“Not to be apologetic for, dismissive of, or frightened by my own power. It’s a lesson I’m still learning,” says Melissa Cefkin, of Nissan Research Center.
The New York Times asked some of the participants at last months’s global meeting of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Paris to look both backward and forward — backward at what they would have changed as they climbed up the career ladder and forward to what needs to change to create greater gender equity. The Times was a media partner in the event. Some of the answers have been condensed and edited.
54, chief executive, Lloyd’s of London
In my 30s, I went through a period of being a complete workaholic. Other women didn’t want to work for me because they didn’t want that lifestyle. I eventually realized that being a workaholic was a choice, not a necessity, and the best way to manage is to surround yourself with the best people you can find and empower them. Don’t make the mistake of viewing good people as a threat.
58, global vice chairwoman of public policy, EY professional services company
I would have focused on building relationships and expanding my networks, both within the organization and outside of it, much earlier in my career. I would have put as much effort into cultivating these relationships as I did trying to do my job really well. Women can often find themselves excluded from so many natural networks, so it’s important to make a conscious effort to build these relationships early, in addition to doing your job well. Catching up on these two things later in your career is very challenging.
Principal scientist, design anthropologist, Nissan Research Center
Not to be apologetic for, dismissive of, or frightened by my own power. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
60, former executive director of the United Nations World Food Program
I would have taken more time off for vacations. I was always afraid “there was too much to do” for a two- or three-week vacation, so I carried over time every year, throughout my entire career. When I recently left my position and cashed out the unused vacation time, the money seemed minuscule in comparison to the adventures I missed.
45, head of unit in charge of donor relations and governmental affairs, International Committee of the Red Cross
I wish I had spent a longer time in the field, sharing the lives of other women and girls affected by conflicts and violence to learn more about their incredible resilience capabilities and the innovative skills that they deploy to survive in these fragile environments. At times, I also wish I could have been bolder in fighting for more flexibility at the workplace, so women with children could continue to hold leadership positions.
Karien van Gennip
48, chief executive of ING Bank France
When I was younger, I believed if I worked hard, if I performed, I would get as far as I deserved. Or at least as far as the young men around me. Now I know better: It does matter whether you’re female or black or gay. If I had known all this, I might have been more myself, instead of trying to be one of the boys. I would have asked for more help and searched for more allies or mentors.
45, chief sustainability officer, L’Oral
The biggest mistake I made in my career was that I stayed too long in a job that made me really unhappy. If I could change one thing, looking back on my career, I would question myself less and accept that one cannot succeed when the conditions for success are not there.
32, founder of the nonprofit Phenomenal Women Action Campaign
We need to shore up our laws, whether strengthening existing laws like those governing sexual harassment and other types of workplace discrimination, or adopting new legislation, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act. We also need to see corporate leadership step up. Finally, we need to engage individuals, and this includes men. I personally have been lucky where some of my best, most invested bosses and mentors have been male allies who “get it.” We need to be proactive in cultivating that sort of sensibility within men.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
33, coordinator of AFPAT, a community-based organization to protect the rights of Chad’s indigenous people
Many national and international laws and legislations are not fully open to the inclusion and full and effective participation of women in decision-making. I have been following the international negotiations on climate change, biodiversity and desertification for more than 10 years. But still, in each session of the negotiations, the gender aspects of climate change or the inclusion of women in decision-making needs to be debated and defended.
51, chief executive, Engie, a French multinational electric utility company
Regarding the gender issue, my conviction is that we are not addressing it in the right way. Parity laws, quotas on board of directors are obviously necessary, but we must go far beyond by treating the root cause. The real fight is parity in access to education all over the world to have a true impact on women’s empowerment.
60, senior vice president and chief legal officer, Lenovo
Actively enrich your career by embracing the lateral move.I’ve learned a lot of lessons in my career, but I think — in the context of leadership — one of the most valuable is the importance of diversity of experience. Working women need to know that a career is not necessarily a stepladder. On occasion, we’re given an opportunity to go broad: to make a move not up, but across. When you are offered the chance to dive into a different area of focus or responsibility, please don’t put your hand out. Put it up.
45, vice president, Feminine Care Europe, Procter & Gamble
I’ve seen many young women throughout my career falsely assume that they need to settle for less because they want to have children or because they are not geographically mobile. This is where I think the change must begin — believing in oneself and not being influenced by biases of the past.
29, research fellow, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School
The next frontier of gender equality is tackling unconscious bias in organizational structures, processes and environments. Research shows that individual-level stereotypes and prejudices are incredibly difficult to eradicate. Biases building into organizations, however, can be mitigated or erased through behavioral-design interventions that are usually simple, low-cost and quick to implement. These include blind evaluations of résumés, data-driven and equitable distribution of resources, and inclusive social norms.