'Behind the Blue', UK women in business share challenges, hope for future

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 13, 2023) — Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate — to reflect on and recognize women’s varied accomplishments and contributions, including those of women in business.

For Jennifer Siebenthaler, her entrepreneurial spirit started at a young age.

“The earliest memory I have was when I set up a bank in my house, so that I could loan money to my older brother,” she said. “But the regulators of the household — my parents — shut me down, because they didn't approve of the interest rates that I was charging him.”k

As the associate dean for undergraduate affairs and senior lecturer in the Von Allmen School of Accountancy in the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics, Siebenthaler still has an undeniable passion for business.

But she admits, there were many barriers she had to overcome throughout her 30-year career.

Siebenthaler’s background as a CPA has led her to work as an auditor specializing in health care and other nonprofit entities, and to consulting various businesses before transitioning to education.

“Early in my career, there were not a lot of role models at the time to even stand up and say, if you want to do this, this is the support you're going to need,” Siebenthaler continued. “Or if you want to do this, I want to encourage you to ask for X, Y, Z.”

According to the National Women’s Business Council annual report, 42% of all U.S. businesses are owned by women, and in 2019 those businesses employed more than 9.4 million workers.

However, based on the annual Women in the Workplace study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, “Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rate we’ve ever seen, which could have serious implications for companies that are already facing underrepresentation in those roles.”

Understanding the challenges women face as backers and founders, leaders and earners, Siebenthaler now serves as a mentor for students and colleagues.

Susan Zhu, who joined Gatton College three years ago as an assistant professor of management, believes having support is invaluable.

“I don’t take for granted that I’m able to be in a position where I’m part of the school and part of the business community,” she said. “And me being a female is not something that is very salient to me.”

But Zhu believes, there’s still more work to be done.

In an effort to build and grow a diverse and inclusive student, faculty and staff community, Gatton College launched Women Business Leaders — a mentoring program that aims to empower undergraduate students.

“Part of mentoring is reminding everybody who is going into the workplace — don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, especially women,” Zhu said. “Just ask for what you want. Advocating doesn’t hurt, and try for all different types of opportunities.”

Zhu and Siebenthaler hope more opportunities will create a new generation of women leaders — across the Commonwealth and beyond.

“I want people to keep making changes and keep moving us forward, so that we all have the same opportunities — whether it’s gender-related, race-related or where you come from geographically,” Siebenthaler explained. “I hope we will continue to be uncomfortable when it’s uncomfortable, so we can continue to make changes.”

You can hear more of this conversation on this episode of “Behind the Blue.”

Elly Piatt, an economics senior from Villa Hills, Kentucky, sits down with Siebenthaler and Zhu to further discuss the challenges facing women in business today, the support systems in place to help women thrive and advice they would give to students as they pursue their careers in this ever-changing field.

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