Vandana Sharma, Lori Vavrinec, Michael Nussbaum, Borough President Melinda Katz, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Rhonda Nelson, NYPD Asst. Chief Juanita Holmes, Councilman Barry Grodenchik, Queens FDNY Deputy Chief Tonya Boyd and Susan Browning.
BY NATHAN DUKE AND SAM RAPPAPORT
The PRESS of Southeast Queens and the Queens Tribune held the annual Glass Ceiling Awards on Tuesday night, honoring eight women who have risen through the ranks in their fields and displayed vision and courage in their workplace.
The theme for the awards ceremony—which was held at Douglaston Manor—was enhancing women’s rights and promoting gender equality. Each of the event’s speakers and nominees spoke about the challenges that women have faced along the road toward equality and the next steps in that struggle.
The eight honorees included New York’s Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul; Tonya Boyd, the deputy chief of the city’s Fire Department; Susan Browning, the executive director of Long Island Jewish Forest Hills; Lidija Nikolic, CTP, the senior vice president of global commercial banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Merle Hoffman, the president and CEO of Choices Medical Center for Women; Rhonda Nelson, the recorder for UFCW Local 1500; Lori Vavrinec, the director of marketing for Fidelis Care New York; and Vandana Sharma, the regional manager for Americas, Air India.
Hochul, who was also the evening’s keynote speaker, noted while women have made great strides in the workplace, citing New York as having closed the pay gap more so than any other state. However, she pointed out that white women in the Empire State still only make 89 cents for every $1 that a man makes, while African American women earn 66 cents and Latina women take home 54 cents.
“There are obstacles; God there are obstacles,” Hochul said. “I wear a necklace with broken glass that reminds me of glass ceilings that have been broken, but also the ones that have yet to be crushed. I’m sick and tired of seeing statistics that today’s women don’t make what men do. In 100 years from now when people look back at us, I want our story to be just as powerful, bold and audacious as the suffragettes’. I want people to say, ‘They changed the world.’”
Hochul told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that she believed the election of President Donald Trump and the rise of the #MeToo movement have pushed women to take leadership roles. She also noted that there has been a rising tide of women in politics.
“It’s stronger than it’s been in decades,” she said. “Their voices are sorely needed in the corridors of power.”
Boyd said that while working in a predominantly male organization poses challenges, women in the FDNY “have a very prominent future.”
“You need a tough skin. That’s the most important thing—and you need to be dedicated to your job,” Boyd said. “There is an enormous amount of room for growth. In five to 10 years, I see us having our first female commissioner.”
Nelson said that in unions the leadership is still predominantly male, but that women are fighting for greater roles in such organizations.
“Women are moving more and more into leadership positions,” she said. “When I came on 40 years ago, there were not that many women in leadership positions. We need more women in staff positions and a little more diversity. Women need to see role models they can look up to.”
Browning said that her field—healthcare administration—is one in which women have made strides in recent years.
“Northwell has set as a priority that we have diverse leadership and staff,” she said. “Having a diverse team brings to the table a diversity of thought. When we have that, we build stronger companies. At the executive level, there’s a recent turn of events that women are starting to be the majority in these positions.”
Nikolic referenced a joke she had heard that if “Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the financial crisis would have looked different.”
“Despite that half of the professional positions in the financial industry are held by women, proving yourself is harder,” Nikolic said. “If a woman looks at the top and never sees women, she wonders if she can succeed. I view it as my legacy to support women on their path to empowerment.”
Hoffman noted that she believes the world is moving toward equality not just in the workplace, but “in every place,” but added that women should be prepared for a long fight.
“It’s a struggle for women to have equality in all spheres,” she said. “I have been on the frontline for women’s reproductive rights for 47 years.
I opened the first women’s abortion clinic in 1971 before Roe v. Wade. It’s even more intense now with you-know-who in the White House. I see an administration that is pushing back against women’s rights.”
Vavrinec said that one sign of women’s growing equality in the workplace is that her young sons do not find it surprising to see women in positions of power.
“They don’t know any differently,” she said. “They have female doctors and dentists, and see that their mom is a female executive. For this current generation, it’s not an issue. The pay situation still needs to be addressed. In the healthcare industry, it’s gotten better.”
Sharma said that the airline for which she works has long been a leader in gender equality.
“At my company, there are the same opportunities for men and women,” she said. “Air India has the highest number of women pilots in the world, but also women in senior executive positions and women as engineers—in every position.”
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens) both dropped by the awards ceremony. Katz said she believed that the election of women in Queens is a sign that women can break the glass ceiling.
“I’m the third woman in a row to be borough president in Queens—we like to elect women here,” she said. “If you want to serve the public, start in your communities, your neighborhoods. Look around you—there are role models to look up to.”
Reach the PRESS of Southeast Queens via email at email@example.com or by phone at (718) 357-7400.