I’m not sure how Linda Behrman and Loretta Burd feel about being described as pioneers. Neither of them fits any stereotype associated with the word.
Both were in the news this year, retiring from their respective positions as Columbus area president of Salin Bank and as CEO of Centra Credit Union.
Both had long and successful careers in their field. Linda worked with Salin Bank for 38 years. Loretta was with Centra for 47. They did remarkable things in their careers, chief among them being their shattering of the so-called glass ceilings of corporate business. They were successful female executives.
There are countless successful female executives these days, here and around the country. For a woman to occupy an executive position in a business is routine.
It wasn’t when the two women started their careers. That they reached their positions in the hierarchies of their companies is a remarkable achievement given prevailing societal attitudes when they entered the workforce.
They were pioneers in that they helped to change the accepted way of doing things. But if they paved the way for other women, someone else paved the way for them.
Around here, her name was Ruth Harrison. There are a lot of similarities between Ruth, Loretta and Linda.
All three were successful in the field of finance. All three worked their way up through the ranks. If there was a notable distinction, it was that Ruth started before the others.
Her beginning in 1945 was inauspicious. It was also traditional.
“I started out at age 19 as a receptionist and switchboard operator at Arvin Industries,” the 86-year-old Bartholomew County native recalled earlier this week. “I was there until I was 30, when Ed Lauther (who was then president of Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co.) came into the office one day and suggested that I come to work at the bank.”
Her first job in 1956 was in the loan department, and she can still laugh at the title she was given.
“All of the men in the department had the title of loan officer,” she remembered. “They called me a loan interviewer.”
She worked her way around many perceived slights but confronted some of them head-on.
There was the time early in her career when she observed that one of the paths to success in the consumer loan department was to go to a banking school, a path that had been followed by the male loan officers.
“I really wanted to go to that school,” she recalled. “I approached my boss and told him of my desire. He just looked at me and said, ‘But you’re married.’ I looked back at him and said, ‘So are you.’”
She didn’t get to go to that particular school, but she was on her way up the ladder. She served in a number of capacities and eventually was named a vice president of marketing, a title which at the time had never been conferred on a woman in local business.
Along the way she received support and opposition.
“Ed Lauther was certainly one of my early cheerleaders,” she recalled from her home at Four Seasons Retirement Center. “And J. Irwin Miller (who was chairman of the bank’s board) was certainly progressive as well as supportive.”
Ironically, negative attitudes came from an unusual direction.
“My worst enemy was the attitude of other women,” she said. “It was something that I encountered a number of times in my career.”
One of those instances arose in connection with another career achievement. In 1971 she was elected president of the National Association of Bank Women.
“We had conducted a survey among women in the workplace to determine their attitudes about career advancement,” she remembered. “We got the results back and were appalled, especially with the attitudes voiced by women in the southern states. They suggested that among the important recognitions they wanted were being called ‘Mrs.’ or having men hold their chairs for them. We decided to junk the whole report.”
As she closed in on the end of her banking career, she was given the opportunity for yet another pioneering advancement.
In 1983 she was asked by Gov. Robert Orr to take the position of director of the Indiana Department of Financial Institutions. Should she accept she would become the first woman and the first banker to hold the position.
“At first I declined the offer,” she said. “I told him that I was too old (she was 57 at the time), and that really got me in trouble. He wasted no time in pointing out to me that 57 was not old, especially since he was in his 70s.”
That changed her mind, and she held the position for six years until stepping down when the Republican Orr was followed by Democrat Evan Bayh.
When she retired in 1989, Loretta Burd and Linda Behrman were on their way up the corporate ladders in their companies.
There are still real and perceived inequities that many women face in the business world today, but they’re a far cry from the attitudes faced by their predecessors.
Ruth still grates her teeth at a question she was frequently asked in her career as a corporate executive.
“The one question I really hated was, ‘What do you feel about women’s lib?’ she said. “My answer was always the same: ‘If women have the same responsibilities, are asked to perform the same duties and perform as equally as their male counterparts, then they should be paid the same.’”
She still feels that way.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.