Smashing the Glass Ceiling: 6 Davos Leaders Explain How They Did It

How to successfully move past stereotypes in the workplace.

Stéphanie Thomson | World Economic Forum

When it comes to closing the gender gap, we’ve made an immense amount of progress in a relatively short amount of time. But we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

According to the latest Gender Gap Report, worldwide we’ve managed to close only 59 percent economic participation and 23 percent in politics.

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We’ve  closed only 59 percent of the gap in economic participation and 23 percent in politics worldwide.

In some regions, it could take 1,000 years before we’ve achieved equality between men and women.

What can we do today to make sure our daughters and granddaughters aren’t facing the same challenges? We asked six global leaders for their take.

Emily Carter, Dean, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Princeton University

“The only reason you got the job is because you’re a woman.” I recall those words like it was yesterday, even though they were uttered 30 years ago. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, in which somebody questioned my validity. I was a Phi Beta Kappa Berkeley grad and soon-to-be Caltech PhD, having just landed my first faculty position at UCLA.

My words of advice: Find work that gives your life meaning and don’t let anyone dissuade you from pursuing it. Constructive action is the best answer to prejudice. Your hard and excellent work will speak for itself. Rise above the insults. Calmly and professionally point out the fallacy of their arguments.

Where has this strategy brought me? Membership in two of the three U.S. National Academies, and I’m now Dean of Engineering at Princeton University. You can do it, too.

Ellyn Shook, Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, Accenture

davos-sidebar-4-v1Two years ago, I had the privilege to hear Courtney Banghart, head women’s basketball coach at Princeton University, speak at a Fortune Most Powerful Women dinner. She told a story about her dad and his advice – to lift as you rise – as she was growing her career.

This advice is profound in its simplicity. As individuals, we can put cracks in the glass ceiling. But when you invest in the women around you, you create the collective force needed to not just crack, but shatter the glass.

Courtney’s words remind me of the many women and men who have put me on their shoulders and offered opportunities. It deepens my sense of obligation to return the favor. What opportunities do you have to lift as you rise? How can you pay it forward to help the next generation of women achieve their career aspirations?

Nancy A. Sumari, Executive Director, The Neghesti Sumari Foundation

Throughout my journey as a social entrepreneur, and more importantly as a young woman making her way through the business world, I have received a great deal of important advice. Here’s what really stuck with me.

Who you are is not just an identity: It is your truth. Unfortunately, this age of free-flowing information can be overwhelming, and many of us are left unhinged and disconnected from our own truth, with little sense of who we truly are.

But by always looking inwards and channeling that outward, rather than the other way around, young women can take the first steps toward success. Embrace both your strengths and your weaknesses, and you will end up with a better sense of who you are and how you can make a positive difference in the world. If we do that, we’ll smash this glass ceiling.

Umran Beba, Senior Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer, Global Human Capital Management, PepsiCo

Although I’m saddened that my native country Turkey ranks near the bottom of the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, I want to do everything in my capacity to contribute toward positive change.

I was lucky enough to be born into a family that wanted me to achieve my full potential. They therefore did everything they could to give me the best opportunities in life. Later in life, I was lucky to have a supporting husband and kids for my career and international moves.

What this taught me is that cultural change is critical to achieving gender equality – at the family, company and country levels. Of course, we can tell young women to be confident, to show courage, to take risks and make hard choices in their careers. And they should absolutely do all those things. But without deeper cultural shifts, progress toward equality will stall.

How do we start bringing about some of these cultural changes? I was in Turkey for many years, but over the course of my 30-year career, I’ve also worked in Hong Kong, Dubai and now New York, which has given me a global perspective. As a result, I’m a strong believer in understanding others’ needs.

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Embrace both your strengths and your weaknesses.

We need more women in business today to represent our consumers, to bring a different point of view and to contribute with a different leadership style, but unless companies and countries make cultural shifts to adapt to this new reality, how can we expect to make progress?

Justine Cassell, Associate Dean, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

“You are the most autocratic young lady I’ve ever met,” my boss wrote to me in an email, criticizing the fact that I had disagreed with him.

Even as a new faculty member without much experience in academia, it seemed to me that he would not have made the same comment to one of the men in the department – neither used the word “autocratic” nor called the professor a “young man”.

Fast forward 21 years, and after giving a high-profile keynote address I asked my hosts for feedback. Were there other points I might have included to make my argument stronger? “It was great,” said one of my hosts, “but you should really smile more. Smiling engages the audience.”

I bit my lip and managed to stop myself from telling him that searching for “you should smile more” plus “women” generated almost 12 million hits. This illustrates why the content of what we say should matter, not the aesthetic package it’s delivered in. I watched the video, and in fact, I was smiling – at least as much as every other (male) speaker.

A “glass ceiling” is really a set of stereotypes that are in contradiction with one another. That is, the stereotype of the profession “computer scientist” is at odds with the stereotype of the gender “woman.” Some people may vacillate between thinking that women aren’t tough enough to make it as computer scientists and thinking that tough female computer scientists aren’t feminine enough to be acceptable women.

We all use stereotypes to make processing the world easier – rather than seeing things anew, we can just group what we see into types that we already have.

That glass ceiling is going to be there. The only question is whether I run away and look for an unencumbered view of the sky or just keep focusing on the work I love regardless of – and to change – these uneducated responses to my passionate and outspoken persona.

Anandi Mani, Professor of Behavioural Economics and Public Policy, University of Oxford

Smashing the glass ceiling requires us to address the issues that hold women back. To do this, we need to start getting more women into positions of political decision-making.

Take the example of India: Research shows that having female political representatives is an effective tool for tackling gender crimes. In areas with female political leaders, police are more responsive in both documenting and dealing with gender crimes, such as violence against women.

Other research shows that when there are female politicians in village-level local government, women go more often to village council meetings and speak up in these meetings to voice their concerns.

But while all the evidence points to how much of a difference political representation makes in the fight for gender equality, politics is still, in almost every country, a male-dominated affair.

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Smashing the glass ceiling requires us to address the issues that hold women back.

In the U.S., it’s been predicted that it will be another 500 years before we achieve gender parity in politics.

What made the Indian experiment effective in tackling women’s concerns like crime, was the large swath of female politicians at the lowest levels of government, rather than in a few top positions.

It might be time to introduce similar measures in other countries. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on World Economic Forum and was republished with permission.

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Preserving the Promise of Equal Opportunity

Playing to Our Strengths

Millennial Momentum

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Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum.

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