Ask yourself ‘why not’: Why Equality needs equity and the glass ceiling in our mind

By Vanessa Rieger (Digital Transformation MBA Class of 2019) and Finance Manager at Procter & Gamble

Vanessa Rieger is what many would describe a ‚high potential‘. She’s smart, motivated and demanding. She’s been working at Procter & Gamble for nearly 10 years in 6 different roles in the Finance Department. She is currently located in the P&G HQ in Geneva, working on projects and initiatives with a mid and long-term perspective.

In 2019, she completed her part-time MBA in Digital Transformation Management at GBS. Vanessa believes that this was one factor which led to her current position at P&G. Over the years, she’s collected valuable insights and perspective on the topic of women in business, both in professional and academic contexts.

Vanessa has experienced equal support across her career and talks about how the internal professional development program at P&G, in her opinion, has been exemplary in showing how companies can build structures to develop people’s careers constructively, for everyone. She’s also witnessed other companies where such structures don’t exist, and how this can create a glass ceiling for women to progress upwards. Sometimes, these glass ceilings are also in their own minds, she believes.

„I used to be active in recruiting, and I frequently hosted application trainings at universities. Once, I held this training for a female only audience mainly consisting of women working in academia - and the questions I received really struck me. The world of academia seems to be very hard on women! I had the feeling that they were confronted with a lot of prejudices, like that women cannot be good in academia. I couldn’t believe it – we’re in the 21st century. “

This wasn’t the only time she was struck by the experiences of other women, and how different they were from her own. She tells the story of another female manager from India she met. This woman faced criticism from her community once she got married and had her first child; she was often told it was inappropriate for her to continue working, despite the fact that she was successful and good at her job. „I found this environment just shocking. Within P&G, there are a lot of support networks where you could actually turn to in such situations and openly discuss the situation with your manager and colleagues and figure out a solution. Support in these situations can go from true friendships and support within P&G, but can also mean to use the rotation system to move out of the respective environment. “

What’s the concept of rotation, exactly? Vanessa talks about P&G’s internal development strategy. „In P&G you have the chance to change your role every 2-3 years, so you are always looking to find further growth opportunities.“ In her opinion, this encourages and supports women to progress and take steps they may shy away from otherwise. With each progression, there is usually also increasing responsibility, which helps people progress into management teams smoother than in fixed structures. „As we change roles so often, as soon as you get into the new role, you’re kind of already thinking about ‚ok what will be my next step ‘. So, it becomes important early to know what you want to do and what the likelihood is. The clearer you voice what you want the higher the likelihood of getting there – if your performance supports this of course. As performance is objectified with numbers, this helps against bias.”

Speaking outside of P&G, what does hinder female professionals today to be represented equally in many companies? „We know, from gender studies and trainings, that women tend to express more as ‚we‘ and are more reserved in expressing what they personally want or what their opinion is in a discussion. Let’s not state this as a female vs. male problem, but rather as a style tendency. Men tend to have a ‘louder’ style and speak up even with only 70% of the information. People who are more likely to advance tend to be those who can express what they want and can say it rather loudly, or who are overall extroverted.“ Though she thinks the tendency for success on the basis of these traits is still sometimes present at P&G, she believes chances are balanced out better through the regular opportunities to move and progress and managers being trained on these style differences. There is lots of work against bias at P&G.

Does a gender balanced management team really make a difference? To Vanessa it does, and to P&G it does, too. „I think a company should look to resemble the society they work in; if there are 50% women, of course this should be reflected. I think that’s where P&G nails it – it becomes clear that P&Gs workforce strives to represent the consumers they serve. You cannot be successful in a market if you don’t understand it, and if you don’t reflect the population in your employees. You will never see all sides of a discussion or the opportunities. “

In addition, more needs to be done to encourage men to approach their positions differently. Equal opportunity means more than leadership positions and careers for women, it also means equal opportunities for men to choose. „As an example, when men want to leave longer than the standard 2 months on parental leave, they get still comments like ‚you’re not serious in your career ‘, so part of this debate also needs to be how we enable men. There are a lot of men at P&G that take parental leave nowadays. Equality needs to go both ways.”

In the end, what advice does Vanessa have for aspiring female business leaders? „From discussions with students or junior P&Gers, I see that many women doubt themselves and their potential a lot. My advice would be to ask yourself ‚why not‘. If your gut tells you this is something that could be worthwhile, silence the voice of doubt with the question ‘why not’. If you come up only with excuses rather than good reasons, you know you can and probably should go for it. Fight the glass ceiling in your own mind. Companies that offer you the opportunity to ask yourself where you want to go next, often are doing more for the career progression of women than they may know.”

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