Female college graduates have outnumbered males for decades. In Fortune 500 companies, women make up 50 percent of the workforce; however, women only make up 25 percent of executive positions. Despite an increase in board gender diversity, there are still very few women in executive leadership positions. Only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. These numbers are not only shockingly low, but, in 2018, the number of female CEOs also fell by 25 percent. In corporate America, women are losing ground.
Women in the workplace may have gained greater acceptance in Western cultures; however, the barriers to professional advancement impacting women and minority groups are still very real and very active. But beyond a basic level of achieving the title of executive, women experience biased and unfair performance reviews at a greater number than men, are less often promoted than men, and 63 percent of C-level women change careers frequently to climb the ladder versus just 21 percent of men.
To get a look into what it truly means to be female amongst a sea of male executives, I turned to Christina Ackermann, the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Bausch Health Companies (BHC). She also happens to be my mom. Ackermann has found herself a seat at the big table — but at what cost?
Working at her first firm in Toronto, as a young lawyer, Ackermann found out — a year after the fact — from her boss that she was almost replaced on a large deal. A major client had asked her boss for a “real lawyer,” which they then explained to be a male lawyer. A year later, her boss told her and commented, “Don’t worry, Christina, I told them you’re the best, and if not they can go elsewhere.” She had taken the case unaware of what had happened.
Early on in her career, Ackermann was told to wear pants rather than skirts if she was to be taken seriously. She did not follow the advice and, to this day, prefers skirts. She says “I am a woman and I like being a woman. There are so many books written on being authentic — why can we as women not look feminine in the workplace?” She was also told at one time that she would need to wear stockings to work. The average CEO is a 6-foot tall man. Clearly, being feminine does not fit with traditional images of the ideal boss.
The most shocking anecdotes by Ackermann involved the way men talk to women. Ackermann was asked by a prior boss to take minutes in an executive board meeting (the only woman in the meeting, yet an equal in position and qualification). She has also been asked by a male colleague to go get his secretary and, in another meeting, was once asked to turn up the temperature — even though she was an executive.
These administrative tasks are thrown on her when she’s the only woman in such executive meetings. No man is asked to do the same. During business trips and after meetings, male colleagues have said to her: “We’re going to a bar. You won’t like it, Christina, we’ll talk about guy things.” Why do they assume this?
Perhaps the ultimate kicker: Ackermann was once directly asked, “Who did you sleep with to get to this position?” When I asked her to elaborate on the experience, Ackermann added, “I was so insulted, but of course the obvious facts escape men, namely, since I’m more senior than most men, it wouldn’t have impacted it anyway. My IQ and EQ — brains, expertise and diplomacy — got me to where I am, nothing more.”
The head of HR once asked Ackermann how many men she had dated in the last few years, as he did not seem to be able to "keep up with it.” She was not aware that she had a reporting obligation, or that her private life was something the company needed to keep track of. Although it was possibly an attempt to include her in "male discussions” — it’s hard to tell.
There were only two single women on the Executive Team and all the men (in fact every man on every executive team she has been a part of in her life) were married or living with their significant others. Furthermore, a CEO once asked Ackermann’s female colleague whether she was a lesbian, since he was not aware of her dating anyone. If a man was single, would someone ask them if they were gay? Probably not.
It is not okay to speak to women this way. Furthermore, Ackermann strongly supports other women and actively speaks at women’s leadership and young emerging leaders’ conferences across the world. She is an active mentor to several younger associates and truly enjoys the experience. One of her favorite quotes is from Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don't support other women.”
In speaking on the challenges she has faced in the workplace, the hope is that awareness will bring about change — not only in how women are treated but how people react to the treatment of women and minorities. Morality lies not only in your actions but the lack thereof. Ackermann commented: “Women can be harsh. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I discovered that young in life. It was reinforced again through the adolescence years of my daughter.”
But there is space for coexistence — women do not have to take space away from each other any longer. Women should support one another; without cooperation, there is little hope for equality. Time and time again it has been shown that the privileged seldom think of others.
I hope to stress the critical nature of backing one another through Ackermann’s amazing achievements — a true symbol that equality can be achieved, she embodies the epitome of a woman’s ability to work hard and become an equal to men. Starting at 4.8 percent, we have enough of a hill to climb on our own without tearing one another down.