an example. I realize what a responsibility it is to continually try to behave in a manner that demonstrates leadership characteristics such as integrity, fairness, respect, interpersonal and communication skills, and to behave in ways that create a good impression of the University."
Branch said the opportunity is there, and that women today can be successful in any field if they just remember the following.
"Do your job, do it well, ignore the few that might try to intimidate you, and you'll get the respect you deserve."