The C-suite remains a male bastion in American corporations, and gender diversity is unlikely to take hold unless real culture change occurs. But that reality isn’t stopping many smart women from defining professional success on their own terms.
Some are choosing to stay in a corporate environment, but make important contributions at a middle management or professional staff level. They aren’t playing politics and they aren’t raising their hands for 24/7 positions that could create a path to a CEO or another top corporate job. Many women are electing to exercise their leadership talents outside corporations. Experienced women are starting their own businesses and leading nonprofit organizations.
This phenomenon, in effect removing themselves from the C-suite talent pipeline, partly explains why women occupy such a small percentage of top corporate jobs in Minnesota and around the nation.
In the 2015 Minnesota Census of Women in Corporate Leadership, St. Catherine University found that women hold 19.4 percent of the executive officer jobs at Minnesota’s largest public corporations. At the national level, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and the founder of LeanIn.Org, was blunt in characterizing the paucity of progress for women leaders. In a September issue of the Wall Street Journal, she wrote, “At the current pace of progress, we are more than 100 years away from gender equality in the C-suite.”
McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org conducted a comprehensive study, Women in the Workplace 2015, that examined pipeline data, human resources practices and employee attitudes about gender and job satisfaction at 118 companies. The research involved almost 30,000 employees.
“Women see an uneven playing field—a workplace tilted against them,” Sandberg writes about the study findings. “Women are twice as likely to believe their gender will make it harder to advance.”
Numerous studies have chronicled the real-life barriers to women achieving leadership success at Fortune 500 companies.
Twin Cities Business interviewed several Minnesota women who decided to leave big corporations. In addition, we talked to Deborah Koland, a former Best Buy executive, who recently wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of St. Thomas on “A New Game: Shifting the Leadership Culture to Close the Gender Gap in Corporate America.”
“The top of the corporation, the C-suite, is still defined the way it was 60 years ago,” Koland tells TCB. “There’s the mindset that I am available 24/7, I’m the leader, I’m the king of the hill, there’s a hierarchy.”
To get a candid view of the C-suite, Koland had in-depth conversations with 22 women from across the United States who are in or have served in high-level positions in Fortune 500 corporations. She offered them anonymity in her doctoral paper. In return, she says, “They gave me time and honesty.”
Educated women are entering corporate pipelines in large numbers, but the national McKinsey study shows that only 17 percent of C-suite jobs are held by women. Koland wanted to know: “Why are we flat-lining?”
The answer involves the mindsets of both men and women.
“The empirical data from my study indicated that the reason the number of women dwindles as they move through the leadership pipeline is because it is still a man’s world in the executive suite. Women aspiring to reach the top of the corporation must behaviorally adapt to the masculine lead,” Koland says.
One of the women Koland interviewed had a leadership position in a Fortune 500 company and left to become a CEO in a Fortune 1000 corporation. In her dissertation, Koland reports the woman directly told her: “If you do not understand the need to adapt and then do it, you will not get invited to the tables [of power in corporate America]. This requires behavioral adaptation on the part of any female who wants to make it to the executive suite.”
But statistics show that many women don’t want to adapt. “These talented women want to make it to the executive suite because of, not in spite of, their unique characteristics as women leaders,” Koland says.
Becky Roloff and Rebecca Bergman are women who built successful careers in corporate America, but they both chose to leave the business world in their 50s to lead prominent nonprofit organizations.
In Roloff’s case, she left American Express to become president and CEO of the YWCA of Minneapolis. Bergman was recruited to serve as president of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. After a 26-year career at Medtronic, Bergman said yes to the Gustavus job in 2014.
A first-generation college graduate from Dickinson, N.D., Roloff launched her career as a grain trader with Cargill and then moved on to Pillsbury, where she worked 10 years and became vice president and general manager of Green Giant Fresh Vegetables. Along the way, she earned an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School. At 32, she was on the cover of Business Week and labeled one of the nation’s “fast-track kids.”
Her longest tenure in corporate America was at American Express, where she worked in five executive roles over 17 years. She was senior vice president of global financial advice and services when she chose to move to the YWCA.
“I loved my corporate life. I would never let anyone describe me as a corporate refugee, that would simply be wrong,” Roloff says from her YWCA office along Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. “But I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t you take another ride? How much time do you have left to do something, and do something interesting?’ ”
Emery Koenig, her brother, retired this year as the chief risk officer at Cargill, where he worked for 38 years. Roloff is the eldest of four children. The business sense that she shares with her brother is something that she now uses in her work at the YWCA, which offers child care and programming to support racial justice and the positive development of girls and youth.
Instead of remaining in the corporate world and pursuing a C-suite job, Roloff took the reins of the YWCA in 2005. In big corporations, she says, “When you are on a senior leadership team level, what you have to get better and better at is really the politics of the system and how to work it. I can do it. But I would rather do the work where I know it is more directly making an impact.”
From her YWCA office, she can walk down a circular ramp and engage with the 3- and 4-year-olds in the Sunshine child care program. She gets a big smile on her face, when she says, “They can’t look up [to the top floors of the YWCA] and walk at the same time. They are tumbling over.” She takes pride in being on the front lines of striving to close the racial achievement gap. By the time the YWCA children graduate from preschool, 93 percent of them are ready for kindergarten.
Roloff is focused on making good financial decisions with the YWCA’s resources. “If we do that, we can take our mission to more people,” she says. “And it’s so direct and it’s so clear. And I have loved that.”
Bergman, who is the first woman to lead Gustavus Adolphus, started her trek to a Medtronic career in 1974 when she enrolled at Princeton University as a chemical engineering student. At the time, there were only six women among the 60 chemical engineering majors.
Following graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, she was hired as a consultant at Medtronic in the area of implantable insulin pumps for diabetics. After consulting on a vascular graft project, Medtronic offered her a full-time job.
“Our projects were exciting,” Bergman says. “I chose never to move out of research and development, because I found the opportunity to focus on innovation to be the most satisfying part of my job.” She didn’t have her eyes set on securing a C-suite position. So she declined the chance to be an operations leader, “which would be a necessity to be a business leader,” Bergman says.
She didn’t think she would leave Medtronic until she retired. But as part of her community involvement she was serving on the Gustavus board of trustees. She was approached to become a candidate for president of the college. At the time, she was vice president of Medtronic’s research, technology and therapy delivery systems for the company’s cardiac rhythm disease management business.
The prospect of leaving Medtronic was a difficult decision for Bergman. “What flipped it for me was the sense of calling that I started to find in myself,” she recalls. “I had a belief that I could make a difference in a totally new way.”
Now that she’s in the president’s role, she says she is concentrating on positioning her liberal arts college to ensure “we are delivering to our students the type of education that they need to be successful in the real world.”
At Medtronic she was helping patients, and at Gustavus she is helping students. “I discovered in myself how much I value that my work has a positive impact on people,” Bergman says.
While some women find professional happiness in the nonprofit sector, other women leave corporations to start their own businesses.
When Jen Woods Antila landed a job at Target in 2008, she came to the mega-retailer with considerable business savvy. She had seven years of managerial experience at Rosemount, a division of Emerson Process Management. She had worked as a manager at Tennant Co. and as a senior strategic price analyst at Trane. In 2006, she completed her MBA in management at the University of St. Thomas.
At Target, she was hired to be manager of product data and content for Target.com.
“Target was where we did all our shopping when I grew up,” Antila says. “I knew the store like the back of my hand. So I thought that would be my [career] stopping point and where I could really tie together my knowledge, my experience and my newfound education and apply it to something I held dear in my life.”
Unfortunately, Antila explains, “the corporate culture at Target was not quite a fit.” She says she came to the Target job with a background in engineering and manufacturing companies that had mature processes for developing and carrying out strategic visions. In contrast, she says, the Target processes were challenging, and she concluded she would need to make a change. “After I said that out loud in the fall of 2009, my husband and I talked extensively and made plans,” she says.
What resulted is a business called Catalyst Cooks that she created in 2010. Antila says that she has a “passion for cooking and all of the memories and nurturing that happen in the kitchen.”
She teaches individuals, groups and children to cook. She works in five schools in the Minneapolis Public Schools by partnering with community education. In her post-corporate life, she says, “I’ve been able to explore and adopt a philosophy around good living or things that I value.” She shares that philosophy—including how food helps build strong relationships—with others.
Kelly Leiker is another woman with a St. Thomas MBA who decided to leave corporate America and hang out her own shingle. She founded Leiker Development, a management consulting company, in 2005 after working at Carlson and other for-profit businesses.
Unlike some women in corporate America, Leiker did not hit a wall one day and decide she needed to leave a big organization. “I always had a plan,” Leiker says. “I wanted to expand and grow in the field of consulting.”
During much of her seven-year tenure at Carlson, Leiker was a human resources training coordinator. She says she loved the culture of the hospitality and travel company, which she described as being “high energy, creative and with high standards.” She earned her MBA while she was with Carlson, and felt supported at the company. Her mentor knew that one day she wanted to start her own business, and helped her move into marketing to round out her business experience.
Today, operating her own business, she spends about 40 percent of her time on management consulting, 40 percent on executive coaching and 20 percent on speaking engagements. She has a 6-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. She waited to have her children until after she completed her graduate education and launched her company.
By establishing her own business, Leiker says, “I get to do what I love, which is helping people. I don’t love billing and administration, but 98 percent of my job is helping people.”
She also relishes the variety in her work. As her children have gotten older, she has said no to some client work that would involve considerable travel around the United States. But she says many women in corporations must face the stress of clashes between their work and family responsibilities.
“I am working with a CFO (client) right now, and she has children,” Leiker says. “There was a snow day and at the last minute she called in from home” for a conference call (rather than attending an in-person meeting). In the female CFO’s company she has some schedule flexibility, but Leiker says that isn’t the case at many other firms.
Michelle Stimpson, a life and executive coach, works with many women in the Twin Cities area who want to re-evaluate how they are conducting their work and personal lives. Many of her clients are in their early 40s, including some who’ve chosen to leave large corporations. “They just didn’t feel like there was a fit any longer,” she says.
In some cases, Stimpson says, “There is that desire to make a difference that resonates with them more, and to define who they are rather than let a job or a large corporation define who they are.”
The real or perceived corporate demands of a 24/7 schedule are a concern of some of Stimpson’s clients. “They want to do a good job at the office and be a wonderful mother,” she says. “They can do both, but some boundaries will need to be created,” she says. Ultimately, they need to answer the question: Where do I need to say no so I can say yes to what’s important?
Some women turn to Stimpson when they feel their lives are out of control, and they are seeking her help in creating more “deep, meaningful and purposeful” lives. She shares the story of one client who worked for a large corporation. “She felt she had been in the passenger seat of her own life,” Stimpson says. “She had been successful by society’s definition, but not her own definition.”
In a national study of major U.S. corporations conducted in 2015, a higher percentage of men showed interest in wanting to secure a top corporate job. The gender gap was widest among men and women who hold senior management positions. The report indicated that “women are more likely to cite ‘stress/pressure’ as a top issue, and this is not solely rooted in concern over family responsibilities.”
At big U.S. corporations, women represent 45 percent of entry-level professional employees. So they are entering the corporate pipeline in big numbers. However, their representation declines dramatically at the highest level of corporations, according to a study released in September. Women occupy only 17 percent of C-suite positions.
Deborah Koland has been immersed in the rhythms of corporate life for a long time. She was a strategy director at Best Buy for nine years, and earlier in her career she was a consulting manager at EY and GE Capital Consulting, and a senior consultant at Andersen Consulting. Koland also earned an MBA at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
She had that business framework when she launched a five-year doctoral program inquiry into the leadership gender divide in American corporations.
Ultimately, her research provided her with greater insights into the unique values and perspectives of women. She did an in-depth study of several women executives who have worked in corporations in the Midwest and on the East and West coasts.
She identified four reasons that help explain why some women won’t adapt their behavior to conform to male C-suite norms, and why other women will opt to serve as leaders outside large corporations.
Corporations have another incentive to hold on to qualified women leaders: A new global study shows companies with a higher portion of women leaders are more profitable.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics, based in Washington, D.C., and EY released the study in February. In Minneapolis, Marna Ricker, tax managing partner for EY’s Central Region, has a leadership role in recruiting, promoting and retaining talented women.
EY uses sponsorships to create a path to leadership. Ricker says that “enables our people to attain access to the right work experiences, coaching, and influential relationships and networks early in their careers to position them for advancement.”
EY, previously known as Ernst & Young, also offers flexible work opportunities for women and men. “Diversity and inclusiveness is not a talent program or a human resource tool,” Ricker says. “We embed [it] into all aspects of our business.”
Land O’Lakes is another major company focused on retaining women employees, and it recently increased its paid leave policy for new parents.
“Land O’Lakes now offers up to 10 weeks of maternity leave for birth mothers and two weeks’ paternity leave for new fathers and adoptive parents,” says Loren Heeringa, chief human resources officer. “Previously, birth mothers had up to six weeks of maternity leave and new fathers and adoptive parents did not have a formal leave option.”
In its policy, Arden Hills-based Land O’Lakes is recognizing the need for both parents to be present in the early weeks of an infant’s life. EY has developed a Career and Family Transitions Program, targeted to supporting female and male employees who are adding new members to their families through birth or adoption.
At EY, Ricker says, “We understand at our core that diversity and inclusiveness isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. So we engage everyone in the conversation just like any other business issue we face.”
Despite these types of initiatives, some women with business backgrounds are still leaving corporations for work they find more fulfilling. Amanda LaGrange, 30, falls into that category. She started taking business classes in high school, earned a business degree at Indiana University and moved to Minnesota in 2007 to work at General Mills as a financial analyst.
“My favorite role was during the two years I spent at the manufacturing facility out in Chanhassen,” LaGrange says. “It was the first time I got to see the full operation of things coming together.” She was employed by General Mills for six years, working her way up to a senior financial analyst.
In 2013, she exited the big corporation to become the marketing director for St. Paul-based TechDump, which recycles electronics. She had been serving as a volunteer TechDump board member when she decided to leave General Mills.
She was attracted to the nonprofit’s mission of recycling and employing people who’d served time in jail or prison. “I loved the idea of helping people gain self-sufficiency and job skills,” LaGrange says. She took a “very significant” pay cut to move to the nonprofit sector, but says it was “well worth it.” She became the nonprofit’s CEO in 2015.
Deborah Koland, a business strategist who has spent several years studying women in corporate America, says businesses will continue to operate with male-dominated C-suites unless they make three key changes:
In essence, Koland concludes, “Corporations must intentionally shift the leadership culture to one that values, rewards and models the uniqueness of both genders in equal measure.”
Liz Fedor is the Trending editor of Twin Cities Business.