by Sally Fay
Women who aspire to lead have been pushing boundaries for centuries, staking a claim to positions of power in corporate, government, and nonprofit arenas. And, no doubt, they’ve made gains. Optimistic observers point to the increasingly common presence of women in the C-suite and the recent election of an unprecedented number of women to public office as signs that the culture is shifting toward acceptance of women’s desire for leadership roles.
But those less sanguine about women’s strides point to the actual proportion of women in leadership positions, which remains low, and the long-standing prejudices that impede their progress. “The feminist movement gradually eroded the idea of separate spheres, making it possible today for women to participate in politics and pursue almost any profession,” says Katherine Pence, PhD, associate professor of history and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Baruch College’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. “However, often women are still paid less and hold lower-ranked positions across the workforce, and they are subject to particular scrutiny when they assume leadership roles.”
So where do women leaders stand today? Six Baruch alumni, trailblazers from different industries and generations, go on the record with lessons learned from their own career journeys and their thoughts on the current climate women in and aspiring to leadership positions face.
Positive Signs… On a Long and Winding Road
“Are we there yet? Not quite—but the trends are going in the right direction,” says Cathy Avgiris (’80), who held a series of executive roles at Comcast Cable before retiring from the position of CFO, the first woman in that role. Now a senior advisor with Boston Consulting Group and an executive coach, Ms. Avgiris celebrates the record-high numbers of female Fortune 500 CEOs and women presidential candidates and cites the composition of the 116th U.S. Congress, where “about 25 percent of the Senate and House are female.”
Cindya Williams (’97), Chief Audit Executive and head of internal controls at Technicolor, a worldwide technology leader in the media and entertainment industry, says that the diversity of the current crop of political newcomers is particularly inspiring to her as a Latina: “The number of women actually elected was incredible, and their diversity is history-making. For the first time, I felt represented.”
Joan Lavin (’99), managing director and Chief Talent Officer at global investment firm KKR & Co., believes that today’s companies are incentivized to court and support women. “In the last decade, there’s been a growing body of evidence pointing to the benefits of a more diverse workforce generally,” she says. Not only is diversity the right thing to do, “smarter companies are seeing diversity as a real commercial imperative.”
You Say You Want an Evolution
Amidst a climate of growing societal and global pressures, shifting demographics, and the expectations of younger professionals, organizations across all sectors have gradually changed in their approach to women in leadership positions.
Professional services and accounting giant Deloitte & Touche LLP is one such company, says Lara Abrash (MBA ’94), CEO and head of the company’s U.S. Audit & Assurance services business. Recently selected as one of Crain’s New York Business’s Notable Women in Accounting & Consulting, Ms. Abrash highlights her organization’s “shift to a more inclusive culture” and its concerted efforts to advance and retain female professionals, including a supportive family leave policy. Ms. Williams of Technicolor also sees attention to these issues but from a different lens. “In the entertainment industry, a lot of the discussion revolves around the landscape for women actors: How do you empower women to get equal pay and recognition and promote more visible roles across all demographics, cultures, and backgrounds?” In her estimation, those concerns have resulted in greater “consciousness about those issues on the corporate side.”
A Seat at the Table
The growing inclusion of women on corporate and nonprofit boards is one manifestation of evolving gender dynamics in leadership, says Paulette Garafalo (’78, MBA ’80), president of high-end clothing and accessories brand Paul Stuart and chair of the compensation committee and board member for Hooker Furniture. “The balance on boards is changing because companies are seeking out different voices, and that’s because the shareholders are demanding it,” Ms. Garafalo says. And, as Ms. Avgiris notes, there is a direct link between inclusivity and corporate success: “More than half the companies that fall out of the Fortune 1000 have little or no board diversity.”
Cristina Jiménez (MPA ’11), executive director of United We Dream, a national nonprofit organization she and six other advocates co-founded in 2008 to promote the dignity of immigrants and communities of color in the U.S., sees an imbalance between the leadership of her sector and the boards with which they interact: “There are differences that are reflective of class and gender experience, and also race experience, that come along with that,” says the alumna, a MacArthur Fellow and Freedom From Fear Award winner.
A certain gender dynamic is usually implicit in the subject of work/life balance, but changing expectations are driving new conversations around this topic, says Ms. Garafalo. “There’s more emphasis from the workforce overall on how work fits into life; it’s a very big consideration for women and men, especially if they’re parenting as they come into the job market.” Ms. Lavin concurs, “Nowadays men want to share in the parenting of newborns and children. So not only do workplaces have to offer a value proposition where women can accommodate careers and family, but that same pressure is coming from men. And that’s good for women, because that pressure negates the inference that you need to adapt your workplace only for women.”
For Ms. Abrash, modeling balance is vital. “It’s important for all leaders—especially women—to be vocal about their purpose and mindful of their wellbeing,” she says, adding, “My role at Deloitte is a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly. However, I am also a mom, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and a teammate [she plays on and manages a local women’s softball team].” Ms. Avgiris sees successful career pathing as broader and less linear than in the past: “There really is no such thing as climbing the corporate ladder; it is much more like a jungle gym—one step forward, two to the side.”
Difference as Strength
For Ms. Jiménez, her persona as a woman leader is inextricably intertwined with race, class, ethnicity, and other components of her identity. She credits women leaders of color with inspiring her and inspiring far-reaching change: “They are the reason we have vibrant social justice movements right now.”
Indeed, rather than trying to mask or deny their “otherness,” women leaders seem eager to embrace new paradigms. “In decades past, women felt the necessity to compete in a ‘man’s world’ on a man’s terms,” says Ms. Garafalo. “Nowadays women don’t overcompensate for their gender.” For her, “gender is becoming less and less relevant and diversity more.” Ms. Jiménez agrees and speaks of “a different style of leadership, which is a lot more collective, inclusive, transparent, and intentional about building relationships and communities and honoring each other.” Ms. Abrash touts the big-picture value of “fostering a culture that empowers every professional to bring their unique thoughts, perspectives, and ideas to the table to help our business, our firm, our clients, and our people thrive.” Ms. Williams speaks of a holistic leadership style: “I care about each person on my team as a person. But when it comes to work expectations, I may still be tough. I feel I need to combine those two elements.”
The stereotype of the woman executive jealously guarding her hard-won position of power is becoming a thing of the past. These days, observes Ms. Avgiris, there’s an impetus “for women to support and push other women.” Such support can come in the form of serving as a role model for women leaders yet to come. Says Ms. Lavin, “The more that women assert themselves and continue to evolve in their careers, then the more they are demonstrating to the next generation of women what is possible.” Ms. Jiménez agrees, “For me, it’s about what doors I can help to open for others.”
Ms. Garafalo sees women mentoring more and more and says that helping the next generation is her favorite part of being a leader. “The longer you stay in a career the more information you have to share. I’m very flattered that younger executives come to me. They don’t always listen to me, but they value my perspective.” Neither does mentorship always have to mean women helping women. Says Ms. Abrash, “Some of the best mentors in my career have been men who share a passion for inclusion and the advancement of women.” Indeed, many of these alumni say that male bosses and colleagues have been among their biggest champions and best sounding boards.
The Next Frontier
Dynamic, inclusive, transformative, and ongoing are the words used by this group of women leaders to describe the prospects for the future. For Ms. Jiménez, the current landscape for women leaders is an opportunity to “lay out a bold vision for this country that speaks to values of equity and justice for everyone, not just for the few.”
Ms. Lavin urges women not just to “lean in” but to stretch for new leadership roles. “If you know deep down you’ve got the capabilities and/or potential to learn quickly, even if it’s a stretch—and ideally it’s a stretch!—then don’t shy away from taking on a new challenge. Seek out a mentor, seek out some counsel, and demonstrate your capability to succeed.”
Ms. Avgiris, though acknowledging the value of women-specific groups where women leaders can share their distinct issues and experiences, emphasizes the importance of engaging men “in ways that are holistic and integrated into a company’s main agenda. Women have to be comfortable positioning the conversation within that context to advance mutual understanding.”
Ms. Williams notes that male leaders need to examine their own preconceptions as well. “Men need to be challenged to think and work differently because now there are women leaders who may think and process differently,” she says.
In matters of leadership, “it’s a constant learning curve,” sums up Ms. Garafalo. “You can’t address the workforce the way you did 20 or 10 or 5 years ago. Everything is changing, and so we have to change and learn to understand and respect other groups’ worldview if we want to be current and productive and relevant.”
One thing unlikely to change is the determination of female students at Baruch College to equip themselves to succeed in whatever field or endeavor they choose to pursue. “Of course, higher education will continue to have an essential role in gender equity and therefore so will Baruch College,” says President Mitchel B. Wallerstein, PhD. “Baruch has had a long tradition of championing women’s higher education and professional opportunities, and these Baruch trailblazers are part of that history. They are playing an important role in reshaping the conversation about the face of leadership. Their successes help broaden the path for 21st-century leaders who represent gender, racial, and cultural diversity.”