We asked Adelphi alumnae and academics who study workplace and family issues to share their best strategies for women to get ahead.

Article by Samantha StainburnWe-Can-Do-It
Illustrations by Einat Peled

A few years ago, Ewa Sobczynska ’04 received a call from a former manager, suggesting that she apply for a position that had just opened up at The World Bank in Washington, D.C., the international financial institution that provides loans to projects that are intended to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries.

The job, operations officer for the bank’s Sustainable Development unit, sounded perfect for Ms. Sobczynska, who was working at a nonprofit international development organization after earning a degree in international studies from Adelphi’s Honors College and a master’s degree in human rights and international development from Georgetown University.

Ms. Sobczynska has a passion for development work, having grown up in Poland during the years the country was transitioning from communism to democracy. There, she saw how economic and political change can improve lives.

“The job I was in was interesting, but I was doing mostly research, and I didn’t find I was using all the skills I’d acquired,” she says. “I wanted to be pushed.”

But Ms. Sobczynska was also thinking about starting a family, and she wondered if it was too much to take on. Ultimately, she decided to ignore her fears and go for the job. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to do it and see how it works out,’” she recalls.

It turned out to be the right choice. She loves her work, briefing senior managers for meetings and advising internal staff teams on how to incorporate sustainable practices into their projects. And when she had a baby about a year ago, the bank allowed her to take a five-month maternity leave, which made it possible for her to bond with her child before returning to work.

It hasn’t been easy, but Ms. Sobczynska’s happy to be working and parenting at the same time. “I’m following my passion,” she says. “And having a family is an amazing experience. You really grow as a person when you become a parent.”

Ms. Sobczynska’s leap of faith that she could figure out how to do both sets her apart from the many working women who start scaling back on time-intensive projects and passing on challenging job opportunities once they anticipate having children.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg calls this phenomenon “leaving before you leave.” In Lean In, her new book about what it takes for women to achieve their full potential, Ms. Sandberg argues that it’s one of several factors that prevent women from reaching top positions in companies and institutions.

The lack of women in the highest-level jobs is striking. More college degrees are awarded to women than men: In 2012, female graduates earned about 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees. Women, however, hold only about 14 percent of executive officer positions in companies and lead just 21 of the Fortune 500 firms. Women occupy only 18 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress. Women lag behind in compensation too, making just 77 cents for every dollar men make.

During the feminist movement of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when the institutional barriers holding women back from equal participation in the workforce were being dismantled, it seemed as if it was only a matter of time before women would be running half our companies.

As a director of human resources at DuPont in the 1980s, Faith Wohl ’57 was on the frontlines of that fight, introducing policies and programs that made it easier for women to climb the ladder at the chemical company, including on-site child care, family leave and flexible work practices. Later, she oversaw 100 child care centers in federal buildings across 31 states as director of the Clinton administration’s Office of Workplace Initiatives and advocated for universal prekindergarten as president of the Child Care Action Campaign.

But today, Ms. Wohl says, progress on building up services to support working mothers has stalled.

“We haven’t built the infrastructure to support women,” she says. “We have lightly regulated child care options that are not integrated into a national education or health system, which they have in other countries.” Interest in expanding and improving child care faded during the recent recession, she notes. “In the short term, child care is not a priority of the government, and there is not a lot of money to invest in it.”

Ms. Wohl is a believer in social and corporate support for working parents because, she says, “Life is unplanned. You need support when something happens,” whether it’s a sick child or a work emergency that requires you and your team to stay late in the office. Today, in the absence of social structures, she says, “Everyone has to work it out for themselves.”

Given this landscape, what can be done to help more women rise to the top of their professions?

We asked Adelphi alumnae and academics who study workplace and family issues to share their best strategies for getting ahead.

Ignore the Naysayers

It’s not a lack of ambition that causes women to scale back or ultimately drop out of the workforce, says Beverly Greene, M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’83, a psychology professor at St. John’s University and a clinical psychologist.

“Women live in a sexist society, and there are realistic negative consequences to pursuing leadership positions in certain environments that women have to be prepared to tolerate,” she says. “If some people would choose not to tolerate that, it’s unfair to suggest they lack ambition. It’s actually healthy for people who are in no-win situations to get out if they can.”

Women are presumed to be incompetent, Dr. Greene says. “So there’s a way that one has to go in and prove oneself, even more than your male counterparts, which basically means you have to do more work.”

Gordon F. Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies Professor Janice Steil notes that problems arise for women when they deviate from expected female behavior. Unfortunately, the stereotypical traits women are expected to display, like being warm and nurturing, are not the behaviors most prized in the workplace.

Dr. Steil did a study that examined what happened when men and women used direct and indirect strategies to accomplish tasks at work. In the workplace, direct strategies, like giving orders and confrontation, are considered more effective at getting business done than indirect strategies like smiling, suggesting or avoiding confrontation. Direct strategies are stereotypically associated with men and indirect strategies with women.

“What we found was men were the most rewarded for using direct strategies in the workplace,” Dr. Steil says. “Women didn’t have negative outcomes for using direct strategies, but they didn’t have positive ones. They did have negative outcomes for indirect strategies. If you’re just smiling and suggesting, how are you going to demonstrate leadership? How are you going to get promoted? You can be indirect sometimes, but you’re not going to be perceived as a leader if you rely on that.”

Women of color and low-income women have to battle additional stereotypes, making it even more difficult to get ahead, Dr. Greene says. “If you are a member of a marginalized group, you are working harder because part of the work is neutralizing the reactions you elicit in people based on their belief of who you are.” The struggle is reflected in the statistics: Women of color hold just 4 percent of executive officer jobs and 5 percent of congressional seats.

Simply being aware that our culture typically punishes women for being successful in the workplace can help women dismiss self-doubt and keep on pushing toward ambitious professional goals, both Dr. Steil and Dr. Greene say.

“People who belong to a marginalized group have to understand that members of the dominant group may make problems for you, but you are not the problem,” says Dr. Greene. “Don’t let someone else’s limited view define what you’re going to be in your life.

“Having grown up as an African American in the middle of the last century, I learned to expect that if I made choices that crossed certain lines, there were going to be people who didn’t like it,” Dr. Greene adds. “I want to be liked as much as anybody, but I decided I wasn’t going to organize my life around only doing what other people thought was okay.”

 Work with Mentors

Coffee Illustration. Artist: Einat PeledLeeAnn Black ’83 took a finance and accounting job in the New York office of international law firm Latham & Watkins LLP a few years after earning her B.B.A. at the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business. She became chief operating officer of the entire firm before she hit 40, with three kids under age 8.

Today, she leads a team responsible for strategic leadership, financial management, technology integration, marketing and general administration at Latham, one of the world’s biggest law firms, with 2,100 lawyers and offices in 14 countries. It’s an exciting job, she says. “As COO, basically you’re running a business. You’re leveraging many people and trying to improve client service, internally and externally.”

So what’s the secret to her success? Ms. Black says she was helped by bosses who were supportive of her ambition and willing to give a younger woman opportunities to prove herself. “In the legal industry, there are many firms where individuals don’t have a seat at the table, and I worked for somebody who was extremely inclusive,” she observes.

To be successful in business, “You need mentors, people to look up to, people who are going to advocate for you,” she says. “But it’s a two-way street. You have to be high quality and put in the time and really deliver. You can’t be afraid to work hard, and you can’t make excuses.”

With three children, Ms. Black took steps to arrange her life so that she wouldn’t need to make excuses. She and her husband chose to live in Manhattan so it was easier to take the children to dentist appointments or watch them play sports than if they lived farther away from work. They found an extremely responsible sitter who was never late and then made sure she was happy enough to stay and look after their kids for 15 years. And if Ms. Black had to step away to attend to her children before the day’s work was done, she logged back into her computer after hours to finish it.

“It’s a lot of coming home at night and making sure homework is done, then you’re back on and you’re working,” Ms. Black says.

Find a Supportive PartnerHomework illustration. Artist: Einat Peled

A 2011 study by Richard Zweigenhaft of Guilford College and G. William Domhoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that, of 28 women who had recently or currently held the job of CEO at a Fortune 500 company, 26 were married. (The 27th was divorced and the 28th never married.) Many of the female CEOs said they would not have succeeded if their husbands had not helped take care of the children, shared the household chores and showed a willingness to move.

Clearly, the person a woman picks as a partner can help her climb the career ladder—or derail her advancement.

Faith Wohl’s husband, who was 17 years older, volunteered to stay home with their two sons at a critical moment in her career, which allowed her to take necessary business trips. “He was my pillar,” she says. The person whom “you marry is critical,” she adds.

Ms. Black agrees. “If you don’t have support at home, it’s a problem, because it’s just one more battle you’re dealing with,” she says.

Ms. Black says her husband’s belief that she could climb the corporate ladder helped keep her in the game when she had doubts that juggling a high-powered career and young children was working out. “I can remember saying, ‘After we pay the babysitter, and we take out taxes, I’m earning like $2, so is it worth it?’” she recalls. “He kept saying to me, ‘Of course it’s worth it, because you can’t think about today, you have to think about where your career is going.’ ”

Roberta Kotkin ’74, M.B.A. ’81, is general counsel, chief operating officer and corporate secretary for the New York Bankers Association, which represents more than 300,000 employees working at banks with more than $4 trillion in combined assets. After earning a teaching degree at the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education and an M.B.A. at the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, she added a J.D. from Hofstra Law School while her son was a toddler.

When asked what’s helped propel her career, she says, “I worked hard, and when I felt that I had an idea, I spoke up. I didn’t sit in the back and let the men monopolize the conversation.” She also married the right person, she adds. “He’s always considered my career as important as his, and he doesn’t begrudge my time away from the house,” she says.

Two years after Ms. Kotkin became a mother of twin girls, she was named general counsel for Citicorp Card Establishment Services. Her husband, Lawrence Kotkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist whose office was attached to their house. His willingness to share housework and check in with the kids—who were also looked after by a sitter on weekdays—allowed her to put in long hours in the office “without angst,” she says.

Dr. Kotkin says he was happy to take on a more equal share of the domestic work than many men of his generation because his wife’s success sent the right message to their three children. “What she represents is that you can do anything you want,” he says. “That persistence wins, that you are only limited by your imagination and drive.” He also believes she deserves to go as far as she wants to go in her career. “She’s really smart,” he says.

It’s important for career-oriented parents to work out a way to give their young children enough time, because developing relationships with one or two primary caregivers before ages 3 to 5 is critical for a child’s healthy development, says Marcy Sayfer, director of Adelphi’s Institute for Parenting.

“Historically, it was easy,” she says. “The men went out and women stayed home. Now we know it doesn’t have to be that way, but everybody can’t go out and work from seven a.m. to ten p.m.”

On the positive side, increased sharing of home and child care tasks not only supports women’s employment, but it improves marriages, according to the Derner Institute’s Dr. Steil. “The research is consistent—the more equal say you have in decision making, the more equally domestic tasks are shared, the better the relationship,” she says. Dr. Steil’s own research has shown that the more equal the relationship, the more intimate the relationship. “Women tend to do more of the work that creates intimacy—for example, they listen and ask questions to elicit conversation,” she explains. “When men are primary caretakers and the women aren’t there, they become just as competent at child care, and they become better listeners to their wives as well.”

 Negotiate with Employers

Without national policies ensuring workplace benefits like paid time off or flexible work arrangements, the ability of employees to balance their work and home lives is very much dependent on their employers. That means picking the right employer is a critical step in getting ahead, observes MaryAnne Hyland, Ph.D., an associate professor of management, marketing and decision sciences at the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business.

“Research shows a link between supervisor support and reduced work-life conflict,” Dr. Hyland, who studies work-life balance, says. Therefore, ambitious women would be wise to seek work on teams led by managers who aren’t put off by flexible work arrangements, she says. They might be “people who’ve dealt with work-life matters and so understand what employees might need or managers who are outcome–focused rather than face time–focused,” she says.

Some companies are willing to negotiate flexible work schedules for employees if the employees can make a good business case for the arrangement and show how they will accomplish the work. “If a company wants to have the right talent in place, and it has an employee who wants to work flexibly, it’s in their best interest to implement the flexibility, at least on a trial basis,” she says.

But not all jobs are flexible, Dr. Hyland cautions. “Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is discouraging telecommuting because it doesn’t promote collaboration,” she notes.

Roberta Kotkin ran into that wall one summer when she was drawn into some mergers and acquisitions work at her company. “My twins were five or six, and I wasn’t home almost the whole summer,” she recalls. “It was the worst summer of my life, and I said, ‘This is not going to be my career path.’”

Struggling with the culture of a particular company or specialization doesn’t mean you have to scale back your ambitions, Ms. Kotkin notes. “There are lots of jobs out there, and you can find a successful position that fits your needs. If you can’t be an executive vice president in one firm, it doesn’t mean you have to settle for being a manager. Maybe you can be an EVP in another firm. If you look around, you can find jobs that suit you.”

Dream BigThink Bubble Illustration. Artist: Einat Peled

Norma Melendez ’76 has had an important and busy career. The first in her family to go to college, she worked as a prosecuting attorney for the Manhattan district attorney’s office after graduating from Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey, and then moved to the Bronx D.A.’s office, where she developed its community affairs initiative. Today she’s a principal court attorney for New York State, working for its Appellate Division First Department Departmental Disciplinary Committee, which investigates and prosecutes charges of unethical conduct committed by attorneys in the Bronx and Manhattan.

But she doesn’t want her 28-year-old daughter, a 2012 law school graduate, to do what she did—she wants her to dream bigger.

“The ambition for me was to get to college, get through college, get to law school, pass the bar and get a legal job. I accomplished it,” she says.

But she believes she could have gone farther if she had simply had a bigger vision. “As opposed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who decided she wanted to be a federal court judge while she was at Princeton, getting a job was my end-all,” she says.

The ambition gap between men and women is a real problem, Ms. Melendez says. “Women don’t tend to think of themselves as leaders; we think of ourselves as foot soldiers,” she says. “We’re happy showing we can follow orders well.” In order for more women to move into leadership positions, she says, “We have to change our mind-set.”

And once you decide to go after that director’s spot, you have to make a plan and work the steps, Ms. Melendez says. Choose where you work based on promotion possibilities and continually assess if you are on track.

When women do this, the sky’s the limit on what they can accomplish, she says.

This piece appeared in the Adelphi University Magazine Fall 2013 edition.

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