There’s a good chance that throughout her career, a woman will face a major hurdle at work—simply because she’s a woman. In fact, 42 percent of working women in the United States say they’ve faced discrimination on the job, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. Despite laws prohibiting it, discrimination still persists, albeit less overtly, explains Mabel Abraham, assistant professor in the Management Division: “It’s no longer acceptable to blatantly discount a person because of their gender, so the forms of bias we’re seeing are often subtle, and even unconscious.” For instance, says Ann Bartel, Merrill Lynch Professor of Workforce Transformation, men’s and women’s different communication styles sometimes work against women. “I often hear that women find it difficult to have their ideas acknowledged in meetings,” she says. Still, women have been making it work at work—successfully—for decades. We spoke to alumnae from a range of graduation years and industries to find out what their biggest challenges were, how they overcame them, and what advice they can offer other women.
Dorinda Oliver ’67, former bank executive, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, now JPMorgan Chase, New York City
Dorinda Oliver ’67 was one of the only women in her class in business school, but she didn’t let that stand in her way. “All my life, my father always said I could do anything a man did,” says Oliver, whose father was president of the American Sugar Refining Company, a 150-year-old institution. But landing her first job proved formidable.
A recruiter interviewing her for a position at a bank expressed his skepticism, “If the treasurer of Colgate-Palmolive came in for a loan, he wouldn’t want to talk to a woman,” Oliver recalls him saying. Another remarked that even though his kids were grown, he would never want his wife to work.
Nevertheless, Oliver landed a spot in the executive training program at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company after bank officials granted her division head permission to accept a woman. Three years later, she became the first woman in charge of one of the bank’s branches. By 1973, she was a vice president—one of the first women to hold that position at any bank in Manhattan. She faced many challenges, though, including pay inequity; her salary was 15 percent lower than that of the men in her cohort. Further, all the other trainees received a raise after the first year; Oliver, the only woman, didn’t.
But Oliver had a satisfying career overall, she says, in part because she was good at ignoring negative comments and moving on after setbacks. “I just persevered by jumping into everything,” she says. “I volunteered if they needed volunteers. If I was discouraged, I just pushed on. You just had to be persistent.”
“Meet as many people as you can, because the more people you meet, the greater the number you’ll have on your side."
Sara Levinson ’76, board member, Macy’s and Harley-Davidson, New York City
When Sara Levinson ’76 began her tenure as president of NFL Properties, the league’s licensing, sponsorship, and marketing arm, she had never watched a professional football game except for the occasional Super Bowl. Her boss, her peers, and all her direct reports were men.
But she refused to be intimidated. “I’m five-foot-three, but I’m feisty,” she says, recalling her tenure as the first woman to be president at any of the Big Three sports leagues. “Humor was always the tool that I used. And not taking things personally.”
Levinson’s career evolved serendipitously. After six years at the NFL, she left in 2000 to become CEO of online community ClubMom and later served as president of the women’s group at magazine publisher Rodale. There was no “grand scheme,” she says. “I fearlessly did things that I thought would be interesting.” She is now involved in a tech startup she co-founded.
Before the NFL, she worked at MTV Networks, eventually becoming co-president of MTV. At one time, she and well-known entrepreneur Geraldine Laybourne were the only women on the management team. The two developed a strategy to deal with men who interrupted them in meetings. “Gerry would say, ‘Before we move on to the next topic, I just want to make sure we got closure on what Sara was saying,’ to make sure I was heard,” Levinson recalls. “You just have to figure out how to get it done.”
"Don’t spend time complaining. If your approach isn’t working, try something else until you succeed."
Alison Overseth ’84, executive director, Partnership for After School Education, New York City
Careers on Wall Street often come with a price—long hours and frequent travel mean time away from loved ones. So when Alison Overseth ’84 traded her job as an investment banker at First Boston for one as program director at the nonprofit Fund for the City of New York, she found herself in “a professional environment that not only allowed for work-life balance but actually valued parenting as almost a civic duty,” she says. It was an entirely new way of thinking about work: “It was, frankly, sort of mind-blowing!” she says. “I think I had not fully appreciated the trade-offs I had made unconsciously when working in the male-defined workplace that was Wall Street at that time.”
Now that she is the boss, Overseth makes it clear to her 10 employees that having time for family and other interests is a company priority. “At 5:15, I try to walk down the hall and send everybody home,” she says. “I want people to have healthy relationships. Setting that tone is really important.”
Overseth is the executive director of the Partnership for After School Education, which works to improve after-school programs for children and teenagers living in poverty. The biggest challenge of being in a leadership role, she says, was realizing “many of the ideas I had about being a leader were based on experiences I’d had with businesses run by men.” She wanted to make sure her leadership espoused her values, such as striving to pay a livable wage and offer good benefits.
Her best source of support when she faces work challenges is her network of friends and former and current colleagues. “Find critical friends, not just boosters—someone who is on your side but is also going to help you grow,” she says. Those resources are enormously important to build.”
“Every experience is worthwhile as long as you’re learning. More important than what sector you work in is feeling that what you’re doing matters."
Anna Coatsworth ’01, managing partner, AJEA Real Estate Advisory, real estate broker, The Corcoran Group, New York City
When Anna Coatsworth ’01 returned to her management consulting role at Capgemini after her daughter was born, she would race home in a cab once a day to breastfeed her daughter, Emma, or pump milk, since there was nowhere in her office discreet enough that also had an outlet.
“There were very few women in senior roles,” she recalls. “And in male-dominated fields, men often have no idea what we need to be more productive. It’s not their fault, but we need to feel more comfortable advocating for ourselves.” Coatsworth didn’t ask the company to accommodate her needs as a new mother, she says, because “I was embarrassed to ask. Looking back, I absolutely could have asked, and I am certain they would have accommodated.”
Coatsworth had spent seven successful years at the company. After Emma’s birth, she returned to an internal role so that she wouldn’t have to travel, a move that took her off the partner track. Seven months later, Coatsworth resigned, convinced that she needed to reassess. “It was a very disappointing, difficult decision,” she recalls. “I had really thought I could do it all, but ultimately I did not feel comfortable completely outsourcing our parenting, as my husband had a well-established career in finance.”
In the end, Coatsworth left management consulting altogether. A move to real estate has a afforded her an intellectually challenging career and more control over her schedule. Her experience taught her that women must advocate for themselves. “This is a watershed moment, and now’s the time to make positive change for everyone. This is not a zero-sum game, where men are going to be disadvantaged by supporting the needs of women and dual working parents in the workplace. We will all benefit.”
"Seek out your champions—people who will advocate for you. There are great men out there who respect women colleagues, so don’t assume your champions have to be women. Some of the mentors who have had the most impact on my career have been men."
Marie Ffolkes ’01, president, industrial gases—Americas, Air Products, Allentown, PA
When Marie Ffolkes ’01 glanced at some paperwork her boss left behind on the seat of a chauffeured car many years ago, she learned a lot about pay inequity. A man being hired to fill the position she was leaving—she had just gotten a promotion—was being paid more than she was in her new role.
“I said, ‘This isn’t fair,’” she recalls. She got a raise but ended up leaving the company because she felt she would deliver more value and be valued more elsewhere. Today, Ffolkes oversees more than 5,100 employees as president of industrial gases—Americas at Air Products, a Fortune 500 industrial-gases company with $8.2 billion in revenue. She worked full time through Brooklyn College and Columbia Business School and has held positions at GE Capital, GE Healthcare, Johnson Controls, and Tenneco, for whom she worked in Europe, China, Japan, and South America. She’s increasingly engaged in the conversation around pay parity as companies compete to retain top talent.
As an African American woman, Ffolkes has faced, she says, “unconscious bias—people often underestimate me.” When that happens, she says, “I work twice as hard as my male colleagues. I’m a pretty resilient leader who doesn’t shy away from risk or challenges.”
It can be lonely at her level, with few female peers and fewer female role models, she says. Does it get easier to be heard as a woman when you are in a leadership position? Not really, Ffolkes says. “It’s a chess game. Not only are you interrupted, you are ignored. It’s not just about what you deliver, but about how you’re seen. You have to gain the reputation that you deliver superior results, and seize every opportunity. Then when my CEO goes out to meet customers, they tell him, ‘Marie solved this problem for me.’”
"Get to know your employees outside of work. Ask about their backgrounds, their families, and what motivates them. If you have solid relationships, people will listen to you. Remember that real leaders see the potential in others and create opportunities for them to do their best."
Developing ideas and leaders that transform the world—from the very center of business.
As the only top Ivy League business school immersed in the global business hub that is New York City, we offer students unparalleled access to leaders from across industries — in the classroom, throughout the city, and around the globe.
The Lord Irvine A.S. Laidlaw ’65 Scholarship at Columbia Business School provides crucial financial assistance to female MBA students, giving them access to an unparalleled business education and entrée into an expanding community of incredibly talented and supportive Laidlaw Columbia Business Scholars.
If you are a registered user on Laidlaw Scholars Network, please sign in.
Sign in to Laidlaw Scholars Network
As Lord Laidlaw, our Chairman, and Susanna Kempe, our CEO, met with scholars and alumni from around the word, many requested a way to meet ambitious peers, participate in leadership in-action initiatives and collaborate on research projects for a better present. We welcome you to the Laidlaw Scholars Network, a social utility tool that allows you to do just this! Be the new generation of passionate, adaptive, ethical leaders.