What’s missing from the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame? Women.

Less than 10 percent of the hall’s members are women.
Less than 10 percent of the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame members are women. Times (2019)
Less than 10 percent of the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame members are women. Times (2019)
Published May 23
Updated May 24

My mother was often the only woman in a board room full of men. She helped kick down stereotypes, just like the pioneering women before her and the ones before them.

Hard nosed, but with a big heart, she always moved forward. She knew failing would make it harder for the next woman who came along.

The Neanderthals and misogynists could think want they wanted. She was smarter, more driven, more focused, harder working. She’d show them, and she did. Still does, well into her 70s.

I was thinking of her as I tried to temper my growing dismay at the recent Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame dinner. The chummy affair draws hundreds of the area’s luminaries to help induct a few of their own. The Tampa Bay Times is the media sponsor.

This year, all four inductees were men — restaurateur Frank Chivas, real estate developer Gary Harrod, Raymond James Financial chief executive officer Paul Reilly, and Doug Cohn, who started the air conditioning company Tampa Bay Trane. They are pillars of the Tampa Bay business community, with long records of doing good. They deserve the kudos.

But it was another year without a woman. In fact, four of the five previous hall of fame classes were made up entirely of men. Out of the 23 most recent inductees, only one was a woman, Judith Lisi, who runs the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

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The optics got worse. The ceremony included friends and colleagues extolling the inductees in tribute videos. Each one included three speakers, every one of them male.

The kicker was on page 15 of the event’s glossy program. The list of hall of fame members who selected the inductees was made up entirely of men. Two dozen people and not a single woman. Let that sink in.

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of gender equality can see the problem. No matter how enlightened, accomplished or upstanding, a selection committee made up only of older men will have major blind spots.

Save me the canard about how most women haven’t been in business long enough to merit hall of fame status. Their day will come, goes the tired excuse. No, their day is here and has been for a while.

Women started earning the majority of college degrees in 1985. They make up half the work force and 40 percent of primary wage earners. They start more businesses. More women than men have been mayor of Tampa in the past 30 years. One of them, Pam Iorio, now runs Big Brothers Big Sisters of America from an office tower on Rocky Point.

Until recently, women ran two of our area’s most prominent corporations, Liz Smith at Bloomin’ Brands and Mindy Grossman at HSN, formerly known as the Home Shopping Network. The University of South Florida’s Tiedemann College of Business is named for retired entrepreneur Kate Tiedemann, who has a remarkable life story. I could go on.

Whether those particular women want to be part of the hall of fame misses the point. We all carry around biases, whether we are aware of them or not. It’s why diversity matters. A selection committee consisting only of men can’t fully grasp what it took for someone not like them to achieve success. The hall of fame can find worthy women, if the process isn’t hijacked from the start.

The discrimination only reinforces the fiction that businesswomen aren’t as likeable as their male counterparts. They get unfairly tagged as cold or power hungry, when they are only doing what male leaders have done for decades, only better in many cases.

To his credit, event co-chair Steve Raymund acknowledged the problem when I spoke with him this week. He said many of the right things, including how he and fellow volunteer co-chair Gary Sasso, who runs the Carlton Fields law firm, had several conversations about diversity.

“We said, ‘This sucks. Where are the women on the committee, and what do we do to attract more?’ ” said Raymund, former chairman and CEO of Tech Data, and a member of the hall of fame.

The dinner raises a lot of money for a good cause, the Florida Council on Economic Education, which promotes financial literacy in schools. Suzanne Costanza, the council’s executive director, said it might be worth including a specific reference to diversity in the induction criteria. She added that four women have declined their induction into the hall over the past few years. She would not say who, but two of them thought the timing was wrong given recent or pending career changes.

“We need to find ways to nominate more women for the honor,” she said. “That will lead to more being inducted. It’s simple math.”

If the event fails to adjust to 21st century realities, it risks slipping into irrelevancy. After all, this is 2019, not 1919.

Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.

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