By Sheree R. Curry
Special to TelevisionWeek
The year was 1979. The sitcom “Benson” premiered on ABC, ESPN launched on cable and a group of women at the Western Cable Show in Anaheim, Calif., founded an association that would allow them to better network in an industry dominated by men.
Now marking its 25th year, Women in Cable & Telecommunications, which began life with just the first three words of its current name, has transformed the way the industry views the women working within it.
“When I saw just a handful of women around [at the cable shows in the 1970s], I said, `This is crazy. We’re not able to compete on a level playing field,”‘ said Lucille Larkin, co-founder of WICT, who by that time had worked as a Time magazine reporter and a VP of public relations at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, or the National Cable Television Association, as it was then called.
Ms. Larkin, who now heads a marketing firm outside of Boston bearing her name, set the stage for WICT in 1976 by inviting three women who attended these shows to her hotel room for cocktails. Two years later, she said, after the number of invitees surpassed 50 and they were meeting in conference facilities, “I called Gail Sermersheim [then Southeast regional director with HBO’s marketing team] and said, `Let’s put together a steering committee, and you head it.”‘
They drafted bylaws based on the just-formed Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing’s articles of incorporation and made the gathering official the following year. Ms. Sermersheim was appointed president and Ms. Larkin executive director.
“We all saw there was a real need among the women in the industry to have a support network. At that time we felt we were alone, and many of us were. At the very first CTAM annual conference there were 99 guys and me,” said the now-retired Ms. Sermersheim from her hotel room in Denver. She was there meeting with directors of the Cable Center, an education and information resource group, for which she is a board member.
“There was a need to build an industry to attract more women. We felt we could get a lot further in our careers [together] than by going it alone,” she said.
“Back then … sexual harassment was an everyday occurrence, with your boss and customers hitting on you all the time. Just having an organization called Women in Cable called attention to us [in a way] that reminded men that we were capable of running things.”
By the end of the 1980s the organization had grown to more than 1,600 members, but it was not easy for some of the women to get there, Ms. Larkin said. “The men were threatened by professional women and the women were shy about joining the organization for fear it would be looked down on by men-and it was. We couldn’t send some mail to their offices for fear that they may get fired [for having joined],” she said.
Ms. Larkin recalled a time when she was distributing lapel pins shaped like television sets. They had black writing on a background of bright pink that read, “Watch Women in Cable.” She offered one to a male executive, who turned to her and said, “If you give me that, you know where I’ll stick it.”
It was not long thereafter that the Washington-Baltimore chapter decided the best way to get accepted by the men running things was to hold an awards dinner and invite them.
With time, the men viewed WIC as less of a threat. About six years after the executive refused the lapel pin, Ms. Larkin said, he phoned her to say his daughter was looking for a job in the industry and he thought WIC would be a good resource for her.
Today, with more than 4,000 members in 22 chapters, WICT encourages mentoring, said Joan Berler, president of the greater Texas chapter, who is also an account manager at the Video Group, a Dallas-based production and editing company. “If there is any question you have as a member, there are members across the country at your disposal and willing to talk to you,” she said.
In addition to networking, the group is known for its strong organization and its proactive PAR Initiative on pay equity, which relies on exhaustive research to examine sex-based hiring and employment policy throughout the cable industry.
June Travis, a founding member who became WICT’s second president, said from the beginning the organization was able to turn one of its weaknesses into a strength. “We created a strong group of local chapters, because not many women were able to travel in their jobs. The real education took place at the local level. Denver and Atlanta and New York all have strong chapters,” said Ms. Travis, who founded the chapter in Denver, where she lives.
Recruiting new members at the local level is still a top priority. “The entire [chapter] board will recruit people, as do all members, but there is a membership committee that looks after membership goals,” said Minneapolis-based Midwest chapter President Kim Roden, who is VP of public affairs and programming for Time Warner Cable Minnesota and president of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association.
According to WICT records, nearly 65 percent of the organization’s chapters have surpassed their 2004 membership goals. For instance, the Midwest chapter has grown from 130 members to 145 this year but is currently eight people shy of its 2004 membership goal.
Although anyone today, including students, can apply independently for one of four membership levels, historically, prospective members had to have at least two sponsors, Ms. Travis said. “People didn’t get turned down, but it helped us build membership and build awareness. I benefited by meeting so many people like [USA Networks founder] Kay Koplovitz and others whom I had heard about and never would have known.”
To bolster an active recruiting program, the membership co-chairs draw from a prospect list sent by the national office and members’ recommendations. Men and women in the cable industry are eligible to join.
“We encourage existing members to bring potential members to chapter meetings so they can get exposed to our programming,” Ms. Roden said. WICT offers to reduce the cost of membership by the cost of an event a prospect is attending.
One of the Midwest quarterly meetings with a tremendous turnout by members and nonmembers alike was held in August. Pam Borton, coach of the University of Minnesota women’s basketball team, spoke about leadership and taking her team to the Final Four of the NCAA women’s tournament last season.
Another event was a new technology panel held in May. “We had all major MSOs come in and present what they are doing on new topics,” Ms. Roden said.
Members across the nation cite the level of quality educational programming as one of WICT’s strengths. Such efforts began in year one and went on to include national programs such as the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute and the Senior Women’s Caucus. “It was revolutionary at the time because there was nothing like it in the industry,” Ms. Sermersheim said.
WICT has come a long way since then, but members agree its role remains important. “I don’t think we have solved all the problems of working women and working men,” Ms. Larkin said.