WICT Southeast: The Best of Women Helping Women Succeed

By Sheri McGaughy, Chapter Advisor, and Shelley Hoffmann, Vice President, WICT Southeast

As WICT Southeast’s monumental 40th year comes to a close, I spoke with Sheri McGaughy, the current board Advisor and Executive Champion, about the impact of the organization. Sheri served on the Board of Directors in the roles of Secretary, President and Past President between 2006-2009 and is a past winner of the chapter’s Red Letter Horizon Award for Woman to Watch. She became the WICTSE advisor in 2012. I started by asking her about the Southeast chapter’s legacy.

In your view, what is the legacy of the Southeast chapter and its sustained longevity?

When I think about the Southeast chapter’s legacy, I think about some of the amazing women who laid the groundwork for all of us so many years ago:

  • Gail Sermersheim, then in Atlanta at HBO, who in 1980 decided that the women of the cable industry needed a safe space to learn from each other, gain skills, and move into positions of power and decided to start WICT
  • Jill Slavin, also in Atlanta at HBO, who in 1994 decided that the women of the cable industry needed a world-class year-long leadership program and started the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute
  • Alex Dombronovich, then at The Weather Channel and later at WICT National, who in 2006 was our chapter’s first African American President and mentored and inspired so many of us

Thanks to these women and many others, we now consistently have women in positions of power and influence in our industry.  When you talk to C-suite and other executive women in our footprint, almost all of them will share a story of how WICT has been instrumental in their growth as a leader.

The reason for the sustained longevity is that there is so much more work to do.  While I strongly believe that the cable industry is one of the best places for women to work, the PAR Initiative shows us that we are not fully at a place where women are getting/taking the same opportunities as men, and women of color are having an even harder time.  With the COVID pandemic, we are seeing even more impact on women on the workplace.  I read that 1 in 4 women are considering leaving the workforce or dialing back their careers due to circumstances arising from the pandemic. Now, more than ever, we need our WICT connections to help us get past any roadblocks that may be holding us back and provide the guiding lights to show us the path forward.

What chapter-wide initiative stands out to you from your time as a leader with WICT Southeast?

In 2008, our strategic initiative was to expand the chapter outside of Atlanta for the first time. We had our first non-Atlanta board member, Jerilyn Bliss from Scripps (now Discovery, Inc). She was instrumental in pulling together a team in Knoxville, TN to have our very first event outside of Atlanta. It was a speed mentoring event, and we had over 100 people attend. From that initial start, we kicked off an extremely active program in Knoxville that has grown to about half the board members being in Knoxville, about a third of our members based in Knoxville and expansion to multiple other cities.

What has WICT meant to you over the years? How has it influenced you personally?

WICT has had an extraordinary influence on my personal growth. I was fortunate to be brought onto the Southeast board by Alex Dombronovich, who was one of the strongest leaders I have encountered in the industry.  She taught me so much about the soft skills that are essential for effective leadership. Participation on the WICT board helped me gain leadership and personal skills, and the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute program was life changing. Being a WICT a mentor has allowed me to help others as well as learn from them. All of these WICT experiences have resulted in lifelong friendships.

How did being involved with WICT help you professionally?

I can’t imagine a better organization for professional growth. From skills development, to mentoring, to making contacts that make your job more fun and enriching, it is an exceptional organization. Like many others, I have had promotions that stemmed directly from my WICT involvement.  I feel so lucky to have had WICT in my life. Most importantly, it represents the best of women helping women succeed.

How has leadership by women evolved since your involvement with the WICT Southeast board? And how far do we still have to go? (e.g. Black Lives Matter, shattering the glass ceiling, #metoo, #timesup)

With regard to the glass ceiling, there are some women and minorities who have broken through in our industry.  However, the overall numbers have leveled off. When we are in a world where it is groundbreaking for Goldman Sachs to require one, and only one, diverse board member on a company’s board before going public, there is clearly a disconnect.  If a company can bring on that one diverse person and check that box, the world continues with business as usual and no real change occurs. Amazing women and minority leaders are still sidelined. I feel there are changes happening in the industry with regard to representation and harassment. The press coverage certainly helps keep these issues in the forefront, but there is still a lot of work to be done to actually implement meaningful change. Even now, there is a growing backlash, and there are people, including women, who refuse to believe that things like race and sex based discrimination, harassment and assault happen. There is so much work to be done. The mission of organizations like WICT is far from fulfilled.

Any last words of advice for our chapter members as we wrap-up our memorable 40th year?

Go all in. WICT membership is about helping women succeed. It is an opportunity to help yourself and help others.  Almost all of us have one or more people who have helped us in a large or small way.  It could be a single sentence of advice, an introduction, a job lead, constructive feedback, or maybe an opportunity to grow skills. WICT opens the door to be on both the giving and receiving end of that help.  Jump through that doorway, and you will grow in ways you cannot begin to imagine.

I’m a black woman working in the telecommunications industry and I have questions.

By Ciji Townsend

I’m a black woman. And because I’m a black woman, unfortunately the recent senseless acts fueled by systemic racism isn’t new to me. But the collective response that extends outside of my community and spills over into the streets via protests and rallies in all 50 states and 14 countries is quite different than what I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

Ciji Townsend, Senior Manager, Internal Communications, Cox Communications

Even with all of the attention and heightened concern, I still have questions. What happens next? What’s the long-term plan? And, specifically what’s the role of my colleagues in the telecommunications and cable industry? 

By now you’ve probably heard that you need to listen to black voices.

Let’s take it one step further and both listen and learn. Now is the time to increase your network beyond the one black team member that you call on when you have a question. Listen to multiple voices, invite new people to the conversation that wouldn’t normally have a seat at the table. And let’s give ourselves permission to be ok with both formal and informal listening sessions. Now on to the learning. Listening isn’t enough. Be intentional about learning what you don’t know and re-learning what you think you already know. In our industry we are vital to the information that is consumed by the masses. Before we make major decisions, we need to listen and learn to better understand the cause and effect of systemic racism.

Everyone is watching. 

Speaking of content, all eyes are glued to their screens right now. In the past few months because of the disruption caused by COVID-19, families are at home and the consumption of television shows, movies and documentaries is at an all-time high. How can we be better stewards of diversifying that content? Let’s be honest, technology has turned black voices into the biggest media company in the world. Is your company paying attention? Are you amplifying black stories and movies that have black lead actors beyond black history month?

Pace yourself for the long-haul.

Yes, the outcry is loud right now. And we all know that it will only take one major news story for the momentum to dwindle. So, what commitment will we make now, as voices in our industry to ensure that the work done today continues to show up tomorrow?

There are many questions that have yet to be answered. And our industry is perfectly positioned to encourage the continuation of race-based conversations and to even provide a stage not only for awareness but also change. 

What are your thoughts? What can our industry do to spark change and keep the conversation and momentum going? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

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As an organization whose mission is based on equality, WICT is committed to diversity and inclusion in all aspects of life. We stand firm with our partners and the communities we serve to eradicate systemic racism like that we witnessed with George Floyd and many others. WICT stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, we will address the civil unrest during all of our programs for the foreseeable future. We will never stop using our platform to shine a spotlight on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. All of us wish for peace and wellness for all of our brothers and sisters in our extended community.

Our hope is that together, we will rise above and emerge more united than ever before. Be well, stay strong.