Three local women who are making an impact: International Women's Day celebrates achievements

Jaimen Pangborn has lunch Tuesday with eighth-graders in the Zach Johnson Foundation’s Kids on Course program at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids. Pangborn has worked with many of the students since they were very young, offering them tutoring, life skills courses and preparation for post-high school education. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Jaimen Pangborn has lunch Tuesday with eighth-graders in the Zach Johnson Foundation’s Kids on Course program at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids. Pangborn has worked with many of the students since they were very young, offering them tutoring, life skills courses and preparation for post-high school education. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

There is a “war for talent” in Iowa that makes this a good time to support leadership and growth opportunities for women in the workplace and in the community, says Jo Miller, chief executive of the Be Leaderly career strategy firm.

The Cedar Rapids firm helps employees and companies around the world foster leadership for women through training, conferences and consulting.

Only 15 states have a larger gender pay gap than Iowa — where median earnings of full-time, year-round female workers in 2015 were 77 percent of similar male earnings, according to an American Association of University Women review of U.S. Census data.

Moreover, only about 6 percent of Iowa’s for-profit companies had women in chief executive officer roles, including only three female CEOs in 25 of the largest employers in the Corridor, a Gazette review showed.

Miller, a monthly columnist for The Gazette, said Be Leaderly recently surveyed about 1,300 men and women about what motivates them and what makes them feel ready for promotions.

“One of the early findings is that it busted the myth that there’s an ambition gap,” she said. “One-third of all respondents expressed interest to making it to C-suite level” — as in chief information officer or chief financial officer, for example — “but slightly more women than men wanted to advance to director level or higher.”

With women at all work levels, and Iowa employers looking to keep skilled professionals in the state, it’s in a company’s best interest to continue to invest in women employees, she said. It’s something employers should consider year-round, not just on days like today — International Women’s Day.


“Women want to step into leadership roles. Companies in Eastern Iowa have this untapped resource right there,” Miller said. “Look beyond initial biases and stereotypes about who our potential leaders are. We see a lack of women in those leadership roles.”

Jaimen Pangborn, 36, from Cedar Rapids, said she grew up with the expectation that women could have resounding impact at work and in the community. Her mother ran Linn County’s juvenile detention center over 30 years.

“That was really fostered within our families,” Pangborn said. “I was raised thinking you can do whatever you put your mind to, being a woman or a guy doesn’t matter.”

After starting a not-for-profit and working at other service providers, Pangborn joined the Zach Johnson Foundation seven years ago as director of program development for Kids on Course. The program is an educational opportunity and community group for at-risk students. The goal is to help students thrive academically and socially.

The program started with kids who were 7. Now the oldest students are 14, and Pangborn continues to develop the program as the students approach high school.

Pangborn likens her position to a teacher, coach, mentor and parent. A group of students often eats lunch during the school day in her office in Wilson Middle School and students also attend tutoring sessions and participate in other programs like one for male students of color.

“The reality is that you can’t work with kids without working with their families,” she said. “These families have really embraced me as part of their family. These kids feel like my kids at this point.”

Through her work, Pangborn is creating the next crop of community leaders.

“My kids can recite back to me, and I’ll say, ‘What is my job? And they’ll say, ‘To make me successful,’” she said.


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DeAnn Fitzgerald, 59, is another Cedar Rapids woman who already was a leader in her profession as an optometrist but expanded her mission to create a nonprofit that developed an eye care clinic in Kenya.

“I just always had a little bit more of a desire to be bigger, and I thought there were other things to do,” she said.

In 2006, Fitzgerald’s colleagues helped her gather and repair eye care equipment, glasses and medication. She took a team and 27 bags and boxes of supplies to Kenya, serving 400 people in less than a week and teaching a resident there how to provide some eye care. One of the people Fitzgerald supplied with glasses was a girl named Esther, whose mother later thanked Fitzgerald.

“(The mother) said, ‘since her encounter with you, Esther wants to be a doctor,’” Pangborn recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘holy Toledo.’”

Fitzgerald also raised $15,000 to build an eye care clinic in Kipkaren, Kenya. In 2009, she and a team raised $25,000 to supply the village with wells for fresh water.

Fitzgerald encouraged other women to become leaders in their professions and communities. You don’t have to make grand gestures to make a difference, she said.

“A single idea or single action can move the world. The secret to living is giving. I find that when people are so caught up in themselves, they just can’t get out of the minutiae and life becomes very hard. It’s always bigger than that,” she said.

Leadership tips

Be Leaderly CEO Jo Miller offer this advice to women:


• Ask a boss or mentor to be put in a leadership pipeline. ”Take charge of your career advancements. Ask what you can do to develop yourself as a leader and declare that.”

• Network and recognize your value. ”Don’t spend 100 percent of your time with your head down getting your job done. Do things that make your value visible with others so you’re building credibility, you’re making your strengths and value known and so you’re not waiting for someone to come recognize you or promote you.”

• Have a plan for when you see harassment. ”Have the expectation that it will occur and know what you’ll do to speak up for yourself and speak up for others when it happens. It’s so important in the age of ‘Me Too’ that we all are prepared and thoughtful.”

• Support your peers. ”Many larger companies have a women employees’ resource group. Encourage other women to get involved, encourage men to get involved. We need strong male allies.”

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