An early pioneer in the high-tech world, Ilene Lang (MBA ’73) worked in senior management and chief leadership roles at established corporations and start-ups alike during the 1980s and ’90s, including a stint as founding CEO of AltaVista. That experience has served her well at Catalyst, the 75-person nonprofit global research and advisory firm she joined as president in 2003 (Lang was named CEO in 2008). Committed to breaking the proverbial glass ceiling once and for all, Catalyst, founded in 1962, works with businesses to advance women into leadership positions. Through its research and services, the organization is widely considered the gold standard for information and insight into women, leadership, and business. “I like to say that my avocation has become my job,” says Lang, an activist in the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “I love our mission.”

A lot of people believe that women have already “made it.” Why is the work that Catalyst does still necessary?

If a problem is not solved, it’s not solved. I think people want to move on; there’s a sense of “Oh, we’re still thinking about the woman thing?” Some of that attitude comes from headlines we’ve seen this year. The Economist ran a cover story on the supposed new majority standing of women in the professional workforce with a picture of Rosie the Riveter and the headline “We Did It!” The Atlantic published a feature along the same lines called “The End of Men.” It’s true that there are plenty of positive statistics out there. Women make up 46.4 percent of the Fortune 500 workforce and just over 50 percent of management, professional, and related occupations. Our research, however, shows that there’s more to the picture. Women are stuck.

In what sense?

Women are just not there in representative numbers when it comes to business leadership and decision-making. They are unintentionally, but systematically, boxed out. Women hold only 15.2 percent of board seats in the entire Fortune 500 workforce. Fifteen out of those 500 CEOs are women. And only 13.5 percent of executive officers are women. That’s a very wide gap.

The women’s movement is over forty years old now. Why hasn’t there been more change?

There has been undeniable change. But there are still unspoken assumptions about what women want and what they’re capable of achieving. In one Catalyst study, we looked at how gender-based assumptions in over 100 companies influenced issues such as career planning, goal setting, promotions, and raises. We examined the characteristics most frequently cited in performance management systems as being important to leadership. Then we put an overlay on that, looking at which qualities and characteristics psychologists consider to be “gendered” to see if they were stereotypically male or female. We found that if you look at the top ten characteristics, more than half were male, a small number were female, and a similar number were neutral.

So what does that say? People associate more so-called male behaviors with leadership, even though there is no evidence that these qualities are exclusively male. The underlying issue is that stereotypes put people into boxes that tend to favor some and disfavor others. As a result, you don’t see what’s really there, so it blinds you to the reality of people’s talents and potential contributions.

Why does an organization benefit from having a mix of women and men in leadership roles?

I want to stay away from the studies that analyze particularly feminine or masculine contributions, because that looks like more stereotypic assumptions. From a strictly economic perspective, companies with more women in senior leadership and board positions, on average, financially outperform those with fewer according to Catalyst’s research. Organizations that hire and invest in women are really shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t figure out how to incorporate that talent and experience into leadership. Why? Diverse teams produce better results. A study conducted by the National Center for Women & Information Technology looked at the number of times a patent was cited as an indication of its influence in driving further innovation. It found that those patents filed by gender-balanced teams were cited much more frequently than those filed by single-gender teams.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has brought attention to the compensation gap between men and women. What insight does Catalyst bring to this issue?

A Catalyst survey of over 4,100 full-time employed men and women who graduated from 26 top MBA programs worldwide (12 in the United States) from 1996 to 2007 showed that the women just out of business school started in lower-level positions as compared to their male colleagues, were paid $4,600 less in their first jobs even when differences in job level were taken into account, and didn’t catch up on either front throughout their careers. These findings still held true when we controlled for factors such as industry, pre-MBA work experience, career aspirations, and whether they had children.

The pay gap between men and women continues to hold across the board, yet over half of U.S. households are completely or significantly depen-dent on women’s wages. That leads to a larger societal implication: Women suffer, but so do their families, their communities, and, frankly, our economy, since women control or influence a lion’s share of household buying decisions. That includes cars, vacations, electronics, health care, and more.

We also see a lot in the media about work-life balance and the difficulties working mothers face. Catalyst seems to focus its research differently. Why?

The core issue, we believe, is gender. In many of our studies we’ve looked at women and men who don’t have children, and the women are still at a disadvantage, whether it’s in promotions, compensation, or being selected for leadership opportunities.

But it’s more nuanced than that. Parental responsibilities do amplify the inequities we’ve found. Outside studies, for example, show evidence of a “motherhood penalty.” That could mean a workplace culture that makes it difficult for anybody who has family responsibilities or the assumption that a woman who becomes pregnant will no longer seriously pursue the opportunities available to her.

I recently had dinner with the se-nior vice president of human resources at a large Fortune 500 company. He said, “Everything that the women employees want are things that I want, too, in flexibility and balance.” What’s good for women is good for men.

The Catalyst Award honors innovative company initiatives that benefit women. Can you describe a recent winner?

We had four winners this year, each with proven, measurable outcomes. Campbell Soup’s program encompassed everyone from the C-suite to the factory floor. From 2005 to 2009, women in executive roles at Campbell increased to 25 percent from 21 percent. In manufacturing, the percentage of plant directors and managers who are women and women of color increased from 14 percent to 21 percent and from 1 percent to 3 percent, respectively. Through five years of women running business lines that contribute to a majority of the company’s U.S. profit and with a strategic focus on embedding women’s ideas and contributions in product development, Campbell has delivered cumulative total shareowner returns above the company’s peer group average.

If the main roadblock in women’s advancement is gender stereotyping, what is the best way to address that challenge?

Raising awareness through training is an obvious starting point. We’ve known for a while that there is something wrong when so many highly educated women are lagging in pay and position and dropping out of the workforce altogether. So our double focus is women in upper management and the pipeline leading to that point. We plan to leverage our research by turning it into materials that can be used in training, with the goal of shaping leaders who value change and inclusion. Too often training isn’t personalized; there’s no sense that the senior leadership takes it seriously. Finally, nothing will change for women unless men become part of the solution. They need to understand that it’s not a “zero-sum” — in fact, quite the opposite. They have a lot to gain!

You were a working mother of three children. What was that experience like in the 1980s and ’90s?

That was one of the great things about the high-tech industry: I could dial up on my computer from home when nobody did things like that. These were entrepreneurial companies that were pretty flexible. I also had a very supportive husband and layers of childcare. So I was fortunate.

The Class of 1973 was about 4 percent women. Do you feel you were treated differently?

One rather funny story comes to mind. There were five women in my section. We were discussing a floor wax case in first-year Marketing, and the men all looked at us. I said, “Me? I’ve never waxed a floor.” It’s good for a laugh now, but it did make me realize that people often assume things based on gender. I also didn’t wear my wedding band to job interviews because it raised too many questions about plans for a family.

It was probably tougher than I realized at the time. As change happens, you’re part of the change, and you don’t have the same perspective on what’s happening as you do when you look back over the decades. So sure, a lot has changed, but there is still a long way to go.

— Julia Hanna

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1973, Section F

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