By Joe Garvey

Barbara Blake Gonzalez, chief administrative officer of Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, was recently named a 2022 Women in Business honoree by Inside Business.

Blake Gonzalez was one of 19 women recognized “who have been successful in their businesses and careers, contribute to the community and serve as an example to others,” the publication wrote. “Our hope is this recognition will spur them on to even greater things.”

Blake Gonzalez oversees day-to-day operations at the Dragas Center, including business operations, new project development, personnel management and graduate student support.

“I wear as many hats as necessary to get the job done,” she told Inside Business.

She has been a contributing author to the center’s highly regarded State of the Region and State of the Commonwealth reports since 2015. Her research interests include the economics of social issues (including the economics of opioids), the women’s leadership gap and the future of higher education.

She has also been active in the community, serving in volunteer roles with the Norfolk Tourism Foundation, ForKids Inc., LEAD Hampton Roads, Norfolk Public Schools, the Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast Council and local “Shark Tank” pitch and grant competitions.

When asked by Inside Business what gets under her skin, Blake Gonzalez replied: “The lack of gender diversity in the C-suite.”

In that vein, ODU News asked Blake Gonzalez several questions about the state of today’s workplace, especially for women.

ODU News: What do you wish you had known when you entered the business world?

Blake Gonzalez: I didn’t see women in leadership roles when I started out as a first-generation college student. Most of the faculty in my undergraduate business college were men, and I didn’t have a lot of role models. Early in my career, I wish I would have had someone to remind me that I wasn’t one of the few women at the table due to chance or luck – I was there because I was qualified (and) an asset to the organization – and that diverse employees enrich the value of the company. This is the message that I share with women in Hampton Roads, especially those who are also the first in their families to attend college. Through my participation in ODU’s F1rst-gen Mentoring program, I explain the business case for diversity. Several large studies assert gender-diverse businesses are more profitable. Women belong! 

ODU News: In the 2019 State of the Region report, you talked about the women’s leadership gap in Hampton Roads. Has there been any progress in this area, and if not, what steps should be taken?

Blake Gonzalez: COVID-19 changed everything, didn’t it? Before the pandemic, awareness of the women's wage and leadership gap was improving and leading to real discussions about "pink collar" employment and the lack of women in top leadership positions. However, the impact of COVID-19 was truly a devastating blow to the women who are overrepresented in the service industry and caretaking occupations.

Many women are caregivers of children and/or parents. Working the first and second shift (the job for income and the custodial job at home) is an overwhelming burden. Child/elder care assistance and flexible schedules combined with pay parity continue to be the big asks here and around the nation.

ODU News: If you could draw attention to one area of your research, what would that be?

Blake Gonzalez: The lack of awareness and discussion surrounding opioids in the workforce is a real need in our community. While researchers, health professionals and policy makers search for answers to combat the scourge of opioids, I believe dedicated campaigns at the national, state and regional levels to educate and destigmatize addiction are needed to win the battle. The fact is, anyone, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status, could become addicted to opioids. Employees are desperately worried about being terminated if their dependency were made public. Families speak in whispers if a loved one overdoses. Not only is it a horrible way to live, but the costs to individuals, families and our communities are outrageous. Commonwealth estimates released this year put the total costs of the opioid burden in Virginia at $3.5 billion in 2020. 

ODU News: What questions are you being asked most often about women in the workplace, and what questions should be asked?

Blake Gonzalez: People are quick to ask, “Why aren’t women advancing as rapidly as men in the workplace?” Notice how this question is framed. It’s vague, and it doesn’t lead anyone to the everyday or systemic issues that cause the problem in the first place. A more productive question to ask is, “What can we do to help women advance as quickly as men in the workplace?” It lends itself to collective responsibility. When someone reads an article about professional women, they should be thinking about it personally. The professional women in the workplace are your friends, your mentors, your sisters, your mothers. If these women are exiting the workforce because of low wages and/or few advancement opportunities, it should be a concern for us all. Everyone should have an investment in making life better for the people around them.

You can see the complete list of Inside Business’ 2022 Women in Business honorees at this link.