The University Record, March 26, 1996

Women's forum spotlights strategies for women in business

By Susan Meyn
Business School

The catalyst that sparked the dialogue at the Business School's fourth annual Women's Forum was a 20-minute videotape produced by MBA students to reflect a diverse range of their peers' views on women in business.

More than 300 students, alumni and businesspeople gathered in Hale Auditorium last week to hear what students and faculty had to say during interviews conducted for an MBA class at Stanford. The class was taught by Debra Meyerson, adjunct assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the U-M.

Despite differences in the ages, educational backgrounds and viewpoints of forum participants, topics of universal relevance and concern emerged from the video and were explored in breakout groups.

Some of the questions debated were: Do women have to "act more like men" to be successful in business? Is a woman's competence questioned if she appears too "feminine"? What actions can be taken to increase the opportunities women have to advance their careers?

In her keynote speech, Paula Sneed, senior vice president of marketing services for Kraft Foods Inc., commented that many of the quandaries addressed in the video were similar to issues on the minds of her business school peer group in the 1970s.

"Women in business careers are still viewed as trailblazers," commented Sneed. "They must enter uncharted territory, move rocks, clear brush, watch for wild animals, be resilient and notch the trees so that others can follow the tr ail and lead the next generation farther." Sometimes they turn back, she said. But growing recognition by companies that "what women bring to the workforce is a competitive advantage" is creating more opportunities for women to decide for themselves how far they want to explore the trail despite obstacles that still block the way.

Sneed spoke of several lessons she has learned along her career path. "Life's not fair or objective, and we can't expect it to be," she commented. "What you were successful at in the past won't necessarily carry you through to the next level."

Establishing a "mentoring mosaic" for herself helped tremendously as she climbed the corporate ladder. Traditional role models were scarce in her corporation, Sneed said, so she turned to non-traditional mentors to help her make career decisions. Her mentoring mosaic includes people at all levels of the organization, such as the administrative assistant who told her one day that management's view of her was changing for the betterinformation that proved itself valu able at the next board meeting.

Sneed also advised women not to try to "act more like men," a question debated in the breakout groups. Instead, she encouraged people to be comfortable with who they are and what they stand for, and let their own personal style work to their advantage. "If you need to give up a lot to stay in a particular organization," Sneed warned, "you need to leave."

The Women's Forum is co-sponsored by the Office of Career Development and Michigan Business Women.