Improving the State of Women in Business

Ilene Lang CEO Catalyst
Ilene Lang, CEO of Catalyst

Ilene Lang is the CEO and President of Catalyst, the leading research and advisory organization working to change workplaces and improve lives through advancing women into business leadership. Previously, Lang was the founding CEO of AltaVista Internet Software Inc.  She is a graduate of Radcliffe college and Harvard Business School.

The below contains excerpts of our interview:

As you know we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of women at HBS.  What was HBS like as a woman when you were here in the early 1970s?
I was in a class of 800, and there were 33 women.  So a section had anywhere from 2-5 women out of 80 people.  Most people assumed that women were there to find a husband.  And most people also assumed that women didn’t have real opportunities for careers—and that was the case.  There weren’t obvious opportunities [for women].  We were sort of the trailblazing generation at places like HBS.

Now the first class [of women] 1964, 1965, and 1966, they had 3 women in a class of 800 so if you think about a few years later it was an order of magnitude more.  It was a very different place.  It was not diverse.  The school was almost 100% American.  Not totally, but I bet it wasn’t even 10% non-American.  Another thing that is shocking (compared to today), nobody went to Wall Street and nobody went to the big consultancies because they were only just starting then.  Everybody went into industry.  It was very, very different.

I understand Catalyst is also celebrating its 50th anniversary.  Congratulations.  What do you think are the most significant achievements for women in business in the past 50 years?
A couple of years ago a woman who was a long-time reporter for the WSJ said that the WSJ considers the entry of women into the workforce one of the biggest business stories of the twentieth century.  So I would say that the biggest achievement is that women are in the workforce and in the economy and they’re here to stay.  This is the new normal.

We’ve come a long way in the last 50 years, and yet according to the recent Catalyst survey, only 14% of executive officer positions and 16% of board seats are held by women.  What do you think are the biggest obstacles keeping women from the C-Suite and the board room?
We have researched this for years and there are 3 big barriers for women finally breaking the glass ceiling.  I just want to say upfront that when we looked at the achievements of women over the years, it’s basically been white women.  We are not only facing barriers that prevent women from achieving overall, but there are barriers that stand even more in the way of non-white women and men achieving.  And yet, if you think about the demographic and economic challenges [we face], that transformation has got to occur.

The three the big barriers that Catalyst has researched over the years and has confirmed over and over again are:
1. Limited access to informal networks:  Basically, women are excluded.  Whether it’s business conducted at the golf club or social networks that make it easier for men to find men that went to the same school and remind them of their younger selves, men have an easier entre into those rarified boardrooms

2. Persistent gender-based stereotypes:  There still are many stereotypes about how women are unsuited for leadership.  The feeling is, and this is not an intellectual thing, that women really aren’t cut out for it, or women have too many other things on their mind, or women aren’t strong leaders.  One of the things we know about stereotyping is that if you try to defy the stereotypic norm and do something that is not expected of you from your group, there are penalties.  So women who are strong in their behavior are not well-liked and are considered not to be strong leaders; they are considered to be “the b-word” — hard to work with, whereas men are considered strong.

3.  Lack of role models: it’s not just role models for women, but it’s role models for men; men seeing women doing a good job as leaders, as CEOs and in the boardroom.  To the extent that you don’t see them there, you can’t ‘see’ them there.

What should employers be doing to address some of these things?
1. They have to see beyond stereotypes in recruiting and promotion.  That’s a huge, huge problem that remains.  We really need to get business managers, leaders, and supervisors to see beyond their own unintentional bias that draws them much more to people who are like them and have them see people who look different from them as capable.

2. Women have to get serious career assignments:  Their careers need to be taken seriously.  Why? Because we know that companies that have more women in leadership, on average, perform better.  Women are not going to get to leadership unless they’ve had a serious career with good assignments that offer experience running key parts of the business.  We’ve actually done some studies that show that women are promoted based on performance, but men are promoted based on promise.

3.  They need sponsorship: A sponsor gives more than advice.  A sponsor is someone who sits at the seat of power, has a lot of influence, and who gets out there and says ‘trust me, she can do this job.’

What can women do to minimize discrimination and maximize their chances at success?
So there’s one thing I always tell women to do and it’s a very simple rule: ‘Vote with your feet.’  I advise all women to find the companies where they can look and see that women have succeeded already.
Everything else women know how to do.  They know how to be smart, they know how to do well in school, they know how to be ambitious, they know how to make good decisions, they know how to collaborate, they know how to do all of these things. They have to put themselves in the environments that will recognize their capabilities and will reward them for their performance.

Looking forward, what do you think the landscape will look like for women in business in 50 years?
We will be at parity.  We [at Catalyst] believe that there’s going to be an acceleration of change.  Women are more and more right out there and here to stay.

Anything else you would like to share?
I want to make sure that what we’re talking about doesn’t sound like it’s a zero-sum game (that if women succeed, men will fail).  This is really important.   Diverse teams produce better results and diverse teams make better decisions. We’re really talking about growing the pie and more success for everybody.  To the extent that a company chooses its leadership from half of its talent pool, it is not good business.  Women and men together will succeed more because they move this agenda forward.  It’s true and research backs it up.


Whitney Gretz is an EC interesting in healthcare and customer experience.  Prior to HBS Whitney worked for 3 years in the Chicago office of McKinsey and Company where she will return after graduation.
Whitney is a co-VP of alumni with her good friend Justina Wang for the Women’s Student Association (WSA).  She also has researched women in business for independent studies and beyond.