Long before I became a Feminist, I learned from an early age that there were some sizable differences between men and women. When teachers asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, quite naively, “President of the United States.” They scoffed and said, “There will never be a woman president!” My teachers did not believe it was possible for me because it was not possible for them. Even though they had benefited from three waves of feminist activism, they could not envision a woman in a position of leadership let alone a woman whose primary focus was her career.
According to a 2004 study by Catalyst, a leading research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, companies with higher representations of women in senior management financially outperform other companies where women are neither promoted nor advanced at the same rate. Although this and other studies since substantiate the need and profitability of women in the corporate world, few women have climbed to the apex of corporate American or the upper echelon in science, law, higher education and politics.
In 2015, women are still trying to break the glass ceiling, the seemingly unreachable and invisible barrier that, despite her qualifications, achievements and talent, keeps women from attaining the same financial success as her male counterparts. Some attribute this disparity to systemic forces, calling for changes to the work environment that favor the needs of women—namely paid (or even unpaid) maternity leave, flexible hours, part-time work and onsite child-care, not to mention closing the wage disparity gap currently begrudging women about 25% less than men on average.
To make the work environment more conducive for women, corporate policy and legislation need to catch up to the ideals of equality put forth by the feminist movement, yet, some women have managed to break the glass ceiling and achieve high levels of success. These are the leaders of our generation and their paves the way for the next generation of woman in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
The five women interviewed for this article epitomize how far women have come in the workforce by envisioning a future in a past where there were few female mentors to show them the way. As a successful CEO, lawyer, doctor, College President and Mayor, they show that women can achieve every bit of the success experienced by their male counterparts. While their perceptions of the glass ceiling differ, their common themes are advancement through education, opportunity and confidence which have helped them overcome both external obstacles and interpersonal barriers to achieve great success in what have traditionally been maledominated fields.
Katherine (Kassie) Hilgert, 43
President & Chief Executive Officer of ArtsQuest
After waiting a few moments for Hilgert to finish a phone conference, I entered her office at 9:05 a.m. By that time, she had probably done more work than most people do all day. She greeted me a smile and asked if I’d like a coffee, which she made while we chatted and set down a quart of creamer. She’s not your typical CEO in her polo shirt and khaki’s, but by her very nature of being female, she is atypical already.
“I am not afraid to speak up. I have certainly heard over my career ‘Oh she is very aggressive’, where I would see it as assertive as opposed to aggressive,” said Hilgert, “Men who do it are assertive and we clap in one situation and we put our had over our mouth in the other.”
It is the very quality of being assertive that has helped more men climb to the top faster. Men are more likely to ask for raises and promotions, to voice their opinions and broadcast their ideas. According to Department of Labor Statistics, women make up approximately half of the U.S. workforce, yet the percentages of women at the top is sparse—34% in middle management, 14% in executive offices and only 4% hold the coveted position of CEO.
Is there room at the top for women, though?
“I think we are going to have to make room,” said Hilgert, who likens the height of corporate America to a dinner party with 24, not 28, seats, “If you want to get in there you either have to wait until someone is done, take it when they go to the bathroom and have that awkward moment when they come back, or someone leaves to let you sit there.”
In July of 2014, the Express Times announced that Jeff Parks was getting up from the table, making room for Hilgert to become the President and Chief Executive Officer of Artsquest.
Hilgert admits she has experienced occasional gender discrimination, “whether it is comments or finding about what your male colleague makes in relation to you,” said Hilgert.
When I asked her what she did about it, she replied, “I work harder,” and then, with a broad grin, a tilt of the head and shrug, she said, “I don’t know, I am here.”
At the time that Hilgert graduated from PennState University with a B.A. in Speech Communication, she experienced as much discrimination for her age as she did for her gender. As a young, inexperienced woman, she was fortunate to turn her internship into a full-time job as an assistant producer for a nationally syndicated television series, Health Matters and Morning Health Report, which required her to research managed healthcare and analyze market trends. From there, she entered the world of marketing as a Coordinator for Medstar Television of Allentown and was eventually noticed as a rising star by Sally Gammon, former CEO of Good Shepherd Rehabilitation. Hilgert was hired as Marketing Manager in 1998.
“Sally was certainly a mentor to me,” said Hilgert, “I was a marketing
manager and she was a CEO of this large healthcare system and she took
the time to talk to me and explain her vision and to ask me questions and
Hilgert learned that good leaders are not paralyzed by what is in front of them and are motivated to implement solutions, trained to believe “that it will work out well if you keep moving along.” Hilgert left Good Shepherd in 2002 to pursue another management position in community relations and philanthropy at Air Products, where it was her responsibility to disperse charitable contributions and manage all aspects of community outreach. In 2008, she arrived at ArtsQuest as the Vice President of Marketing and Advancement where she was groomed to eventually succeed Parks.
“I was coming in to raise money and I said to Jeff, ‘I am flattered that you would like me to do this but, I want you to be aware that I never raised a dollar. So, if you are OK to hire a fundraiser who has never raised funds, I’m all in’,” said Hilgert.
Good leaders adapt their skills and talents to the opportunities presented, empowered by a vision and mission. For Hilgert, that means taking on the revitalization and development of 10 acres of brownfield where the former Bethlehem Steel once employed 283,765 people at the height of production. No doubt, she will bring the vision to reality.
Dr. Kimberley Legg Corba, D.O., 48
Family Physician in Private Practice
As sole practitioner of Green Hills Family Health Care, Dr. Kimberly Legg Corba can make her own schedule. Yet weaving 50 hours or more per week into the life of a mother of two as well as a wife and doctor entails great multi-tasking and time management skills.
The answer, according to Corba, is a calendar of color coded sticky notes and lots of help. Because a Physician Assistant would be covering patients, she would be able to attend her 11 year old daughter’s violin concert on the evening that I interviewed her. Corba is a third generation Muhlenberger, graduating in 1993 and going on to study medicine at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“When you go into medicine for those starting in High School you’re already taking the hardest courses with the most competitive students and you are clawing and scraping your way to be at the top— that starts in HS, goes through college, medical school and residency,” said Corba, “Then you add the energy you have to put in to be a responsible parent to your children, and your husband, and your marriage, and then your house.”
An exhausting laundry list, Corba’s schedule is not an uncommon for women trying to have it all at any level of success. According to a 2013 BLS statistics, 74.7% of women in the workforce raise school age children. Her husband, Dr. Robert Corba, D.O. is a pain management interventionist at Orthopedic Associates of Allentown. While Corba admits that her husband is a “huge part of the cog” in their partnership, the majority of parental tasks and household chores fall on her shoulders.
“I opened this practice with no patients 13 years ago and we had to put up our house at collateral for the loan to start the business and he was very supportive and has been the whole time,” said Corba, “Him being a physician, sometimes we are both up late doing chart work and paper work when our kids are in bed.”
Corba has surrounded herself with support, though, and that is part of her success. Delma Tonge, 70, has been the family baby-sitter for the past 11 years and, along with Corba’s parents, demonstrates that it really does take a village to raise children in the modern era. Glase, helped open the office and not only does she provide excellent administration, she occasionally lets the dogs out or delivers a forgotten lunch.
Glase said, “She challenges me to always do better! I have grown tremendously as a practice manager since working with her.”
Corba’s work ethic was inspired by a legacy of educators and doctors, whose trial and errors have culminated in Corba’s success. “My dad always says, ‘Your best asset is your ability to work.’ ” said Corba, Possibly because she saw her grandmother as a nurse and grandfather as a doctor, Corba had aspired to be a nurse until, at the age of 14, her neighbor, Dr. Barry Hennessey, planted the seed that she could be a doctor.
“He was an orthopedic surgeon and I said I was considering nursing. He said, “You’re too smart for that you should go to medical school,” A month after Corba opened her private practice Corba got pregnant with her Kamern. Her son, Robert James (R.J.), 15, was born four years earlier. Having her own practice let take the she needed.
“No one blinked an eye so, it’s like the practice was born, my son was 3 and my daughter was born and the practice was grown with my family,” said Corba.
In the August heat, she handed out business cards throughout the industrial complexes, hoping to get enough patients to make her bank loan payments. Fortunately she did and, when Kameron was born, she took only three weeks off while another doctor covered her patients.
“When I was training there weren’t a lot of specialities where women could work part time. Now there are, so there are many more opportunities for women to work less than full-time, even three quarters time,” said Corba.
While the tide is turning for women in medicine, there is still income disparity. According to 2013 study published by The Journal of American Medicine, women are earning 25 percent less than male physicians and the Washington Post reported a $50,000 difference in salary. At the same time, almost half of students graduating from medical school are women and, with more women in the medical field, it continues to change.
“The only way I can hopefully inspire a female is to let her know she can practice good medicine, be a good doctor to their patients and do what they need to do at home,” said Corba. “Yeah, I feel like I found a way to do both, several grey hairs and wrinkles later. I always knew I wanted to be an excellent mother and parent and be an excellent doctor.”
Corba has turned medicine into an art, not a commodity. Her three goals in her mission statement were consistency, personability, efficiency, which she has consistently attained in her award winning practice, scoring highest in quality and satisfaction with High Mark, Capital and Valley Preferred Insurance.
Gladys E. Wiles, Esquire, 47:
Attorney and President of Snyder & Wiles, PC.
Wiles escorted me back to the conference room of her Fogelsville office after introducing me to her all-female staff. One of the few if not only all-female offices in the Lehigh Valley, the only remnant of male is her predecessors name on the moniker Snyder & Wiles, PC.
“We make our own rules in how we operate in our business, we are not bound by any gender rules whatsoever because they don’t dominate our philosophy in the business,” said Wiles, “What we try to offer is the best possible work we can do. I say that as an all-female firm and that is by choice.”
She makes no apologies for being a woman in the male-dominated field of law, sitting comfortably in at the long table of the conference room in her teal cardigan sweater and a capris pant ensemble accented by a string of colorful baubles.
“I think at some point, I was like, I look like them. I don’t want to look like them. I want to look like me,” said Wiles of her male counterparts, “I had black hair and I went blonde, I wear dresses to court with a little sweater, so long gone are the days of the business suit.”
Wiles’ practice is comprised of three components. She handles the multi-million dollar personal injury recoveries and real estate deals while her associate, Attorney Merna Noumeh, primarily handles the family law.
“When you try cases, you see other attorneys on the trial list and 8 out of 10 are men. There are not a lot of women trying big jury trials,” said Wiles.
It is her confidence that has carried Wiles thus far and enables her to break social and cultural barriers related to gender in the male-dominated field of business law.
According to the BLS, 45.4% of all women lawyers were Associates and even fewer, 19.5% were Partners in 2011. Interestingly enough, though, the American Bar Association reported that 47.2% of all graduates from law school between 2009-2010 were women and, in 2011, less than 32% of women were lawyers, which means more than 10% of women with law degrees never go on to practice law.
A product of the Allentown School District, Wiles graduated from Muhlenberg College and earned her law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan after earning a master’s degree in public administration /political science from Lehigh University. After working at another firm for six months, she came to what was once the Law Office of Jerry A. Snyder in 1999. By 2003, she became partner.
“I went from being an associate attorney for a fabulous man, Jerry Snyder, who was my mentor,” said Wiles, “After working really hard, I got the opportunity to buy into the practice and become a partner and after many years, he eventually retired and I took over the entire practice.”
In 2013, Wiles took over the practice after Snyder retired. He was more than her predecessor, though, he was a mentor who, at the age of 71, showed Wiles how to apply her book smarts to legal practice, to develop relationships with other attorneys and to take the high road in all instances.
The low road is to be avoided at all costs and, for Wiles means showing respect to other attorneys and extending grace to clients who may struggle to meet her $250 hourly rate or retainer fees.
Wiles generates all of her business from her network and also relies on them as a support system, this core of people, of which her family is central, emanates outward in concentric fields of influence from friends, business associates and the people she represents as well as her larger connections within the Allentown community to which her family immigrated from Syria in 1971.
“I love Allentown, for what I do, and the type of business that I have, I mean it is essential to have a network of people that trust you and believe in you,” said Wiles, “To be successful, I have to be around where I grew up.”
As much as she gets from this network, she gives back ten-fold. As an active member of five Boards, Wiles is President of the Board of Directors at the YWCA of Bethlehem and Vice President of Programming on the Board of Directors of the Women’s Business Council, part of the larger Chamber.
She has also funded summer camp scholarships for a Girl Scout to go to summer camp, bought laptops for the YWCA’s Tech Girls Program to advance STEM field learning and frequently sponsors or organizes events that support and promote women in leadership.
“We are all about pulling up and bringing you along,” said Wiles, “We have doubled the gross revenue since I took over this practice. So, I was able to double the revenue in one year after taking over the helm.”
Sharing in her prosperity and abundance has been the foundation of Wiles’ philosophy, generously treating her staff to lunch, gifts and bonuses. If success can be quantified, it is surely in the profit and the extent to which that profit is shared.
“I have a great support team that permits me to do these things and attend these events and do what I need to do,” said Wiles, “If you surround yourself with people who hold you back, you’re never going to be able to fly, that’s why I go back to my original statement—the network is so important!”
Carmen Twillie Ambar, 46,
President of Cedar Crest College
If I could describe Twillie Ambar in two words, they would be intense and passionate. It was tough to schedule an appointment around the demands of graduation week at Cedar Crest College and by the look of the calendar displayed on her desktop, that’s status quo. For that block of time, though, Twillie Ambar was focused and passionately advocated for woman’s education based on a philosophy derivative of her life experience.
“I am really in education because of what I believe it can do for society and how I believe it can shape society. Partly, the reason why I feel so strongly, is because I know what it has done for my family,” said Twillie Ambar. “If you can imagine the Deep South during my parents’ era, we are talking segregation in its most horrific forms, but my parents both went to historically black colleges.”
Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, she explained her maiden name, Twillie, traces back to the original British slave master name, spelled T-W-I-L-L-E-Y, a family crest that is a somber yet dignified homage to a history of slavery and the stages of liberation through the Civil Rights Movement that empower the trajectory Twillie Ambar’s path.
“I am essentially four generations removed from slavery and one generation from a family whose primary focus was picking cotton on the farm and from that generation, we’ve been able to have a college president, a physician and a teacher,” said Twillie Ambar.
“Access and opportunity to education is, in my opinion, the social mobility tool that is fair and equitable to everyone if you can access it,” said Twillie Ambar, “So if you want to change society, you want society to be better, you want more people to have access to opportunity, the way to do this is to make the educational system.”
Although Twillie Ambar originally envisioned being an attorney for a college, she went onto Columbia Law School for her Juris Doctorate, after which time, she became a “hard core litigator” representing city agencies in New York City. Then, she got the chance run the graduate practices at Princeton, working with students on international issues and domestic policy, after which time the opportunity to be Dean at historic women’s Douglas College at Rutgers presented.
“That is where I cut my teeth on women’s issue and women’s education and women’s leadership. It was always in the blood in so far as I thought about education as opportunity in access and helping historically underrepresented groups sort of get access to this incredible opportunity that I thought could help change the world if they had a chance,” said Twillie Ambar.
As a new President of Cedar Crest, and at the age of 39, Twillie Ambar gave birth to triplets—Gabby, Luke and Daniel. Postponing pregnancy is a trend among educated and women. According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2013 National Vital Statistics Report, the average age of women having their first child between the ages of 35 and 50 has risen in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
“I did choose to wait to very late in my career to have children—that is a decision, a conscious decision. I want to be through school before I got married,” said Twillie Ambar.
“I do think when you come from a situation where you have significant economic disadvantage where you don’t have a family structure that is supportive, it just gets tougher and tougher to be prepared for those opportunities. These are real barriers that exist out there for women, in particular, women of color,” said Twillie Ambar, “If we don’t have family medical leave policies that are effective, if we don’t pay women for maternity leave, we don’t deal with those issues then I would say, we are not helping society advance because it is women typically who bear the brunt of those issues.”
As President of Cedar Crest College and a woman of color, Twillie Ambar holds a coveted position in academia. According to the American Council on Education, women of color comprise only 17% of all sitting women college presidents even though studies show that visibility in top leadership positions helps break down stereotypes and encourages diversity.
“I was the youngest Dean at Douglas, I was the first African American to be president here at Cedar Crest College, but. I have to say, I have this kind of pained look on my face. I’m not proud of it because I think to myself, ‘shouldn’t that have happened already?’” said Twillie Ambar. “I am kind of in the third wave of feminism and I am light years removed from the Civil Rights movement and a lot has happened. If I am the first person to show up here as a person of color, I ask, ‘what happened?’”
The answer to that question is a much larger systemic dialogue as the country deals with the resurfacing issues of racism, but at the same time, an African American was elected to office before any woman, even though candidates like Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have all thrown their hat in the ring. During our interview, I couldn’t help but notice the cozy shot of Twillie Ambar and first lady, Michele Obama. She explained that Obama came to Cedar Crest while on the campaign trail in her first year as President of Cedar Crest.
“It was a historic moment, a potential African American in the Whitehouse,” said Twillie Ambar, “She is one of those people that, the way we are engaged in this picture, you would think that we are personal friends.”
In 2004, the Obama’s broke their own glass ceiling but, Michele, in her own right had a powerful academic background and strong career path that provided all the qualifications for her to become Commander in Chief. As first lady, though, she has had to dance through a minefield of feminist backlash for prioritizing her role as “first mom” and “first lady” above her own career, put on the back burner to participate in her husband’s success. Michele epitomizes the complications of modern women, torn between her own ambitions and supporting her husband’s advancement.
“This question of balance comes up so much because we are in a world where the women do the majority of child care so this is going to be a complicating factor for their life trajectory,” said Twillie Ambar, “We need to teach out kids how to have these conversations. It is one of those things that students are always asking about.”
The interests of racial and gender equality are intertwined and the trajectory of Twillie Ambar’s path is a reminder that education, particularly educating women, is an antidote to ignorance and the cure for social change.
“I am in my wheel house, which is focused on education, on access to opportunity and, at this moment, on women,” said Twillie Ambar, “I am right where I need to be, I can hit homeruns in this environment.”
Fiorella Reginelli-Mirabito, 52
Mayor of Bath Borough
When I interviewed Mirabito, I found her sitting behind her desk in her second floor office in the former George Wolf School, now Bath Borough Municipal Building. Reminiscent of its use as a classroom, the blackboard was covered with an outline neatly written in pink chalk. This is the building where Mirabito, affectionately called Fi in her hometown, learned English as an Italian immigrant and became enmeshed in all things Bath.
“I came from Italy in 1968 and landed in Bath; my immigrant parents, two suit cases and myself,” Said Mirabito, “Bath has been very good to me, personally. My family has a business here that we have had for the past 30 years—My Place Pizza Restaurant. My husband [Emanuel] and I have always have been involved in Bath.”
According to the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers is true because only 17.5% of Mayors in Pennsylvanian cities with populations over 30,000 are women. With a population of 2,694 citizens, Bath does is not necessarily included in that statistic but, it is likely that even fewer women in small towns become involved in politics.
A 2013 study by the American University School of Public Affairs entitled, Girls Just Wanna Not Run, suggested that women have a tendency to channel their desire for social or economic change through nonelectoral means rather than through elected offices. The study cited that one major deterrent is campaigning and the potential exposure to moral judgment and negative campaigns, not to mention the time running a successful campaign takes away from the daily responsibilities of parenting and domestic work. Additionally, women are not necessarily included in political conversations or encouraged to engage in politics.
“I have been here since I was 5, my relatives have had a factory of over 300 people, employed half of bath. I was a travel agent for 17-18 years. I have a business for 29. ‘Fi’ they said, ‘you’re the mayor already,” said Mirabito.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘Fiorella, there is nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it, nothing.’ Those words ring in my head every once and while when I think I can’t do something,” said Mirabito.
She wanted to be Mayor long anyone told her or encouraged her to be Mayor. She lived across the street from the Mayor Archibald Leigh and marveled at his accomplishments, awards and prizes. At the age of 10, she thought it would be pretty cool to be the mayor and announced her candidacy to “Archie,” who was like a grandfather to her.
She graduated from Northampton High School and, intended on going to Northampton Community College for hospitality management but, because her family owned a travel agency, Mary Fashion Travel, she received hands-on training in their business. She got married and exited the work force to raise her two children until they went to school.
She went on to becomes President of the Crime Watch for a decade starting in 1988. From 2008 – 2010, she served as President of the Home School Association, as Borough Councilwoman and co-chair of the Bath 275th Anniversary Committee. She also says she is not politically motivated.
“I don’t really call myself a politician,” said Mirabito, “I call myself a resident of Bath that cares deeply for her town. I don’t have a political agenda. Politicians have agendas.”
Categorically speaking, though, she is both feminist and politician. If choice is the hallmark of feminism, it cannot exclude those who choose marriage and family over education and career. Politically, her agenda is to change the surrounding communities’ perception of Bath, to make it safe and to do more for the youth.
“There are properties here in Bath, blighted, there are not a lot but they seem to be very visible. I would like to make some changes and beautify it and make it look nice and make it more welcoming…and get rid of the negativity,” said Mirabito.
“I have just come through 4 years of breast cancer eight surgeries later Complete mastectomy, complete hysterectomy, 6 reconstructions, they just removed my implants April 7th ,” said Mirabito, “I try to stay positive in all things because I have been through hell. That is why I turned bath pink.”
In comparison to what Mirabito endured surviving Cancer and treatments, being Mayor is “so easy” because everyone is very eager to help. Eleven months into her first year, she was voted Mayor of the Year by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. She attributes the nod by the Chamber to the success of this fundraiser.
“The people in Bath have told me, Fi you have done more in a year than past mayors have done in 50,” said Mirabito, “I think I could make an even bigger difference here is Bath.”
While Mirabito’s leadership is helping to make Bath a better and stronger community, there is a great need to women support women in leadership positions and recruit future leaders to engage in politics as elected officials at every level of government. The fact remains that there has never been a woman Governor of Pennsylvania and the only Congressional Representative is Allyson Schwartz, D. Approximately 17% of the State House and 18% of the State Senate seats are occupied by women, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Woman in Politics at Chatham. The ceiling will not be shattered until women participate equally with men in politics.
Women still need to remove their own interpersonal barriers to achievement and capitalize on the opportunities presented with the same ambitious drive as their male counterparts that make any disparagement disappear like white noise in the background of their achievement. While women in leadership positions might have a special responsibility to advocate for adaptations in the workforce that might make it easier for women, they are under no obligation to advance women for the sake of leveling the playing field.
Women, when empowered to be their own advocates, network and leverage their influence to rise to the top. Thus, equality is all about opportunity and creating an environment where both men and women have equal opportunities and both are empowered to achieve the actualization of their intellect, talents and ambition.
Women are equal it is just the perception of inequality that perpetuates the myth that a thin invisible barrier separates men achieving career success from women cobbling jobs around childrearing and domestic responsibilities. It doesn’t have to be that way, it can be different, when we—both women and men—envision a world without barriers and limitations, self-imposed or otherwise.
Those women who dare to believe in themselves share many of the same qualities, and, although their backgrounds are quite diverse, the women interviewed for this article would unanimously agree that it is their belief in their potential, their educational opportunities and the mentors along the way that helped them rise above any wage disparity, discrimination or the traditional role of women that are helped them to clone the success of the mentors who inspired them.