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Women at work: Highland Lakes residents talk about breaking barriers in man’s world

Kathleen Salem, Linda S Baker

LEFT: Kathleen Salem, Horseshoe Bay, oil and gas industry retiree. RIGHT: Linda S. Baker, Horseshoe Bay, food industry retiree. Courtesy photos

Let’s start this story by looking at the rate of women making it into management positions in the workplace in the 2020s. Although that number in any given industry is on the rise, it still is not on par with the number of men being promoted to leadership roles, even in workplace populations that are 50-50 gender-wise. Nationwide, only one in five women make the leap to management, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. 

Now, let’s look back in time to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when two women, who have since retired to Horseshoe Bay from their management positions in major industries, started their careers. Both helped pave the way for today’s young women, who have it much easier but still face some of the same struggles. 

Kathleen Salem of Horseshoe Bay retired as manager of Training and Development for Chevron Overseas at the end of 2000 after 23 years with the company. She started in 1977 as an operator/helper at an oil and gas refinery in Port Arthur. She was the only woman hired for a shift job at that time. 

“It wasn’t a lot of fun, doing that kind of work,” she said. “It was manual labor, the men didn’t want me there, it was a union job, and I never joined — there was a lot of pressure.” 

She was a single mother seeking better pay and benefits when she took the job but learned to love the work and kept at it, even after marrying a man with three sons to raise. 

“I planned that, in two years, I would be in a five-day-a-week, eight-to-five office job,” she said. “I was told that wasn’t reasonable, but I worked hard, studied hard, aced all my tests, and got noticed by management for that.” 

Within two years, as planned, she was promoted to an office job, where she continued to work her way up the ranks developing training programs as the company computerized operations and traveling the country to implement those programs. 

She spent the last nine years of her career on foreign assignments in Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, and Angola. She decided to retire when the company wanted her to “retool” and take over developing and training a new slate of changes being implemented.

“At that time, I really didn’t want to go back to the corporate world,” she said. “I loved working in the field. I had some tremendous experiences in third world countries.”

Even after retiring, Salem worked. She and then-husband Les Chapman moved to Blanco and opened a UPS Store in Marble Falls. Chapman was killed in a tractor accident in 2007. She has since remarried to Glenn Salem, a man she almost married 45 years ago. 

“We ended up getting back together in 2009 and got married,” she said. 

Linda S. Baker, also of Horseshoe Bay, retired from the food industry after 38 years. She, too, began at entry level and left as an executive. She started in high school, working for Fleming Foods as a sales representative, then was recruited by Marriott Corp. as an intern in its food and beverage department.

After college, she landed a position with Quaker Oats Co. (now Quaker Foods and Beverages), where she worked for 19 years.

“At that point, they didn’t have any women,” Baker said. “I was the first woman to get hired in Houston — not nationally.”

Her boss told her coworkers to give her the stores they didn’t like calling on to make up her roster. 

“I had stores that I had to get to before the sun went down,” she said. “Some of my (store) managers packed a gun and would walk me out to my car. I was in one store, and the manager said he was glad I hadn’t come the week before. Someone drove by and shot out all the windows.” 

Undaunted, she made her calls, set up and tore down displays, and brought in orders that amazed (and aggravated) her coworkers. 

“We had a district meeting a few weeks after I was hired, and I came in with a stack of orders,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re not supposed to be able to do that.’ I asked them, ‘Why not?’” 

Her refusal to take no for an answer, coupled with a work ethic she developed at a young age, served her well as she moved up the ranks. Even when she married, she stayed career-oriented. She and her husband of 47 years, Robert Baker, decided early on to delay starting a family until they were both established in their careers. 

Robert was in the oil and gas industry, based in Houston. Linda had to move a year at a time to district and regional offices to earn her promotions. The couple kept two homes, first in Dallas, then in Atlanta, and later in Chicago. They eventually had two children, who are now focusing on their own careers: daughter Sarah Baker, 29, as a marine biologist and son Nicholas, 30, as a heat transfer engineer. 

The moving was the hardest part, Baker said. 

“There weren’t cellphones or computers,” she said. “We had to write letters to each other — phone calls were too expensive — and I had to commute to see him every two weeks. People called me a part-time wife.” 

Both women faced criticism despite their success. They were often scorned as “diversity hires” or told the only way they could have succeeded was by “sleeping their way to the top.” Being judged like that was hardest for Salem. 

“I feel like I broke a lot of barriers,” she said. “I broke barriers in working in an all-men environment; I broke barriers of progressing and advancing through the system, which normally took many years; I broke barriers in that I only had a high school education. When I retired, everybody I worked with was at least an MBA (Master of Business Administration).”

“I was under the microscope about everything,” Baker said. “There was a stereotype, and I broke that stereotype. Then, I started busting the numbers. I turned things around because I had no choice.” 

Both had bosses who saw their potential and helped them along the way, and both have advice for young women entering the workplace today who face many of the same challenges. 

Salem advises women to take training classes when offered and to stick to an industry and learn it from top to bottom. 

“Women have to work harder, work smarter,” she said. “You basically have to pretty much outwork other people. You have to study hard and learn.”

Baker’s advice is similar when it comes to learning an industry in which you are interested. 

“Study it and become the best you can possibly be,” she said. 

She offered another insight gained from when she faced difficulties, something she first learned from her father. 

“My father used to tell me, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me,’” she said. “In other words, if it doesn’t work at first, figure it out. Change the direction you are going, but always aim for success.” 

This Women’s History Month, thank a woman you know who has broken barriers and led the way for future success for all women in the workplace. They are everywhere. 

Women’s History Month’s History

Women’s History Month began as a week, first celebrated in Santa Rosa, California, in 1978. A Sonoma County task force selected the week of March 8 because it corresponded with International Women’s Day, which has been celebrated on that date since 1911. President Jimmy Carter declared a national Women’s History Week in 1980. Congress extended the week to a month with Public Law 100-9 in 1987. 

The month’s intent is to honor the often-overlooked contributions of women to history, culture, and society. The theme for 2022 is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” It was chosen as “both a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope through history,” according to the National Women’s History Alliance, which sets the annual theme. 

suzanne@thepicayune.com