Conference aimed at helping women build careers at male-dominated companies


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Delayed unexpectedly in Prague, Czech Republic, for a week in April when volcanic ash shuttered airports across Europe, Elisabet Rodriguez Dennehy was stressed for the first couple of days, then settled in to observe how people and businesses handled the chaos that disrupted daily activities.

For the Shadyside-based consultant who trains and coaches corporate managers, the experience was one she will likely use as a teachable moment:

"It showed how poorly prepared we really are. We are used to comfort and predictability ... but you can be thrown a curve."

Because of the travel snafu, one of the events Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy was forced to re-schedule was a three-day conference at Duquesne University's Beard Institute for female business managers. The event, targeted for women whose companies believe they have strong potential to move up the executive ranks, will take place today through Thursday. Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy will lead intensive sessions on how the participants can leverage their strengths to forge successful careers in corporations typically dominated by men.

Among the companies scheduled to send women to the program: Bayer, U.S. Steel, H.J. Heinz, Giant Eagle and EQT.

Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy's background includes research on why so many women leave the work force before they achieve top management positions.

"They haven't derailed just to have families; that's a misconception," she said. "It's because they're tired of being confused and not aware of what they're not doing right to move up. So they go somewhere else for another opportunity, or they start a business, or stay home for a while."

As a result of all that migration between companies and new ventures, very few women make it to the corporate suite.

Statistics bear out that though females make up about 50 percent of the U.S. labor force, they hold relatively few of the top jobs.

Among the Fortune 500 firms, women comprised only 3 percent of all chief executives in 2009, according to Catalyst, a New York-based organization that tracks women in business. Women held 15.7 percent of all corporate officer positions in the Fortune 500 in 2008, Catalyst reported.

At the Duquesne event, Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy will facilitate activities for the women on self-awareness, communication, team building and leadership.

Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy, 57, earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and a law degree at the University of Puerto Rico and a master's in international affairs from Tufts University.

She relocated to Pittsburgh 20 years ago when her husband earned a master's in business administration at the University of Pittsburgh and they ended up staying and raising two children here. Though she mentored women frequently throughout an early career that focused on business development in Latin America, Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy discovered another calling after 9/11 when she became burned out on frequent international travel and turned to teaching leadership and ethics at Duquesne.

After being asked to lead a corporate training program for women, she found a way to combine psychology "and my passion for people" in sessions specifically tailored for women searching for ways to navigate complex corporate infrastructures.

"My passion is women in the corporate world finding what they need to reframe and shift. ... If we capture entry-level women, then we will have the opportunity to have a gender-intelligent environment."

In a book she is currently writing, "Can You Afford to Ignore Me? How to Manage Women from Different Ethnic Backgrounds," Ms. Rodriguez Dennehy said she would provide advice for executives who want to better manage women of various cultures as their firms diversify.


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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