Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Every so often, a female colleague will remind me of how certain things work in the inland West.
In this region of the United States, it’s a fact that there are still jobs that women don’t have a shot at, and a few old patterns that are tough to break.
One might attribute this to several factors: for example, an Old West mentality that still pervades the mountain states, giving cowboys an edge over cowgirls; the reality that top management positions in our leading local industry have been traditionally held by men who prefer male heirs; and even religious and cultural influences that define what will be men’s work and what work will go to women.
Job inequity can still be found in these parts, but there are, of course, exceptions. For example, consider that three women run the chambers of commerce for Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas. They are influential leaders by any definition, deferring to few and playing a secondary role to none.
As the publisher of a business weekly, I’ve stayed close to each of these chambers over the years, through board membership, committee work or attendance at their events. I suppose I drank the chamber of commerce Kool-Aid awhile back. And I would do it again. Local chambers of commerce have a good grip on the community’s pulse, and we’re like other businesses that realize benefits in a close alliance with them.
For some time now, Kara Kelley has headed up the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Alice Martz has run the Henderson Chamber and Sharon Powers has been at the helm of the North Las Vegas Chamber. They have all built a true power base in their communities, in part by demonstrating the ability to coax influential people into taking desired actions. And as the voice of strong pro-business coalitions, they have all had a say in constructing the state’s political agenda.
Now, in separate and unrelated moves, Kelley and Powers are leaving their positions. Given the respect each has earned during her tenure, it’s not just a setback for their respective constituencies, but for Nevada business in general.
Although I have no special insight into why Kelley or Powers are leaving or where they are headed, job experiences have prepared both for politics, should they so choose.
Kelley, an active participant in Carson City events for some years now, has the background, experience and smarts to chase a state or federal election if she wants to. Powers, who reinvented her organization during the crazy-growth recent years in North Las Vegas, has her own set of political credentials. Both have the skills to serve in elected office or as lobbyists.
Still, all they are saying publicly right now is that they’re departing their jobs in coming months. And although it’s probably not the best of times for them to depart, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, either.
“The bottom line is that right now, it’s a tough time for chambers of commerce,” one chamber observer told me. “All you have to do is take a look at the economy. Membership is hurting, they’ve had to cut staff just like everyone in business has, and everyone has taken on more work. Yet their boards keep expecting them to do what they’ve been doing, and to keep growing.”
Which would be tough, since when local business suffers, chamber membership can only decline. Every other membership organization is feeling it, too.
Chambers of commerce are political organizations, which means other aspects of a chamber CEO’s job have grown more challenging, too. Political strategies are not as simple to craft as they once were, and solutions are not as evident. As more businesspeople become concerned with preserving essential services and a quality of life, a chamber’s traditional political battles have grown more intense and complex.
Anyone hoping to fill Kelley’s or Powers’ position will find these challenges at the top of the job description.
Meanwhile, out Henderson way, chamber icon Martz isn’t going anywhere. She’s giving the job at least four or five more years, politely but firmly noting for me that she has a goal to attain before she would ever think of stepping down.
“I want to see the chamber get out of this recession and get back on track to success,” she said.
Those who know Alice Martz also know not to question her. The same would be true of Sharon Powers or Kara Kelley. Three people with their own definition of women’s work.
Bruce Spotleson is group publisher of In Business Las Vegas.