The experiment with women in management

Stock Image: Chemical Experiment Picture. Image: 133761Flashback to 1993: I left immediately after a (French) general manager answered my question about women in management positions. It was a cold day in Chicago as I rode the train back to campus to file a complaint at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management career office against this man and his company. This company invited me to come to a presentation about career opportunities after my MBA, only to tell me they are “willing to experiment with women in management“? I was furious and confused.

When I marched into the career office, the manager asked me (more than once) if I really wanted to file an official complaint, as this would be detrimental to my career opportunities with this company. As I had completely lost interest in working for this company and strongly felt that they needed to know, I went ahead with the complaint. The next day I got a call from their global head of HR apologizing profusely and offering me a job, as they really needed women like me to drive change. I declined the offer and told him that it would take the leaders at the top to drive change, not their next new hire.

I had not given much thought to this “experiment” incident until reading Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring book “Lean In“. Early in the book she states “girls growing up are not the first generation to have equal opportunity, but they are the first to know that all the opportunity does not necessarily translate into professional achievement.” I disagree with the first part of this statement, as in many parts of the world, women still do not have the same opportunities as men, being denied voting rights, leadership roles, or even something as basic as the right to drive a car or walk around town without a chaperone. But I wholeheartedly agree with the second part of the statement – a call to action for women to actively create and seize opportunities.

In the book, Sheryl Sandberg brilliantly combines anecdotes from her own career (and various women around her) with research evidence and publications. She highlights how societal norms not only shape girls to act a certain way, but also how society at large is conditioned to expect gender specific behaviors – and frown upon women that deviate from those expectations. What sets this book apart from many others is the actionable advice to women to take charge of their own ambitions in a very positive way:

  • Do not become an observer but confidently contribute based on your own strengths.
  • Walk the fine line of being nice and competent. Smile, but do not let the desire to be liked get in the way of acting firmly. When you want to change this, you can’t please everyone….
  • Consider your career path as a creative, explorative jungle gym, rather than always looking up at the butt of the person ahead of you on the career ladder…. Accept and embrace uncertainty, take risk, choose growth and challenge yourself and others.
  • Everyone can find people who can help work through opportunities and challenges. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, prepare well, make interactions positive and actionable, and always follow up.
  • Communication works best when combining appropriateness and authenticity – delicately honest in recognition of the absence of an absolute truth. And listening is equally important, so solicit ideas from various angles to support your decisions and regularly solicit feedback, even if it´s hard.
  • Combining family and career is like a marathon: a long, grueling, ultimately rewarding endeavor. While the men are cheered on, a woman hears external voices (and her own) repeatedly question her decision to keep running – but if she can ignore this and get past the tough middle of the race, she will often hit her stride.
  • In the past 30 years, women have made more progress in the workforce than at home. Men must be empowered at home to share responsibility and lean into their families. Equality between partners leads to happier relationships and sets the stage for future generations.
  • Trying to “have it all” disregards the basis of all economic relationships – there will always be tradeoffs to make as you best allocate that most precious resource of all: your time. Next to time management, your may need to throw in some guilt management as well.
  • We’re naive to believe that the world does not need feminism anymore. Women need to speak up and we all need to call attention to biases, finding ways to transform minds and behaviors.
  • Both men and women need to lean in – to ensure we all benefit from a much bigger talent pool to progress and solve the most pressing problems of our time.

Stock Photography: Cup-of-coffee-01 Picture. Image: 212032Throughout my career, gender issues have popped up. The silliest one was perhaps telling a gentleman that I was not there to serve coffee, but rather to present strategic research to him and the rest of the (all male) executive board. The “experiment” incident above was probably the most blatant of them all. And a more recent one? A headhunter’s very first question being about the number of hours I wanted to work – and admitting he did not ask this question to all male applicants.

By and large, I feel I have been able to lean in to (and out of) opportunities in my jungle gym career. Reading “Lean In” has really made me rethink my own opportunities, risks and actions.

This December, I will serve as an impact panelist for the Katerva Award on Gender Equality. Since agreeing to do this, I have been monitoring gender topics a bit more closely, reading blogs (such as the Guardian’s Women in Leadership), books (such as Lean In) and joining relevant LinkedIn groups. My most surprising finding so far? The company I complained about at business school has started to pay attention to gender issues. They now even sponsor a LinkedIn Group about this very topic!

Please share your suggested readings and effective initiatives on gender and gender equality to further boost my insights – and of course your silliest and most blatant examples you have come across.

© Photographers: Vasiliy Koval | Johanna Goodyear Agency: Dreamstime.com


  1. I’m not in management perse, but I’ve worked for several years at a small company where we wear many hats and have several duties which are not always related. In short, we all count on each other a great deal. I should add I’m only 1 of 4 women in a very technical company of approximately 50 people. When we have difficult days, my director tells me to “smile,” I have even been sung a verse from “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” This of course happens when I get up and try to actively get any difficult problem solved. My male co-worker (we share an office) has been exempt from this type of suggestion…

  2. Hi Marjolein!
    Indeed, we are looking at the same issues at the same time 🙂
    I am actually active on the subjects of “Women on Boards” in the context of EPWN Lisbon, and female entrepreneurship with womenwinwin.com – a networking platform for women entrepreneur, in Portuguese for now. I don’t have a lot of “war stories” regarding gender bias. But it IS there, so let’s do something! All the best, Silvia

Share your thoughts and comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.