Experts tackle issues facing women in business during NJBIZ panel

Kimberly Redmond//January 9, 2023

Experts tackle issues facing women in business during NJBIZ panel

Kimberly Redmond//January 9, 2023

Women have made considerable advances in the workplace over the last three decades but still face challenges when it comes to reaching their full potential.

Of the 4.2 million people who make up New Jersey’s workforce, women account for 47%. And although the percentage of women who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher is slightly larger than that of men (41% to 40.5%), they still earn less.

Besides being outnumbered and underpaid, women regularly encounter gender-based discrimination both in the workplace and in business dealings.

And despite significant strides in the fields of educational instruction, health care and community services, women have not made as much headway in other sectors with many industries remaining predominately male, like natural resources, construction and maintenance (98.8%); law enforcement (86.9%); architecture and engineering (86.7%); and transportation (85.7%).

Following the pandemic, labor force participation rates among women have largely recovered in the state, but thousands are still sacrificing full-time employment, higher wages, health insurance and other benefits for the flexibility to care for young children and aging parents.

And, as New Jersey’s economy continues to heal from the COVID-19 crisis, more focus is being placed on what types of changes are needed to better support women moving forward.

During a Dec. 14 NJBIZ virtual panel discussion, women executives at New Jersey-based companies spoke of their experiences and offered guidance to the next generation of females entering the business world.

Moderated by NJBIZ Editor Jeffrey Kanige, the panel featured:

  • Elene Costan, chief human resources officer at Berje Inc., a Carteret-based leader in the flavor and fragrance industries
  • Kate Janukowicz, director, Commercial & Criminal Litigation and director of professional development, retention, and associate recruitment at law firm Gibbons PC in Newark
  • Masha Sherman, chief financial officer for Greek Development Inc, a vertically integrated, industrial-focused real estate firm headquartered in East Brunswick

During the 90-minute discussion, the group delved into how companies can add more women into leadership roles, what can be done to retain them, how virtual work environments effect the progress of women in the workplace, confronting adversity and setting boundaries to keep a work-life balance.

NJBIZ Women In Business Panel Discussion
Clockwise from top left: The Dec. 14 NJBIZ Women In Business Panel Discussion, which was moderated by Editor Jeffrey Kanige, included panelists Kate Janukowicz, Gibbons PC; Elene Costan, Berjé Inc.; and Masha Sherman, Greek Development Inc. – NJBIZ


One of the biggest pieces of advice involved not just advocating for oneself — but also for other female colleagues. And though each of their companies offer some type of formal mentoring program, the executives also spoke about the importance of informal mentoring opportunities.

At Gibbons, Janukowicz said the firm has mass mentor groups that feature members from various practice areas, as well as smaller mentor groups.

“It’s really having that open communication, checking in and constantly saying like, ‘Is this where you’re going in the right direction? Is this what you want it to do?’ and not losing track of yourself because you’re so bogged down in the work and six years later on you’re like, ‘What the hell am I doing? Is this what I wanted to do?’”

Sherman said, “It is about giving back. I personally love mentoring – officially, unofficially – because I worked very hard to get to where I am today and if I can inspire anybody and give them practical advice on how to succeed in their career … it’s the least I can do.”

Costan echoed the sentiment, saying, “We need to support each other in life and the workplace.”

Janukowicz agreed: “I feel like the women that do the best here are a support system and supportive. There’s no competition … It makes you look better; it lifts everyone up … If you’re too cutthroat, it’s not a good look.”

Hiring and retention

Each executive highlighted the processes used to hire employees, which varied between the companies.

Janukowicz said, “One of the initiatives that we’ve undertaken here at Gibbons is to get our Mansfield certification – that’s a certification that over 100 law firms nationwide are signing on to. One of the things that we do starting in the hiring process with me, is that we make sure at least 30% of the candidates we’re interviewing for lateral positions as third year-plus associates are underrepresented populations — women, people of color, LGBTQ and disabled attorneys.”

At Greek, Sherman said the focus has been “trying to make some of the key processes when it comes to promotions and hiring as objective as possible and setting out the same standard that you hold everyone to, regardless of their background.”

“I strongly believe it starts with a hiring process. What we’ve done with departments is developing different tests depending on what the position is. The tests are really objective and we’re giving the same test, depending on the position, to everyone who comes across the door, regardless of where they came prior in the real estate industry or if they’ve been out of the workforce for a few years,” she said. “The test is designed [to measure] the ability to think — analytical skills, critical thinking and being resourceful. Making the process as objective as possible and putting everybody through the same test has worked really, really well for us.”

Janukowicz urged job seekers to “do as much research and get as much intel as you can find out” about a potential employer and ask yourself “if this a good fit for me?”

“This is your career, too. Don’t get lost in the fact that you want to get picked. This is your show, you know,” she said.

Replay: NJBIZ Panel Discussion: Women in Business

Click through to register to watch the full panel discussion!

Retaining talent is just as critical as attracting it, the executives said.

“As is often the discussion, it’s a matter … of making sure that you’re keeping those folks on,” said Janukowicz, who went on to highlight some of the firm’s retention initiatives, which include offering “more lenient or flexible work schedules” and “flexible work environments.”

Costan said, “Sustainable leadership really is focused on not just the environment but more about what you are doing to sustain your employees. That goes to gender, that goes to generation and it goes to race. Many companies are asking us to certify to show those efforts that we are doing in recruiting, retention and training to make sure that we do have diversity. So, I think it’s up to both partners — the employer and the employee. You have to be committed to each other to be able to make it work.”

Sherman agreed that it is “definitely a two-way street.”

“It really is about communication. Everybody should know and communicate with their manager, especially if they’re motivated to get to the next level … On the other side, it is our responsibility in management to really recognize somebody who, when they offer a promotion, is working very hard but might be shying away from bringing this up,” she said.

The executives also spoke on the importance of continuing professional development.

Sherman said, “Sometimes what it takes is really pushing your boundaries – your personal boundaries – and getting yourself out of your comfort zone. You have to be your biggest advocate. While people in management positions, I strongly believe it is their responsibility to mentor and pay attention, it is a two-way street.”

Costan urged women to “find yourself a coach and invest in yourself.”

“Make sure you never stop learning … Make sure you know what your skills are and be open to criticism and to improving. Imposter syndrome never goes away and that’s not a bad thing. It keeps you learning,” she said.

Though each of the companies perform some type of employee review, the executives believe workers should also keep track of their accomplishments and how those relate to their overall career goals.

Janukowicz noted that in the business world, men are generally promoted “based on their prospects or their potential,” while women tend to advance “based on their achievements to date.”

Also in the Jan. 9 issue

How JK Design Chief Executive Officer Martha Marchesi steered her company through the pandemic. Click here to read the story.

“Early on, that’s more difficult, especially in an industry like ours, where the associates are assigned what they’re given … They don’t really have a lot of latitude there,” she explained. “So, one of the things we always advocate is to make your business plan, memorialize everything that you’re doing — whether you think it’s tangible or intangible. Going to events, attending panels and stuff like that. You’re meeting people and you’re getting yourself out there. All of those are things that you could be doing in addition to substantive good products.”

She added, “Get yourself out there. Get the firm out there. Be a good ambassador for your company.”

Sherman said, “We started the Greek self-reviews a couple of years ago … [and] I’m a big proponent of it because it’s an opportunity not just to showcase what you’ve done to your manager [or] to your team. It’s really to sit down, think critically about what you have accomplished during the year … It’s also an opportunity again to think critically about setting goals [and] communicating them to your manager, to your superiors.”

Sherman said, “For me, it comes down to relatively simple things: recognizing first your own value, what you bring to the table, and recognizing the value of each one of your teammates regardless of their gender, their background. Because we all have unique skill sets, we all have something to bring to the table — strengths and weaknesses.”

Costan said Berjé’s approach to reviews is similar to Gibbons’ process and revolves around questions like “Where do you see yourself?” and “What do you need from us to help you get there?”

“We are providing training and mentoring … not everybody wants to be a manager, but if they do, great. It’s about going through their career path with them, listening in and not just a once-a-year evaluation,” she said. “Having the two-way communication and really listening and trying to do things about it is really helpful to grow those employees who have the ability and the want.”