Getting to the Table at the Top

Fall 2015 Issue

Last spring, 20 young women studying in the Sigmund Weis School of Business were inspired to do much the same thing with their careers: Take a deep breath. Hit the “up” button and don’t look back until you have a seat at the top.

This empowering message permeated the atmosphere at a first-of its-kind Women’s Leadership Symposium held at the Marriott Marquis. The symposium, supported and executed by Susquehanna alumnae and friends, provided the women with practical career advice designed to help them rise through the ranks of the corporate world.

All of the women left New York inspired, but none more so than Afi Ahama ’17. The accounting major spent the summer meeting with female business executives, including several she was introduced to during the symposium, to learn more about the challenges they’ve faced in their careers. She’s using the insights they shared to develop Lean In Circles-one on campus and one back home in the Bronx-where women can gain the peer support they so often need to break the proverbial glass ceiling. She’s also working to establish a PIER (Professional Internship and Employment Readiness) organization for students of color.

The accounting major sees her efforts to establish the Lean In Circles and PIER organization as the “first steps toward becoming an extraordinary executive in my field.” And she wants the same for her female counterparts in the business school.

“I want us to come together and fight the fear away. I want us to be confident graduating and walking into our prospective fields knowing that our gender is not a barrier [to advancement],” Ahama says.It’s a tall order in a world where only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. But if you were to ask the woman behind the concept of “leaning in,” she’d likely say that women hold some responsibility for the gender gap at the top.

In her wildly popular 2010 TED Talk, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, explained that the inequity occurs, at least in part, because women often don’t “take a seat at the table” and “lean in” when it comes to accepting roles that lead to advancement. The concept sparked a sensation that led to Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and a network of Lean In Circles
across the country.

In short, Sandberg is convinced women are dropping out of the race to the top. But why? Because, as she explains, women face more challenges in balancing professional success and personal fulfillment.

First, she says, they “systematically underestimate their own abilities” and don’t negotiate for themselves in the workplace. Why? Because, as studies show, success and likeability correlate positively for men but negatively for women. It’sa misperception that Sandberg encourages women to challenge because, as she said in her TED Talk, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side and not at the table.”

Susquehanna University Trustee Mary Cianni spoke to this at the Women’s Leadership Symposium. Cianni, principal at Towers Watson, a global professional services company, cut her teeth in the business world at a time when it was rare to see a woman at the corporate conference table.

So what did challenging the status quo teach her? Firmly in the camp that says leaders are made, not born, Cianni told the women that to be a leader they need to find their”leadership voice.” She encouraged them to be who they are and to be assertive in their identity. “It’s the way we feel about ourselves that exudes confidence,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated. Occasionally, you have to stand up for yourself.”

And as Sandberg would say, “lean in” once you get a seat at the table and take advantage of opportunities for growth.

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