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Moving the needle: how to bring more women into the C-suite

Kellogg Global Women’s Summit explores challenges for women in business

The Kellogg Global Women’s Summit, hosted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, brought together women in all stages of their careers May 8 and 9 to engage in thoughtful conversations about the roadblocks women face on their route to the C-suite.

“I’m so excited for you,” Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures, told a packed crowd at the Kellogg Global Hub during Tuesday’s opening event. “If you had an event like this when I was young, you’d have 10 people attend. Now, we could fill a stadium.”

The inaugural summit, which featured 30 sessions and more than 80 speakers, emphasized Kellogg’s ongoing commitment to accelerating women’s careers. More than 800 alumnae, faculty and students attended the sessions on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, and thousands more streamed the events online.

Women now make up more than half of the incoming classes in the top U.S. universities but still only a small fraction of the CEOs, board directors and government leaders.

Woman with microphone
Sherry Lansing, former Paramount Pictures CEO, revealed challenges she faced as the first woman to head of a major film studio.

Kellogg Dean Sally Blount, who became the first female dean of a top tier business school when she started at Kellogg in 2010, opened the summit with a discussion of the unique cultural and biological challenges that inhibit women’s ability to rise to the top. 

“Our job is not just to carry on the conversation,” Blount said in her opening remarks. “Our job is to make an impact – to move the needle, and we are going to bring all our knowledge, energy and passion to make that happen. The more we help each other, the more we change the world.” 

The idea for the summit developed in 2014, when Blount and other business school deans were invited to the White House to discuss best practices for business schools to better prepare students for a 21st century workplace, where women play an increasingly important role.

“It really catalyzed what followed,” Blount said. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with women in this room about why we had to go out more boldly, why we had to go out with more intention – those were incredibly important conversations.”

Those conversations and extensive research with students, alumni and other women in business helped shape the summit structure around three career pivot points – career launch, the mid-career marathon and the executive transition.

Summit sessions focused on general business topics such as getting started in the gig economy, growing a new business and negotiating for a promotion as well as business challenges in which women face more stressors and trade-offs compared to men of similar education and experience. 

These include addressing the “likeability dilemma,” in which normative female characteristics, like being soft-spoken and nurturing, are incongruous with those of professional leaders, like being assertive and independent.

Another session addressed women’s “perfectionist” tendencies, which often prevent them from speaking up in meetings or seeking promotions because they don’t feel 100 percent confident in their abilities.

Yet another session addressed research showing the bias people feel toward attractive women, believing them to be less intelligent than similarly attractive males. 

42% femaleKellogg's student body

Several of the events were streamed for alumni in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Hong Kong. Additionally, Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks hosted viewing events at their corporate headquarters.

All sessions were free to attend, thanks to support from Kellogg benefactors.

Four of those benefactors – Edith W. Cooper ‘86, Ann M. Drake ‘84, Ellen J. Kullman ‘83 and Sheli Z. Rosenburg ’66 – participated in a panel discussion at the opening event, moderated by Victoria H. Medvec, the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management and Organizations at Kellogg and the co-founder and executive director of the Kellogg Center for Executive Women.

Rosenburg, a 1966 graduate of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, was the first major investor in Kellogg’s executive women program. Recounting the story of having to design her own maternity policy as the first and only woman at her law firm, she commended Kellogg’s commitment to developing female leaders and supporting them in their careers more broadly.

Women posing
From left: Victoria H. Medvec, Edith W. CooperEllen J. KullmanSally BlountAnn MDrake and Sheli Z. Rosenburg.

“My time at the law firm was one of the most wonderful but also the loneliest times in my life,” Rosenburg said. “I didn’t see another woman for weeks on end, and I became passionate about seeing women in the business world be successful. And that’s when I met Sally Blount. And she shows the path for women.”

Kellogg now has more than 16,000 alumnae and a 42 percent female student body, placing the school among the top 10 business schools for women. Kellogg began admitting women in 1966, the same year Lansing received her undergraduate degree from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. 

Noting how much the world has changed since she began her career, Lansing recounted a newspaper headline published in 1980 when she was appointed president of 20th Century Fox, becoming the first woman to head a major film studio.

“When they put on the front page of the New York Times, ‘Ex-Model Becomes Head of 20th Century Fox,’ I didn’t realize how horrible that was,” Lansing said, noting how the article overlooked her extensive experience in the film industry.

Though Lansing was only 35 years old at the time, she was not the youngest person ever appointed to that job, and she had excelled in a series of positions leading up to that point.

“I had done every job in the studio system, so becoming head of production was quite logical. There just hadn’t ever been a woman before,” she said. “So at the time, I was just so grateful to have the job. But that’s not the way it should be, and it’s not the way it is today.

“I’m so excited by the energy in this room,” Lansing told the crowd. “Women are taking over the world – running the world. You are the future.”

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