Aileen Katcher is a partner at Katcher, Vaughn & Bailey Public Relation in Nashville, an agency she co-founded in 1996. During her career, she has worked in public relations and marketing in corporate, agency and non-profit settings. She is a frequent guest blogger on women’s issues for the Nashville Business Journal.


You’ve contributed many interesting articles to the “Women in Business” blog, but does it sadden you at all that such a gender-based blog still needs to exist?

I’m looking forward to the day when we don’t have a “Women in Business” blog. We just have a “People in Business” blog. Or we don’t have “The Most Powerful Women in Business” awards; we just have “The Most Powerful Businesses” awards. I’ve seen a lot of progress in my career, and I’ve seen a lot of progress in Nashville in the 34 years I’ve been here, but we still have a ways to go.

Where has that progress been that you’ve seen?

One of the first “Women in Business” blog posts I wrote was about this very topic. I told a story about the late ’70s when I moved here and my boss took me along to a lunch meeting at the local city business club. A private club called the Nashville City Club. The maitre’d said, “Mr. Kennedy, you can’t bring her into the dining room.” So he marched his all-male party into the ladies’ tearoom so we could all eat together.

But five years ago that same club asked me to be on their board. That’s progress.

We have a female vice-mayor in Nashville. When I moved here the power structure had no women in it. We have several women in the city council, out of a group of 40. And we have some—some—women executives. But not many.

What do you think has helped most in achieving what progress you’ve witnessed?

Some of it is time. And culture shift. When my mother raised us, it wasn’t the norm for women to work. She did work and was a role model. She worked part-time so she still could be home when we got home from school. Many women in my generation saw our mothers start to work outside the home and it became more accepted for women to go to college and to enter the workforce.

And then there have been a lot of women pioneers who have led the way. It’s been somewhat of a cultural and paradigm shift.

Do you think time is going to continue to be the prime driver of change or is there something else that should be pushing change faster?

It’s time and vigilance. I see this with some of the younger women who don’t understand the struggles our generation faced. Yet they’re still not in leadership roles. At some point in their careers, maybe they will be in leadership roles and CEO chairs, more than my generation has been. But I think they need to be vigilant about seeking that.

Do you think young women today come into the workforce don’t realize that barriers to their advancement remain?

I think many don’t. It could be 50/50. But far more don’t in this generation than in my generation.

Where will they encounter problems?

Young women need to seek leadership roles and think those roles will be thrust upon them. And—it’s a double-edged sword—they must learn how to do that in a way that isn’t threatening to men. I think the male role-model/CEO is still the norm. Young women will have to really prove themselves, and seek out male-dominated fields.

I think we’re seeing a lot of that already. My understanding is that there are now more women in engineering schools than men, more women doctors. My rabbi told me there are more women rabbis than men. I have rabbis who are a married couple and he said to me, “I hear what you’re saying about walking into a room and being the only woman because I can walk into a meeting of rabbis and be the only man.”

If there are occasions where a woman is indeed the only one in the woman, does she need to exercise leadership differently than men do?

I think it goes without saying that men and women have different leadership styles, just as all people do. I have a male partner and a female partner at KVBPR [Greg Bailey and Nancy DeKalb] and we all lead differently. But I think women communicate differently than men. It may be shortsighted on my part but I think women tend to communicate better. They’re better at recognizing cultural differences.

Do you see any truth in the stereotype that women’s view is more often colored by emotion?

Oh, I think in some cases that’s a fair statement, but not across the board. Part of that stems from a cultural norm where men are taught to be tough and not show emotion, and women are not.

Is it still difficult for a woman to be assertive without being labeled over-bearing?

Oh sure. I think women have to be careful not to come across as aggressive. My first boss in Nashville told me that when he first met me—I moved to Nashville from Boston—he thought I was “an aggressive Yankee…” and I won’t say the last word because it’s not a nice word. But it begins with a “b” and ends with an “h.”

Your industry, public relations, is dominated by women.

Yes, and it has been a concern. In 1999 we had a task force studying it, because the concern was that [being predominantly female] it was going to lower salaries. Today, of the 5,000 or so national members of the Public Relations Society of America, 71% are women.

Did your firm’s three partners found your agency?

The three partners who are here are not the three who founded it. One left. When it opened it was me, Greg Bailey and another male partner.

The numbers say there are far fewer women who start businesses than men. How difficult for you was the move to building an agency of your own?

It was not as daunting as one might think. The year before I started the business, my husband sat down with our financial planner and said, “When our son is a teenager, we want to have more flexibility [on working hours].” I was director of marketing at a hospital then. So we put together a five-year plan on how I could wind down and do consulting. And then four or five months later I was laid off. We weren’t quite ready for that.

The good news was the hospital felt guilty about laying me off and sent me some business. Next thing I knew, I was an independent consultant. Then I got an employee. And a year and a half later, Vaughn and Baily came to me and said they were thinking about starting a firm. And the three of us got together. I already had a big enough book of business that I needed more help anyway, and they brought enough business that we pretty much started in the black. I never did do that part-time consulting thing when my son was a teenager. Just never happened!

Is it better controlling your business life in your own company?

Some days it is; some not. I think any entrepreneur would say that. I do love being my own boss and I love being able to surround myself with creative people. But there’s also days that I think I don’t want all the responsibilities. But the good days outweigh the less good.

You meet a lot of women in business. Do you have a sense why there are fewer women entrepreneurs?

I don’t know. It might be because women aren’t as comfortable being risk takers. I know I’m not. I don’t know that I would have started my business had I not gone through the set of circumstances I did. I was lucky that business came to me before I had to figure out how to find it. But I don’t think I can definitively answer that question. I’m sure there’s a study, and I’m making a note to find one for my blog!

When you were coming up through the business, where there mentors who helped guide you?

Yes. It was very important. And they were both male and female. I learned things to do and not to do.

Do you seek to act as a mentor within your agency?

With my agency and with the community in general. It’s important to pay it forward. I try to make myself available for advice. There was one woman who had an assignment from a business class she was taking to find a mentor. I’d never heard of that. She had to meet with me regularly for that. And we still keep in touch even though the class is over.

What advice do young people seek?

It’s often job-search advice, especially now. Networking. Often I hear from young women seeking advice on how to handle a situation in the workplace.

Is networking something you recommend to young people?

Absolutely. Two things I recommend are to network and to get involved with a non-profit that you’re passionate about. Don’t do it because you want to use it for networking. Find something you’re passionate about and get involved. Especially if you don’t have a job.

It gives you something to do. It gives you focus. And you’re going to meet other business people who have the same passion as you. If you prove yourself to them, they’re going to help you.

At the same time, you’re helping a cause that you care about. That’s important, too.

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