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Seven women at a roundtable discussion.

Women at work

Edited by Chris Mikko and Sara Gilbert

Published on January 4, 2005

How real is the glass ceiling? How do you accomplish work and life balance? What is the outlook for women in the business world? With those and other questions in mind, the Carlson School of Management gathered a handful of women graduates and business people for a roundtable discussion. The following is an excerpt from that discussion.

Today's business world outlook for women

Ferris: How would you characterize the outlook for women in business today?

Who's who

Ann Boyd, '98 MBA, worked in consulting for Accenture and Wells Fargo.

Deborah Cundy is the founder and president of Envoy Communications Group, a Twin Cities consulting firm.

Karen Donohue is an associate professor of operations and management science at the Carlson School of Management.

Lisa Ferris, '85 BSB, is chief operating officer of Minneapolis-based RBC Dain Rauscher.

Christine Larsen, '90 MAIR, is vice president of Shared Services Global Operations for Ecolab, the St. Paul-based provider of cleaning and sanitizing products.

Susan Malaret, '04 MBA, is a senior project manager for Northstar Neuroscience, a Seattle-based medical device firm.

Joan T. Smith, '59 MBA, was a vice president of the Trust Investment Division at Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo).

Tiffany Zitzewitz, '95 MHA, is vice president of administrative services for Memorial Blood Centers.

Boyd: The fact that many women have started their own businesses in recent years--and that they are so good at it--speaks well that they're not going to take a lot of the stuff women have taken in the past. It's also good because people can't take for granted that women don't have any choice but to work for major corporations.

Cundy: I'm a little less optimistic for women in corporate life, because of the glass ceiling. Less than two percent of all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women; women hold 13 percent of all board seats.

Malaret: I was at a corporation for 12 years, and I saw a generational shift occurring. For women in my generation and in the generation behind me, some barriers are breaking down. There's still a glass ceiling, but things should be easier in the future.

On women entering the business world

Boyd: There needs to be some creativity to make [business] jobs attractive. People think you sit at your desk and crunch numbers all day, when there's actually a lot of personal relationship-building, and management and development of people. Women tend to be good at that. But that's not how people perceive business jobs.

Donohue: At the MBA level, one-third of all applicants have consistently been women. But this year we're a little bit down, maybe in the 20 percent range. One hypothesis is that the [desire to return for an MBA] tends to come at a time in a woman's life, usually in the late 20s or early 30s, which can be an awkward time in terms of your biological clock.

Malaret: The average age of the MBA students in my class was about 29. So the issue of the biological clock plays into things. But what's also interesting is that there is a much higher percentage of women in the night school program than in the day school program. ...

I did a research project about the low enrollment of women in MBAs, and why a lot of high school girls didn't want to go into business. They talked about the impression of business being supercompetitive. And they didn't want to deal with that, didn't want to have to claw their way to the top.

Boyd: Do you know where that perception came from?

Malaret: The only thing I came across was a lack of female role models. There are a lot of women in medical school and law school, but there aren't a lot of female business people to establish a positive role model for young girls.

Work-life balance

Ferris: By some estimates, women are leaving corporate positions at an accelerated rate. Why?

Boyd: We're getting tired of the bumps on our heads.

Donohue: It gets back to the balance issues. The difference between working 12 hours a day and eight hours a day is family balance. I work in academia, and it's the same there. To become the lead scholar in a particular area, you work 12 or 16 hours a day. I hate to think of success only being defined as being on a board or being a Rhodes Scholar. There are other definitions of success--volunteering on a school board, having a creative job, and a good family life.

The glass ceiling

Cundy: We'll know we've reached equality when there are as many mediocre women in high positions as there are mediocre men in high positions.

Smith: I used to say you had to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog to go half as far as any mediocre man. They got mad when I said that. But it's true.

Malaret: I've seen that a strong mentor has helped people break into that next sphere. But it's often difficult for women to have mentor relationships, because there aren't many women in upper management who understand what we're going through.

Ferris: My experience has been pretty evenly split between having men and women mentors. Sometimes, men could provide me with some observations that helped me understand how I came across, and how men perceived it. A man can get by with things that a woman can't. I certainly can't pound my fist on a table and scream about something I feel passionate about--it would be considered inappropriate. If one of my male counterparts did that, the perception would be, well, he's just pretty passionate about the issue.

Keys to success

Cundy: Be well prepared, have a bit of a plan, but also trust yourself a bit.

Larsen: The experience of working for small and large companies has been important. You get a different perspective when you work at an office with five people in it versus a company with 200,000 or more.

Smith: I was happy that I earned my MBA, but I had to be very flexible. I did whatever [management] told me, and I didn't make a fuss about it. That's why I ended up where I did.

Ferris: For me, it's been finding the right fit. I worked at a couple of other companies before my current firm. The real keys are working with people I enjoy, doing work I love, and working with clients I like. When you have all of those, opportunities present themselves, and you are prepared because you like going to work and you like what you do.

Boyd: Networking has actually helped me a lot more since I retired than it did when I was working. I went into the technical field to make money, not because it was my passion. But the things I've done since [retiring] have been a lot more fulfilling and rewarding--and the networking has been easy. Maybe that's a clue that you may not be in your niche, when networking feels like work.

Zitzewitz: I've pursued opportunities that have been a stretch. I doubted that I could do some of them but I decided to anyway. And I was supported in doing so by strong mentor relationships.

From the original story edited by Chris Mikko and Sara Gilbert in Carlson School, a publication by the Carlson School of Management.