Women at Work

With public attention focused on the experiences women have at work, alumnae share their stories of challenges they faced—and overcame—on the job.

Print this page
Illustrations: Pablo Amargo

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

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."

Labor Department data from 2016 shows that women still earn about 82 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same job. —Bureau of Labor Statistics

Pablo Amargo

Alison Overseth

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."

Sara Bonesteel ’90, chief investment officer, retirement and group insurance, Prudential Financial, Montclair, New Jersey

Sara Bonesteel ’90 began her career at federal mortgage finance company Fannie Mae immediately following her graduation from Columbia Business School. In 1992, she joined investment banker Bear Stearns, where she spent the next 16 years. In 2008, she moved to insurance company Prudential Financial, and is now the chief investment officer for the company’s retirement and group insurance division.

Despite her many successes, Bonesteel says that working in finance has not been without its challenges. This was especially true 20 years ago, at her second job. “Bear was a very male-dominated place and a sharp-elbows kind of shop,” she recalls.

So how did she succeed there? She developed a specialty in structured finance, becoming an expert in the complex financial instruments that, in the early 1990s, were just becoming common. “Instead of going head to head with men who had already established themselves, I formed a niche that nobody wanted and I worked hard to excel at it. If you have a skill that no one else has, you get invited into the room because they need you.”

Still, this did not make her immune to the challenges that her female peers encountered. “I definitely felt excluded from time to time,” she remembers. “Not being in the boys’ club or else having someone take credit for something you did.” Despite her years of experience, Bonesteel still hasn’t found a no-fail solution for being left out, but says that hard work is always the best option. “You just have to continue to try to prove yourself and make sure people know how good you are. It’s not always fair.”

Though the workplace is often an uneven playing field for women, Bonesteel says, it is not an impossible one. She’s had many successes and champions along the way. “Because somebody took a chance on me I got my first job at Fannie Mae and started thinking of myself as a quantitative person and found this field of finance that I absolutely loved,” says Bonesteel. “I look back at my young self in high school or college and I never would have put myself where I am today.”

Bonesteel echoes a thought that many women express: self-doubt that they are cut out for a career in finance or other quantitative fields. Though it might be challenging to completely silence this society-induced doubt, Bonesteel says that it is possible to overcome it. “As women, our tendency is to be too self-critical. Try to set that aside, because men don’t do that! Even though it’s really hard to do, don’t dwell on past situations,” she says.

"Don't be too close-minded in how you think your career can go. Be a little flexible. Don't get locked into the perceived romance of a job. Take into account all aspects of it and what it will be like to sit in that job every day for most of your waking hours. You have to like it. "

Anna Coatsworth

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."

Corporate America promotes men at 30 percent higher rates than women during their early career stages. —2016 study by McKinsey & CO. and Leanin.org.

Pablo Amargo

Marie Ffolkes

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."

Emily Culp

Emily Culp ’06, CMO, Keds, Lexington, MA

Emily Culp ’06 began her career with a 10-year stint in advertising, holding various positions at Digitas and Ogilvy & Mather. Next, a job at cosmetics company Clinique brought her from agency to client side as she transitioned into the marketing field. She went on to work at consumer-products giant Unilever and women’s clothing and accessories brand Rebecca Minkoff before ultimately landing her role as CMO of the iconic sneaker-maker Keds in 2015.

Culp says her diverse experiences have shown her that underlying biases against women still exist in many workplaces, even ones that cater to predominantly female customers.

Early in her career, Culp ’06 entered a conference room to present to the board of directors and CEO of her client company. “I was the only young female in the room,” says Culp.

“When I walked in, the CEO immediately assumed I was the administrative assistant, so he asked me for a coffee with sugar.” In that moment, Culp says, she made a split-second decision not to correct the CEO, delivered the coffee, then took her place at the front of the room to begin her presentation about restructuring his holding company.

But she says that the biggest challenges came when she was pregnant, remembering, “There are comments made about your commitment to your career, your physical appearance, and your drive, consistently throughout your pregnancy. My hope would be that my daughter isn't working in a world where that would be something she is exposed to.”

Culp’s experiences have made her extremely passionate about empowering and protecting women at work, particularly during their pregnancies. She says she hopes to one day contribute to legislation that would ensure fair work environments and protect women’s rights.

Advice: Find your voice. And that doesn’t mean you have to talk all the time or in every meeting, but when something is important to you or you have a point of view, use your voice.

Allyson Downey

Allyson Downey ’10, co-founder, weeSpring, Boulder, CO 

Halfway through her pregnancy, Allyson Downey ’10 (’03SOA) landed in the hospital with complications. When she was discharged, her doctor told her she needed to stay off her feet, so she called her boss at Credit Suisse, where she worked in business development, to hammer out a plan to work from home. She called again the next day, and the day after that. He never returned her call. Eventually, someone from human resources suggested she go out on disability.

“I was cut off at the knees,” Downey says. “They probably said, ‘Let’s not put any more pressure on Allyson. Let her focus on her health.’ But it was a spectacular break in my confidence.” She points out that pregnancy discrimination is rarely discussed because women “feel a deep sense of shame.”

Downey, who also has an MFA in writing from Columbia, left banking and is now an author and entrepreneur. For her 2016 book, Here's the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood, Downey surveyed 2,000 women, nearly a third of whom said they had experienced pregnancy discrimination. The book offers a roadmap for working mothers on negotiating leave, flex time, and promotions.

When it comes to navigating career and family, women “need to be a broken record about what they want, because managers don’t feel comfortable bringing these things up, and they jump to conclusions about what a woman is going to do,” she says.               

She is also a co-founder of weeSpring, which she describes as “Yelp for baby products.” Launched in 2012, the company has a team of five full-time employees. And Downey, now the mother of two, can work from home whenever she wants.

"Document your career achievements by spending 15 minutes every Friday jotting down those accomplishments."

Sheena Gordon

Sheena Gordon ’12, manager, public-sector services group, Alvarez & Marsal, Washington, DC 

During a career that has taken her from corporate America to finance to consulting, Sheena Gordon ’12 (’05BC) has found that good ideas are sometimes met with more skepticism when they come from women. Several years ago, she suggested expanding the reports she generated—which offered analysis of issues—to also include proposed solutions. She recalls, “My manager said, ‘I don’t think people would care about that.’” Instead of taking no for an answer, Gordon surveyed stakeholders and found they wanted that additional information. Ultimately, the company implemented her ideas.

Gordon’s takeaway? “Seize the opportunity to make a name for yourself, even when people say, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’ Do the legwork,” she says.

Gordon, who had been an analyst at Fitch Ratings and Marriott International, is now a management consultant at global professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal. She has noticed over the years that well-intentioned men sometimes fall back on familiarity when making personnel decisions. She has found herself advocating for strong female candidates who are being over- looked despite the company’s commitment to diversity. Her comments have “actually flipped the discussion,” she says.

Gordon’s current role involves analysis of distressed municipalities and other public-sector entities. She says she notices that “there’s a boldness in the workplace that men have that we, as women, don’t fully claim all the time.” She tells her peers: “Put yourself out there. If you never ask, the answer’s always no. Sometimes you’ve got to build your own door.”

"In salary negotiations, women are more likely to be conservative. Some men say, ‘This is what I want. Never mind what I’m making now.’ There are things that we can learn from men."

Kimberly Frye Alula

Kimberly Frye Alula ’12,  divisional merchandise manager, Fanatics Inc,  Jacksonville, FL 

Kimberly Frye Alula ’12 was a self-described career woman when she decided to move from New York City to Jacksonville, Florida, to be with her boyfriend (now husband).

She had invested her twenties in a series of positions in retail, amassing experience at two major department stores and an e-commerce startup to assemble a wide swath of expertise in a field she loved. Nevertheless, she took a lateral move, giving up her position as director of multicultural merchandising at Macy’s and taking a role in sports-licensing business development for WME|IMG in order to relocate.

When she told friends and family she was leaving New York, they were incredulous. “But at some point,” she says, “you have to do a deep assessment and say, What are you going to put first? I made a hard choice to put my personal life first.”

Five years later, she deems her career detour a success. A couple years into her stay in Florida, she merged her retail background with her passion for sports, taking a position at Fanatics, the largest retail operator for licensed-sports merchandise. Among other things, the company runs e-commerce operations for all the major US professional sports leagues and for more than 200 collegiate and professional team properties. Alula recently received her second promotion in two years, becoming senior director of marketplace strategy and integrated merchandising and marketing. She married the man she moved for and they now have an eight-month-old daughter, Liya.

She now advocates taking risks and being comfortable with some uncertainty. “You have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone,” she says. “At the end of the day, it comes down to your ability to learn new things and make it work, and understanding your value.”

"Know your worth and be able to identify and clearly articulate your most transferable skills to remain flexible as new opportunities present themselves."

Aziza Jamgerchinova

Aziza Jamgerchinova ’13,  vice president, business development and strategy, GershonMedia, New York City

Aziza Jamgerchinova ’13 started a career in media right after college graduation at age 22, landing positions at the New York Times and CNN as a reporter covering current affairs and politics. After returning to Columbia Business School to get her MBA, she worked at digital media brands Press+ and GlobalPost before assuming her current role as the business development and strategy vice president at GershonMedia, where she advises global media and entertainment companies on their digital video businesses.

Jamgerchinova says that at the beginning of her career she believed, as many women do, that perfecting technical skills and working diligently would always lead to recognition and promotions. “In my own case I spent many years as a reporter and thought that if I did my job super well and went above and beyond executing specific tasks, then I would be recognized for my talents and my skills and therefore promoted and advanced.”

As a 27-year-old producer at CNN, though, Jamgerchinova says she began noticing the role gender played in the workplace, and that simply completing assignments to the best of her ability would not always be enough for acknowledgement – she needed to reframe her mindset in order to be treated as a leader. “For me it was about building awareness,” she says, adding that this helped her behave more like a leader. “There is a self-fulfilling process where you start correcting your behavior and responding to situations differently. All of a sudden people around you will start to take notice and say ‘Oh wow, I didn’t hear you speak up before, but now we know you can run a meeting or manage a business.’”

After the realization that hard work is not always enough to climb the corporate ladder, Jamgerchinova was mindful to think of herself as a leader and work to build her professional identity, not just her skills. “For me, overcoming the challenge involved first and foremost building the awareness that it is not just about developing your skill and proficiency, you also have to pay attention to relationship-building, your personal brand, and how you come across,” she says. “In some cases, it is about likeability.”

Advice: To become a leader and be successful and keep growing, you first need to internalize the idea of being a leader. That mindset will help you make decisions, do your work, behave in certain ways, and will give you a bigger purpose that informs all your actions.

articles by Topic