Local Women Leaders Share Joys and Challenges

A-B Tech’s Women’s History Month discussion panel.

Five women panelists discussed the importance of supporting our local community through education.  Photo: A-B Tech
Five women panelists discussed the importance of supporting our local community through education. Photo: A-B Tech

When A-B Tech first opened its doors in 1959, only one in three women worked outside the home, and many had little control over their earnings.

These days, despite making strides, according to the US Government Accountability Office website, women continue to earn less than men and are still underrepresented in management roles.

Five women from various walks of life gathered for the Empowered by A-B Tech: Women’s Edition Panel to discuss how they’ve overcome hurdles on the path to success. The event, held in A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium, drew a mix of staff, faculty, and students to hear speakers share their stories on equality and inclusion, important female role models, and barriers they’ve encountered on their paths to success.

Urban News publisher Johnnie Grant, who graduated from A-B Tech’s nursing program and went on to a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, acknowledged that as a Black woman, she’s encountered a double share of challenges throughout her life, but she said support from family and friends has made all the difference.

“The biggest piece is to be yourself and show humility,” she said. “We know the history of this country; it’s something that can’t be hidden, but that doesn’t predetermine who you are as a person or a professional.”

Sarah Benson, A-B Tech’s Chair of Criminal Justice Technology, said that as the first female captain at the Asheville Police Department, she battled stereotypes regularly on the job. Benson shared a story about a male officer who tested her courage by taking her to the city’s worst drug area her first day at work.

“We got into a confrontation with two huge individuals,” she said. “We fought them from behind the police station all the way down to South Charlotte Street.”

Benson, now retired from the police department, chairs A-B Tech’s Criminal Justice program and loves being “mama lion” to female students who are carrying on where she left off.

“I see my students out there on the streets and I encourage them and say, ‘You know you can do it.’”

Construction Management and Building Technology instructor Maggie Shoup said the construction field is 91% men. Over the years, when working as a site manager, she’s had to work twice as hard at setting herself apart from the crowd.

“I have to be more proficient, more polite, and produce more. And,” she added, “when I want to achieve a goal, I have had to bring in the stakeholders to create a consensus and come at management from a cooperative perspective.”

Chair of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Cathy Strohm-Horton also found herself in the minority in the male-dominated food and beverage field. She pointed out that in the 1980s, she and her colleagues wore “power ties” to try to keep up with men.

“That was a bad fashion statement,” she said, smiling. In the end, it took a degree from A-B Tech to give her the confidence she needed to build industry connections and work her way up the career ladder.

“If you don’t feel equipped to do something,” she advised, “get more education and background. Everybody is scared of change and growth; we all have our fears, but you have to face them and put yourself out there. If you take that first step, the door will crack open; you’ll get your toe in and next thing you know you’re in!”

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