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Why women need to own their careers to move up the corporate ladder

13 August, 2018

Jen Mantini
Partner, PwC US

Studies have shown that diverse teams perform better, and companies from Wall Street to Silicon Valley have increasingly worked to support more women in moving up the corporate ladder. They have extended paid parental leave and offered other perks to give employees more freedom to pursue family planning, but it’s clear these measures are just a starting point.

I recently sat down with PwC US Deals Leader Bob Saada and four talented women with careers in finance and law for a candid talk about diversity and how they’ve found support and success in competitive, male-dominated industries. Here are three takeaways that I came away with, and perhaps helpful advice for anyone committed to having more women run their companies:

Women need support from the top

This usually means having the support of male colleagues, who continue to dominate the highest ranks of business and government. The gap is especially pronounced in financial services, where studies show that most women still aren’t making it to the top as men are promoted at materially higher rates than women and their prospects are markedly worse than in other industries.

That said, how can men support their female colleagues? Among the most obvious is acknowledging that women undergo far different experiences than their male colleagues over the course of their careers. “If for instance a woman decides to have children, more often than not she’s wondering if taking maternity leave could mean missing out on the next promotion cycle,” said Saheedat Onifade, an associate at KKR and Co.’s credits and markets team. “It’s important for women to be able to talk about these concerns at work.”

Saheedat couldn’t have said it better. These conversations may not always feel easy or natural, but they’re nonetheless a crucial step toward helping women continue growing their careers. You can’t have that conversation if you don’t feel comfortable with someone, which is why I believe it’s important to have the right people around you.

Developing the right connections could come formally through traditional mentoring programs – or sometimes more organically: “Some of my most important advocates have been men who I have worked side-by-side with,” said Katie Harris, who joined Carlyle Group as a senior associate after graduating from Harvard Business School. Katie recalled working in banking and private equity a few years prior, where she was often the only woman in the room. When she decided to apply to business school to help build her career, she sought out her mentors for recommendations. “We spent many hours working together; they saw the good and the bad and gave me helpful feedback along the way.”

Women are drivers of their careers

Despite the gender gap, women have taken charge of their careers in ways they couldn’t decades ago. “I had a great mentor who once told me that you always want to be the driver of your career,” said Saheedat, who was recruited by KKR while happily working at a prestigious investment bank. Saheedat, who immigrated from Nigeria to the US for college eight years ago, was excited to join KKR but also knew she would be taking a risk by entering the unknowns of a new organization. “At the end of the day, your career is your career and you need to be the driver of that bus. It’s up to you to decide who you want to work for and what team you want to be on. In my current role, people expect me to speak up and have views, and that fits with my personality very well.”

She is spot on. Being confident and vocal can lead to many more opportunities, but finding the right time to shine doesn’t just happen, at least not typically. “Women need to carve out opportunities to be more visible and vocal, such as volunteering to take on part of a big pitch,” said Carol Stubblefield, a partner at law firm Baker McKenzie, whose clients include both public and private companies in the corporate finance area. Moreover, men can also proactively position women to succeed: “Give women an active role at meetings and talk them up. Have them actually lead a conversation in front of your colleagues so they get their name out there and they’re seen.”

Women can be authentic

One of the hardest parts about being one of the few women working in a male-dominated industry is figuring out how to fit in in an environment where not many people look or act like you. Doubts naturally ensue, especially for women just starting their careers. Chances are they’re wondering how to dress; how to speak; whether they’re being – as one woman in the audience put it – “too bubbly.”

These questions linger, especially for those in roles that are heavily client-facing. “I think we often teach women to be more like men,” said Nataliya Strugatskaya, who was part of the PwC Deals team before joining Glansaol as vice president over finance and accounting. “As we do our jobs well, I don’t think we should adjust our style to the expectations of how people want to perceive us.” While Nataliya considers her husband her most important mentor, she found a network of support during her 14-year-career at PwC from Deals partners Bob Saada, myself and others who played a significant role in her career: “What I ask of male and female advocates is – don’t assume that a woman or a man will ask for help. Just help and support them. That’s what Bob and Jen did for me.”