The ascent of women to top business positions drew widespread attention last month with the naming of Mary Barra to head GM. She joins other women heading giant U.S. firms, including Ursula Burns at Xerox, Ellen Kullman at DuPont and Virginia Rometty at IBM, to name a few.

These top executives, pioneers in the business world, are leading a fundamental change in corporate culture visible in national and local firms. Though still far from parity – women hold about 15 percent of executive positions despite making up 47 percent of the workforce – the barriers to advancement are breaking down.

“We’re still not there,” said Sarah Gilson, executive director of the Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness in the University at Buffalo School of Management. “Progress is very slow – under 5 percent of CEOs are women, even though women enter white-collar jobs at greater quantity than men.”

Female business leadership is growing in the Buffalo Niagara region, and their numbers mirror national figures, Gilson says.

“They are exceptional women,” she said. “Hopefully, they can be sponsors for other women and pull them up and bring them along.”

A few of the region’s leaders include:

Liesl Folks

Dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Liesl Folks is one of only two dozen female engineering school deans in the nation.

An internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and magnetism, she has worked for IBM and Hitachi Corp. on developing magnetic data storage technologies.

Along with her industry experience, the native Australian brought years of classroom experience as an academic and researcher with various schools, including Cornell University and Oxford University.

At UB, she’s working to better link the worlds of industry and academia to benefit students and local businesses.

“One of my goals is to strengthen our engagement with regional industry,” she said. “I want us to work more directly with small businesses and start-up companies, in a real meaningful way that will have significance.”

Folks has also charged herself with attracting more women to the program. While women in the program have higher grade point averages and graduation rates than their male counterparts, recruiting them to the program has been the problem.

“I’ve put a whole pile of measures in place for that problem,” she said, including working with grade school teachers and counselors to inform girls about opportunities in engineering.

Shandra Spicer

President and CEO, the Spicer Group

When she was 18, Shandra Spicer and her parents began a janitorial and painting business. By 22, she owned the company. Eleven years later, Spicer is president and CEO of one of Western New York’s fastest growing businesses.

The Spicer Group, formerly S&W Contracting, had 198 percent revenue growth over 2012. Its revenue in 2012 was $5.6 million, up 225 percent from 2009, according to the Inc. magazine list of fastest growing companies in the country. The Spicer Group employs 30 people, who work mostly on the construction side of the company. The company is increasingly moving away from janitorial services as it expands into other areas.

“We’re expanding the services, so there was a need for rebranding,” said Spicer. “We’re not just a contracting company. We provide OSHA and construction safety, budget estimating, diversity and outreach services.” Recent projects include a parking lot installation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, replacement of the planetarium dome at Williamsville North High School and elevator upgrades at SUNY Fredonia.

As a young woman at the helm of a thriving business, she’s learning about the challenges of competing in the male-dominated construction industry.

“Anyone who says gender is not an issue is a flat-out liar,” she said. “It’s a man’s business.”

Spicer said discrimination is prevalent, but in her 15 years in the business, she has noticed improvements.

“Companies are opening up and actually doing business with us now,” she said. “But I would in no way, whatsoever, say this industry is an equal playing field.”

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen

President and CEO, Buffalo Niagara Partnership

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen has excelled in fields dominated by men, but she’s never thought about her gender in relation to her career. Even with her latest ascension to the highest profile advocate for the region’s businesses, the significance of gender was lost on Gallagher-Cohen.

“I didn’t think about it. It never crossed my mind,” she said. “In my whole career, I never really paid attention to the fact that I’m a woman, I just do my work and work really hard.”

A former newspaper executive, Gallagher-Cohen is credited with revamping the region’s tourism marketing programs as CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. She says supportive bosses and work environments are key to career accomplishments.

“As a woman you can limit yourself; everyone has barriers or obstacles,” she said. “If you’re focused on it, you’re limiting yourself.”

Gallagher-Cohen was president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara for three years and worked at The Buffalo News for 13 years prior to that. At The News, she served as senior vice president and oversaw the paper’s push into digital media. She was the company’s first female vice president on the business side.

“As much you can, the fact that you’re a woman should almost be immaterial,” she said. “It’s really about doing great work and being assertive. There are women who are fearful of being assertive because of the connotation. But I think if you want to play in that space, you have to be equal to those folks.”

Kathleen M. Sweet

Partner, Gibson, MacAskill & Crosby

In 2012, Kathleen M. Sweet became president of the Bar Association of Erie County, the fourth woman to head the group in its 125 years.

Sweet, a medical malpractice defense lawyer, became a partner at the Buffalo law firm Gibson, MacAskill & Crosby in 1998, the only female in that position at the time.

Sweet was recently inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers.

She has practiced law for 20 years and has been an active member of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, along with other legal organizations. She was honored by Best Lawyers in America as Buffalo’s “Lawyer of the Year – 2012” in the malpractice defense area.

Sweet said more women should assume leadership roles in the area’s legal community.

“It’s more expected for women to pursue leadership positions, but it’s still hard for them to achieve them,” she said. “Women are not as likely to advocate for themselves.”

As president of the bar association, Sweet’s agenda included educating lawyers about disaster preparedness and business contingency planning and increasing younger members’ participation in the organization.

Heidi Fischer

Vice president of administration, I-Evolve Technology Services

After graduating from Niagara University with a degree in political science, Heidi Fischer took a temp job as an administrative assistant at a computer shop while she figured out what to do after college.

The position gave her rare access to the nearly all-male world of information systems. She learned to build and fix computers and went on to work for various area IT businesses. Fischer even worked in the field, repairing computers at area companies. But as one of few women in the industry at the time, Fischer wasn’t taken seriously by a lot of her clients or her fellow IT technicians and specialists.

“There were people who looked at me as a second-rate tech. They thought it was cute that I wanted to do that kind of work,” she recalls. “And the sad part about it was I knew what I was doing.”

Today, Fischer is vice president of administration at the Amherst-based I-Evolve. The 8-year-old company is a full-service IT provider that expanded into Rochester when it purchased two Web companies there.

Fischer supervises all of the company’s 24 employees, including its technicians.

“It’s a lot easier supervising people when you have the background and know the work they are doing from years of working in the field,” she said.