In January, the most powerful woman in the world will probably be Janet Yellen, the first woman to head the US Federal Reserve (FED). She will be part of a leading trio with Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde (IMF). This is an opportunity to analyze her career a bit more closely and to draw inspiration from it.
Following brilliant studies at Yale, and a career as professor at Harvard and the London School of Economics, Janet Yellen entered the Fed through the back door in 1977, to provide analyses and statistics to the board of directors. She became number 2 in 2010, but not without first anticipating the sub-prime crisis and expressing it colorfully: “I foresee that a foul gorilla will soon be entering a crystal shop”. She therefore gets noticed for her outspokenness and for the rebellious side of her nature since she dares to vote regularly against Alan Greenspan, her boss at the time.
Bill Clinton hires her as head of the economic advisors to the White House. She is very close to Democrats, making the fight against unemployment her priority, instead of the fight against inflation. She is also married to a Nobel Prize in Economics (G. Akerlof) who is supportive of her career and of her freedom of speech, being himself a member in a “band of rebels” – that of Joseph Stiglitz. They will have a son, who also became a university professor. In her career, there is no trace of a position inside a financial institution where she could have built a fortune like all of her predecessors, but there is instead the demonstration of a constant deep commitment to serve her country.
Her name comes up as a possible successor for Ben Bernanke in 2009. But he is ultimately confirmed in office. As his term came to an end in 2013, financial lobbies pushed to nominate one of their own… Lawrence Summers. But this “Hedge Fund” administrator made communication blunders which betray his cynicism (and that was the weakest term I could find). In 1991, he authors a memo encouraging industrialized countries to continue sending their waste to Africa and in 2005, he accounts for the weak presence of women in science and engineering by stating they are less available and ultimately less suited to pursue careers. Faced with the pressure of public opinion, Summers announces that he will not be running for office.
Janet Yellen never compromised her integrity and her personality. She remained at the service of education and the public sector when she could have become very wealthy by choosing a private financial institution. She always kept – and expressed – her intellectual honesty even when it could offend the powers that be and her bosses. She built a strong and supportive couple with her Nobel Prize husband. She had to promote the achievements of her very long years of loyalty to make it to the top. Probably less quickly than if she had been a man (she is 67 years old!).
What lessons can be drawn from this for other women’s careers?
Consistency and loyalty
Janet Yellen’s career, her personality, her experience and her political views bode well for world economy but they also confirm the analysis made by Catalyst concerning “The myth of the ideal worker” which shows that women benefit more from staying longer within their companies because they are judged according to their results whereas men are evaluated according to their potential. Amongst MBA graduates, Catalyst demonstrates that women are as ambitious as men. They jockey for top positions as much as men and use elements which are listed in all the best selling management books (networking, negotiation, self marketing, mastery of all the “unwritten rules”…).
Adapting your strategy to gender stereotypes
But the study also shows that similar strategies do not work in the same way for men and women. Women must select strategies which are different from those of their male colleagues in order to further their careers. When women are proactive and make their achievements known, they make their way up the organisation and increase their salaries. They also make progress when they network with other people of influence. For men on the contrary, making their achievements known does not seem to have an impact on their career. Instead, access to influential networks is of greater help for men than women in their development.
Choose your life partner well.
Firstly, the best asset for a career is to have a life partner who supports you in your professional development and who does not pressure you to be, first and foremost, a home maker, wife and mother! He shares your ambition as well as family care.
Remain authentic at any cost.
All the studies show that in most professional environments, women who prefer to remain “authentic” by daring to assert attitudes and values labeled as “feminine” are appreciated as colleagues but not considered as “leaders”, and therefore remain invisible when the promotion bandwagon drives past or when high profile missions are allocated. But, those who, consciously or unconsciously, become “one of the guys” by being hard, competitive and “workaholics” (thus fitting into the mold of the model yet archaic leader figure) are valued by their hierarchy for their commitment but are not liked or considered as inspirational because this type of behavior is contrary to what is expected from a woman!
To get out of this dilemma, I always advise women to remain true to themselves. If they do not feel recognized and valued because their attitudes and values are not a match for the company culture, they must change employers or careers rather than try to adapt. But this is also true for men…
With Janet Yellen nomination, the United States and the world not only gained more equality between women and men, all of us have also gained in terms of humility, patience, righteousness, honesty and empathy towards all our most vulnerable citizens. This is what Corporate Gender Equality is all about!