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Atlanta's women leaders explore key issues

By Kelly Yamanouchi - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution



ABOUT THIS SERIES: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s call to action in her book “Lean In” ignited a national dialogue about women in the executive ranks. With metro Atlanta as a major business hub and Georgia home to 15 Fortune 500 companies, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wanted to tap into this conversation and provide a platform for an exchange of ideas. We invited a range of female executives to participate in a roundtable discussion. They had a lot to say. So we leaned in, listened and brought you this series.

American universities graduate more women than men, and women comprise just under half the U.S. workforce. Yet women remain largely missing from the top echelons of corporate America. Fewer than 25 of Fortune 500 corporations are headed by women, and no Fortune 500 company in Georgia is headed by a woman CEO. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought together some of metro Atlanta’s top-ranking women to discuss this key issue in the wake of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” The book has provoked controversy, with competing views about the challenges women face. Panelists will share their perspectives over the next three weeks in print and online. Below, they talk about barriers in the workplace.

Q: Women make up 14 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, even though women earn more college degrees than men, according to the most recent Catalyst study. What are the major obstacles women face and what are the best ways to overcome them?

Lori Kilberg:One of the studies shows there is just a huge collection of women at the upper management level knocking on the door to the C-suite, but never making it there. They’re waiting for recognition [or] they’re not putting themselves forward, and they decide to opt out. They decide — so many of them — to become entrepreneurs. They decide to take a different path.

Women need sponsors — much more than mentors, but someone who will actually advocate for them within their companies — the way that informally happens naturally with a lot of men, where they get pulled up and presented.

Women, unfortunately, are very hesitant to tout their own accomplishments. And women say, “Well I haven’t done that yet, so I don’t know that I’m an expert in that. And I’m not quite ready to take that next step.”

Men will take the jump, based on potential. They’ll think, “I don’t know how to do that. But I can do that. Of course, I can do that.”

So we have to become more risk takers. We have to take fear out of the equation. If we could eliminate fear and guilt, there’d be no stopping us.

Kat Cole: The definition of success is very personal and not every woman wants to be a CEO. Not every man wants to be a CEO.

There is an element of mentoring, connections and advocacy that women have to seek for themselves and other people. Men and women have a role in providing advocacy for women who are moving up.

Wendy Clark: When your leaders get serious about this, your organization gets serious about this.

About five years ago, our CEO (at Coca-Cola), Muhtar Kent, looked around the organization. The urban myth is that his daughter was graduating from college and was asking him tough questions. And he looked at the data: Women control $20 trillion of spending power around the world. They influence 70 percent of consumer purchases. They are more of the college graduates now. They are more of the talent pool.

We put a women’s leadership council in place five years ago. We set very discrete goals that we are measured to.

We do quarterly updates to him on our progress. He literally looks at us and goes, “It’s not enough.” He is restless and relentless about changing the numbers. So when you have a leader that is leaning into this, all of a sudden, a lot of things start drifting away, a lot of the barriers.

Lift as you climb. Women can help other women. And I think, too often, women lean away from helping other women.

Kilberg: What you said just so resonates with me. And is the answer maybe, as you said, the corporations leaning in and changing that dynamic? Or is it also telling young women that this is a true career path, that this is something they can achieve and will be gratifying and rewarding? And they can do it and still have a family.

Kenzie Biggins: You mentioned earlier the idea of women opting out and starting companies and becoming entrepreneurs. I like to think of that as opting in.

There are a number of phenomenal women who are starting companies. And I think the same way we set the tone in corporations, that, “Oh, this is a space reserved for men,” we do that when people are starting companies. “When’s this man going to come along and start this idea.”

Cole: When I was a director at Hooters restaurants, [I was] the only female leader of this group, yet we employed more women as a percentage of employees than any other restaurant chain in the world. So I felt a need to improve the state of things for those women. And I went outside of my company to the Women’s Foodservice Forum.

It’s where I saw what was possible. I needed to see how professional women interacted and hear their stories. And that group took me in, provided access to great leaders. It was a lot of Coca-Cola executives who were very kind to me and provided perspective. And it helped me see my true value.

Because I took (the approach) — stay in one company for 15 years and just move up. Someone quit? I’ll take the job. That job’s crappy? I’ll take it. And that worked for me.

But I got to a certain point where I realized I wanted more, I deserved more, I was ready for more.

And had I not sought the counsel and the advocacy of these great women and men in this group, I don’t know that I would have ever made the jump, or believed that I could be successful in some other company.

It made all the difference. And I don’t know that we make sure that women have the access to great leaders that they need — in companies that don’t have an internal group.

Teri McClure: It makes a difference to be able to have those discussions. UPS started the women’s leadership program. Women were leaving the organization at a disproportionate level at the mid-management career level, and we wanted to understand why.

Once we started to have the dialogue, we realized that some of the challenges that women were facing, men were facing also. And so our women’s leadership development program started doing programming that the men were coming to.

Kilberg: That’s great.

McClure: It was all about opening up the environment to have conversations to discuss what their challenges were. And then make the decisions about — Is this the right path for me?

Jane Smith: What’s of value in the book is the argument: Do not leave before you leave. (Don’t give up your ambition before you even confront obstacles.)

The college students hear these numbers and decide, “I don’t want to do that, because even if I get a degree, I can’t get to where it is I want to go.”

If you leave because of these obstacles before you leave, then you lose an awful lot.

Veronica Biggins: As an executive search consultant, we work with corporations and help them think through — what are the competencies that you’re looking for? Not gender — that’s not a competency. Race is not a competency.

We work for companies, but yet we have people calling us all the time. For every woman that calls me, 20 men call.

I sit on the boards of two major companies — Southwest Airlines and Avnet. So I just came back from the Southwest board meeting. The women invited me to come and have coffee one morning prior to the board meeting.

Kilberg: So these are executive women in the company?

Veronica Biggins: Executive women and other women. They came in to have a conversation about how do they own their career. (Meanwhile), the board is asking the question: Where are the women in the succession planning? So if you’re within a corporation, it’s the question you ask — If I’m not (in the succession planning), how do I get there?

But I find it interesting when people who I’ve never met in my life will walk up to me and say, “Will you be my mentor?” I think it’s more appropriate to say, “This is an issue I’m dealing with. Can you give me guidance?”

Kelly Regal: We have to address the unconscious bias. That’s one of the things I really respected about the book — all the data in it. What’s ingrained as we’re raising children, and what boys versus girls differentiate in early years. It can be hard to talk about. But we have to figure out a way to get men to the table, as well.

McClure: As a student at Emory, I hadn’t even started the first day of the first year of law, and I was told, “Black students at Emory don’t do well.”

I think we have to be very careful about the messaging that we send. Because it ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy for some people. Because you believe that it’s not because you could put forth more effort but because the circumstances around you dictate the outcome.

And we need to have the discussion at a much younger stage, as opposed to waiting until you get to the glass ceiling.

I bought the Sheryl Sandberg book. I immediately gave it to my daughter, who’s a sophomore in college, and her best friend. And I said, “I want you all to read this and tell me your perspective. Because I know this. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. But I want to understand what you all are seeing and hearing.”

Kilberg: What did they say?

McClure: They’re reading it now!

Kilberg: I’m very curious to find out.

McClure: I am too. Because as Sheryl’s talked about — when you’re going through school, you see more women than men. But when you get into corporate America, it’s a little bit different.

Kilberg: The one statistic that floored me, is with all these women graduating from college, we think there’s entry-level parity. There is not.

MBA graduates going for their first job — 57 percent of the men negotiated their salaries, 7 percent of the women negotiated their salaries. Are men taught in a class, “OK, you have to negotiate your salaries?” They’re taking the same courses.

Kenzie Biggins: After I got my first job, I read an article that said the reason women reach a glass ceiling is not because we’re not getting pay increases, but because we don’t negotiate our salary going in the door. So from that point on, I said, “Uh-uh.” I moved my salary dramatically within the course of three years, all because I was willing to ask.

Sandberg asked the question in the book, “What would life be like if you weren’t afraid?” I think a better question is, “What are you afraid of?” Then you move forward and make things happen.

I see a lot that in women; they’ll let people run all over them. And a lot of it is fear of someone bringing them down.

Sally Yates: Or being cast as the pushy woman. Pushy: Is it an adjective used to describe a man? No. You’re always trying to find that balance.

Cole: I watched my mother for several years justify our personal situation, because she said, “Things could be worse.”

I think that is a trait that women have in spades. That sense of, “Well, it just could be worse and I’m grateful for where I am.” It has to be balanced with [Sandberg’s] statement, which is: But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to make things better.

I have found decision points in my career where I could have justified staying all day long. I could have justified not getting on a plane when I’d never been out of the country, and not going to do openings all over the world. Or not going back to get my MBA. Because things could be worse. But the reality is the opportunity to make them better is quite real and attainable.

And we need to help men and women see that. That it’s okay to want to be better.

Yates: I don’t think every time a woman decides not to do something that it’s necessarily a product of fear. In some ways, I wonder if women aren’t a bit more evolved in the sense of making a decision about what it is we really want. What is going to be fulfilling for me? Is it necessarily attaining that position that has an outward sign of success? Am I really going to like doing that job? Is that really a life I want?

Men — obviously I’m speaking in gross generalizations here — they’re sort of on that treadmill and may sometimes respond more readily to outward signs of what society believes to be success. And I think there are some women who are operating on a bit more sophisticated level, and are a bit more in touch with what it is that is going to be fulfilling for them.

Veronica Biggins: Sally, I think you make an excellent point about life. Because I can think of men that pushed hard, every day. And then in the end, they’ve retired, they missed their child’s everything. And then on their death bed, said, “What is my biggest regret? I did not live my life.”

Regal: And it’s not that these different approaches are right or wrong. It’s being self-aware of what that means for your choices.

For women, you do worry about likability. A man who is strong and confident is often viewed as a leader who is revered, whereas a woman who is strong and confident is viewed as aggressive and feared.

Clark: The thing that bothers me most is when I see women trying to be men.

You can never be a better man than a man. But you can be a really great woman. I think our gender’s greatest gift is empathy and I also think it’s our advantage.

The more I brought empathy to my job, the more successful my team has been, the more I’ve changed the culture at my company by just being human. By saying, “You know what, I was up at 2 a.m. with one kid on one side, the other kid on the other side last night. I get it. I get that the report didn’t get done. I’ve been there. Let’s figure out how we can get back on track.”

The remarks were edited for length and style.


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