Sandra Rabon's working life, like that of her older brother and sisters, began in high school.
"My father told us all at 16 years old you would either get a job or you would come work for me, and I wouldn't pay you," the Charleston native recalled with a laugh last week. "So that's your choice, and we all had to work from 16, and we never stopped. I can't think of a time when anyone in my house wasn't working."
In the 30-odd years since she picked up a paycheck from Thom McAn Shoes instead of volunteering at her dad's development company, suffice it to say, Rabon has worked her way up.
Now 48 and the mother of three children and the caretaker of as many dogs, Rabon is the chief financial officer of Greenbax Enterprises, the parent company of the Charleston-based Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain. Porcine paraphernalia, including a large golden piggy bank, adorns her top-floor corner office overlooking the Ashley River.
Rabon, a Clemson University graduate and certified public accountant, said she pictured this scenario, in general terms, anyway, decades ago.
There has been resistance from certain male co-workers and work-life balance challenges along the way, she conceded, but the "glass ceiling" and related effects that have long hamstrung women's progress in corporate America were never a serious concern for her.
"I guess I just never really thought there was something I couldn't do," she said.
Rabon is not alone as a woman near or at the top of a major local company.
Anita Zucker is CEO of The InterTech Group Inc., a global North Charleston-based conglomerate that's one of the largest private companies in the United States.
Daniel Island-based software giant Blackbaud Inc. has three female executives in its senior ranks.
At First Federal of Charleston and its parent company, finance chief Blaise B. Bettendorf oversees more than $3.1 billion in assets.
But they are far from the norm.
Almost a century since winning the right to vote, American women still tend to earn less than men in comparable jobs and move more slowly, and not as high, up the company ladder.
According to the 2011 Catalyst Census of Fortune 500 companies, the state of women in business leadership positions is no better now than it was six years ago. As of the December report, women held 16.1 percent of board seats; women of color held only 3 percent of corporate board seats; and only 7.5 percent of executive officer top earners in 2011 were women.
Whereas women make up nearly half of all board of director positions in Norway, the percentage in the U.S. is "very, very low" and hasn't gotten much better recently, said Dorothy Moore, emeritus professor of business administration at The Citadel and author of the forthcoming "WomenPreneurs: 21st Century Success Stories."
In South Carolina, almost half of the state's organizations have no women in decision-making roles, according to a 2008 report by Clemson's Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
And in addition to ranking dead last nationally in terms of women serving in the state Legislature, white women in South Carolina make only 78 cents to a man's dollar in a comparable job, and for black women, the figure is 65 cents, according to Jennet Robinson Alterman, executive director of the Charleston-based Center for Women and one of the 19 women profiled in Moore's book.
That partly explains why over the past 10 years, the number of women-owned businesses in South Carolina grew by an "extraordinary" 64 percent, Alterman said, more than the national average and twice the rate of men.
Stephanie Hall, who spoke at a Center for Women luncheon last week and will attend the group's annual "Pathways to Power 2012 Women in Business Conference" on Friday, knows all about these challenges and trends firsthand. The Holly Hill lawyer-turned-entrepreneur said being a black woman is "a double whammy."
"For me, a big issue has been building credibility. When people see me, I'm a young, African-American female," said Hall, 36. "They just assume that I'm running something off a card table."
Guided by her mother's friend, who went from Holly Hill to a big-firm legal career in Washington, Hall graduated from the University of South Carolina and University of North Carolina School of Law before moving on to prestigious clerkships and a career in private practice in Washington and Baltimore. But entrepreneurship, not business litigation, surfaced as her true calling, and the hours and male-dominated culture at law firms came into conflict with her plan to be a highly engaged mother to her three children.
Hall left the mid-Atlantic region and legal field a year and a half ago to return to her hometown, where she merged what had been an event rentals side business with her mother's longstanding floral business. Now CEO of Ruth's House Event Rentals and Design, Hall faces a new set of challenges, such as the local "good ole boy" network.
But like Rabon, Hall is aiming high. "My goal is to build a business conglomerate," she said, hoping to add event venues and what she calls "an agribusiness" to the Ruth's operation and an outdoor furniture design arm.
It's no accident that certain women, such as Rabon, Hall and Zucker, have succeeded in business while others have not been able to overcome the societal obstacles, said Moore.
"Their common characteristics are they continually increased their intellectual capital and worked to develop connections with colleagues, higher-ups and experts through sustainable networks," Moore wrote of the businesswomen she profiled in her book. "They reached out and took the initiative to bridge gaps and make the ties needed to build successful businesses and careers. They built confidence, exhibited a high level of self-esteem and efficacy and projected strength and competency."
Hall would advise teenage girls to "follow your passion" and "don't be afraid to make sacrifices for long-term benefits." Among Rabon's suggestions: Don't sit back and expect it to come to you, let your wishes be known and seek advice.
Like her father before her, Rabon has actively passed on her ideas about how to succeed in business to the next generation. Her 18-year-old daughter works summers at Piggly Wiggly's Jedburg warehouse, picking groceries to go on trucks. Her 16-year-old daughter works at one of the grocery stores.
Asked if she envisions her daughters following in her footsteps, Rabon answers idealistically but practically.
"I want them to do whatever makes them happy," she said. "But, you know, getting that experience ... and just having exposure to a number of things when you're young, that's important."
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_ brendan.