Why Karen Farris Is Among My Heroines

Karen Farris, one of the first female executives in the male-dominated insurance industry, is featured in this month’s issue of Leader’s Edge magazine (http://www.leadersedgemagazine.com/archive/June-2012/pro-file.htm.) I am privileged to be the story’s author.

Karen personifies that being successful should be not be about gender. She certainly did not make her’s an issue. She graduated from college in 1972, when the Equal Employment Opportunity law also was enacted, and shattered the glass ceiling by being herself. Her inspiration, however, did not come from the feminist movement, which was taking place during her college years. It came from her parents, who convinced her she could be anything she wanted to be. Comfortable in her feminine skin, she never bought the idea that to be equal to men, it was necessary to act like them in a man’s world.

By not making her gender an issue and focusing on professionalism, her male counterparts respected her and helped her get to the top. Karen is the chairman of Roach Howard Smith & Barton, a large Dallas-based insurance brokerage firm.

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By being free of a larger social agenda, she moved to the top by being herself and loving her work.
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It’s not to say that feminism did not open doors for her. The resulting EEO Act did encourage more career opportunities for women and minorities. My mother, who also worked in the insurance industry then, told me that before EEO Act, women pretty much just did clerical work. My mother started to see women given managerial positions at Cleveland’s Progressive Insurance though they starting by supervising four to five women. Remember, these were the times of Archie Bunker, when men were generally not comfortable with female bosses.

And yes, Karen was the first woman to join the Rotary Club in Dallas after a U.S. Supreme Court decision gave women entry to previously male-only organizations. She joined to participate, not to prove anything.

I did not know Karen before I was assigned to write about her. It so happened that she grew up in Euclid, Ohio, as I did, graduating from Euclid Senior High School the year I was born. She is a breath of fresh air for me. Being in the first post-baby boomer generation, my feminist professors stressed pursuing a career for the sake of the sisterhood. They talked as if all women before feminism lived in a miserable domestic prison. Certainly, there were women who felt that way but I wonder if there are just as many now who wish they could be home with their children. My grandmothers were not miserable.  My great-grandmother was a landowner and rented out property.  My great aunt had a career in marketing.

In its purest form, feminism is supposed to be about women having more life choices. From my experience, too many of my feminist friends bristled at my choice to be a stay-at-home mother with a part-time career. Women are still learning to support each other’s choices. We have to quit judging each other.

By being free of a larger social agenda, she moved to the top by being herself and loving her work. That’s a great example for women and men.

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