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Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Christine Spadafor On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male Dominated Industry

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Have thick skin. It’s not personal, but will feel like it. As the only woman in the room for years (and frequently, still), I wish someone had told me this early on. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt — “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide.” Not only in public life, but also as the only, or one of the only, women in a company. Been there.

In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Christine Spadafor.

Christine Spadafor is an experienced public, private and nonprofit company board director with deep expertise in ESG, DEI, risk management and regulatory compliance, and is also a management consultant, attorney, CEO, public speaker, and BBC contributor. She has led large-scale transformation initiatives for Fortune 500 companies across a broad spectrum of industries, both domestic and global. Ms. Spadafor is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Public Health; a co-author of a workplace health treatise published by Johns Hopkins University Press; a lecturer on strategic leadership, diversity, board governance and women in leadership at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Harvard Medical School and other Harvard graduate programs; a frequent speaker/keynote at seminars, meetings, and podcasts; and a frequent contributor to Fortune, Inc., bbc.com and other business journals. Ms. Spadafor has been awarded two Doctor of Humane Letters degrees — received in recognition of her professional accomplishments and lifelong contributions to vulnerable and at-risk populations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was fortunate to be born to two exceptional people — smart, hardworking, empathic, kind, generous. My Mother and Father loved my brother and me ferociously and encouraged us to be curious, to embrace adventures, and give back to those less fortunate.

My Father was a man of quiet strength. Talented and humble. A WWII vet. A feminist. As a precocious five-year old kid, I was always up for joining Dad to run errands. One day in the car, we were talking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I don’t remember what I told him — but I remember what he told me: “Little girl, you can be whatever you want when you grow up. Because I know you can do anything!”

He gave me wings to fly, and I’ve never looked back.

And who knew my Dad could forecast the future? When I was 10 years old, he taught me how to dance in that style of the Greatest Generation. At one point he stopped, looked at me and said, “If you keep trying to lead, the boys aren’t going to want to dance with you.” Well, here we are…

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career?

My career spans the longest distance between two points, with many stops in between. I’ve designed a “mosaic” or “portfolio” career that integrates both my academic background and broad work experience.

My parents encouraged curiosity and adventure… and I took them up on it. My diverse career has been a great adventure and continues to be.

My first career was as an ICU nurse at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. After some time, I decided I’d rather run a hospital, so returned to school to get a B.S. in Administration and Management. That degree didn’t take me back to the hospital as I expected, but rather to an offer in Washington DC where I was a Health/Environmental Scientist at both the US Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency. Working with scientists, policy experts and physicians, I was encouraged later to go to graduate school — so applied to Harvard School of Public Health, was accepted with a full scholarship, and earned a Master’s degree in Physiology. My mentor at MIT and I discussed how my new degree and clinical knowledge might be most beneficial to the largest number of people. His smart advice was not medical school, but law school. So in went the application for… and acceptance to Harvard Law School.

Whew! But we’re not finished yet!

After some years in a law firm, I created the position of the first General Counsel for a pediatric hospital (the trifecta: medicine, law, business), and was soon tasked by the hospital President to lead a turnaround after one-third of government funding for disabled children was suddenly cut. Achieving a successful turnaround, I realized I liked “fixing things” and had a talent for it — and that took me on my journey as a Partner in three premier global management consulting firms, including The Boston Consulting Group. In 2004, I took the entrepreneurial step to start my own consulting firm, in business now for 18 years and still going strong.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting story relates to my decision to start my own management consulting firm. I was fortunate to be working with C-suite executives in Fortune 10–50 companies. In time, some of those executives transitioned into roles at other high-ranking Fortune companies. They now were responsible for companies/ business units with annual revenues close to but less than $1B. The economic business model for the big firms required client revenues of $1B or greater in order to support their fees.

Here I saw the “white space.” I had long-standing, trusting relationships with these executives, they wanted me to continue my work with them, but they could not afford the big firm price tag. Solution? I started my own firm, and all my clients came with me — receiving big firm Partner talent at a fraction of the cost. On day one I was busier than ever. And still am nearly 20 years later.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Performing with integrity.

Example: The CFO of a key business unit of a Fortune 10 company engaged me to work with him and two other business unit CFOs to build a consolidated finance organization across their three business units. First step: does a business case to support this? After analysis — yes. The consolidation would significantly improve finance operations and dramatically decrease expenses, making finance more efficient, effective and deliver much-needed timely reporting.

The results of the business case were presented to the three CFOs. Two were strong supporters of the consolidation, one not so much. I facilitated several conversations to try to gain alignment (one said it was like “marriage counseling”!) In the end, all three were “on board.” The alignment was codified with a written contract, signed by each CFO. And so the work began…

Until the one CFO broke the contract and refused to include his business unit in the consolidation. I re-ran the business case analysis and determined the synergistic benefits of the three consolidated units had now evaporated.

I shared the results with the CFO who engaged me. I explained, “I’m glad to continue to move forward with consolidating two business units, but I don’t believe the major disruption to the organization vs. benefit to the company is worth the effort. I don’t think you should hire me or any other consultant to do this work. Save your money.”

Result? That CFO hired me for every project he had going forward — I was now his “go to consultant” — and we ended up working together for 20 years in two global Fortune 10 companies.

Earning the title “Trusted Advisor.”

Example: The saying that “trust must be earned” is true. Performing with integrity and truly understanding the client’s issues and concerns showed my commitment to both the organization and my clients. I am grateful for the strong relationships built with my clients over the years. They know I care about them, the work, their success, and their company. That all builds trust.

Trust is also exhibited by my firm’s clients engaging me multiple times for projects large (e.g., global finance transformations, global strategic planning) and small (rationalizing multiple boards into one, evaluating executive team performance pre-M&A activity).

Having a reputation as a Trusted Advisor has also resulted in “getting the call” when companies are in crisis: two weeks cash on hand, two months cash on hand, failed PE portfolio company sale, absentee CEO who failed to report the organization was on the brink of closing, etc. In such situations, clients engage me because they trust I will act in the best interest of the organization, the staff, and other stakeholders. And they know my reputation as a straight-talker. Particularly in a crisis when rapid decisions must be made without perfect data and the organization’s survival hangs in the balance, it’s imperative to tell the client what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. The real-life situations mentioned here required my providing rapid analysis, leadership crafting a turnaround plans and development of detailed roadmaps for execution. All achieved successful turnarounds and the second attempt to sell the PE portfolio resulted in a deal for a multiple above industry average. Again, trust and strong relationships were critical in achieving these outcomes.

Being an active listener.

What is really being said?

Example: I received a call from the Chairman of the Board of a national financial institution. He said he wanted to decrease the size of the board from 11 to 7 and requested my services as a Board Advisor to help accomplish that. The more we talked about the situation, I heard what he was really saying. It wasn’t about streamlining the board, as presented. Rather, he didn’t like four board directors he “inherited” in a merger and wanted them off the board.

Fast forward: Engaged by the Chairman, I conducted an anonymous board survey, had a read-back workshop with the board (where they saw each other’s survey responses without attribution), and then we had a straight-talk conversation about the dysfunctional behaviors they reported in the survey and what they wanted to do about them. By the end of the two-day workshop, they all re-committed to the organization and to each other to act in the best interest of the company. All 11 stayed on and together we restructured board governance for more efficient and effective operations. Today they are a high-functioning, collegial board.

With the trusting relationships I built through the process of hearing and tackling their real issues, the board engaged me for its projects going forward.

Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?

My two biggest challenges:

Being heard. You hear it from women over and over… she makes a comment, the conversation continues as though she said nothing. Then a man says the same thing and he’s considered brilliant.

And then there’s “mansplaining.” Thank you, but I don’t need an interpreter.

2. Being underestimated. I am a petite woman with a small voice. So how do I show up in a room full of men? Shoulders back, head up, shake hands around the room if I need to introduce myself. At the conference table, I take a strategic seat — where I sit depends on my role in the meeting. Get into the conversation early — if one waits too long, people forget you’re there. You’ve been invited to the table because you have something to contribute. Speak up. And I do.

While I say this is a challenge, the flip side is that I’ve also found this to be a great strength. It’s a bit like the Trojan horse. You surprise the attendees because they don’t see you coming!

Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some examples?

Observed by and commented on by clients (one reason for repeat engagements over years), and both male and female co-workers (I experienced no distinction between genders):

Demonstrable strong work ethic: This was role-modeled and instilled by my parents.

Not long ago, I was in a conference room with three male private equity partners. While we waited for lunch to be delivered, I commented on an item I was reading in the Wall Street Journal — a full-page ad from one of the leading global financial firms, listing persons recently promoted to high positions at the bank. I commented that of the 55 names, only five were women:

Male PE Partner: “Well, you know why that is, don’t you?”

Me: “No, tell me.”

Male PE Partner: “Because women don’t want to work as hard as men.”

Me: “Wait. You can’t be serious. I’m a woman and I’m in the room…”

Male PE Partner: “That’s because you work like a man.”

At this point, I wanted to go in the corner and set my hair on fire.

Aside from this one exchange, clients and co-workers were well acquainted with my strong work ethic: going the “extra mile” for clients and being available to any colleague for assistance, advice, etc. A reputation for being a ready collaborator and team player.

Results-focused: Much of my professional work includes strategic planning. For these multi-day sessions, I include both board directors and senior executives. Rationale for my approach: as a board member, I don’t want to be handed a strategic plan developed by executives alone. I have no context for the strategic direction and may disagree with the focus and goals set. As a CEO, I would feel no ownership for a strategic plan designed by the board, and similarly may not have proper context for strategic decisions made. Yet, my team and I would be held accountable for achieving strategic goals set by others.

How many times have we heard about strategic plans that end up “sitting on the shelf collecting dust?”

Not on my watch.

Following planning and alignment on strategic goals, I work with clients to design an implementation plan focused specifically on achieving the articulated goals. The implementation plan is presented to the board for a vote — so staff expectations are clear, and the board is informed of its oversight responsibilities to ensure the goals are achieved.

Staff assignments are made, timelines set — and a custom reporting mechanism designed for the board to track the progress of each goal, with longitudinal reporting at every meeting.

Over the years, I gained the reputation from both clients and co-workers that “If you want it done, call Christine.” As a result, I was frequently the one who “got the call” from both male and female partners to “swoop in” and take charge of an engagement that had “gone off the rails.”

Practical solutions: Along with being results-focused, I believe this is a key driver for clients hiring me repeatedly. Some commented they had worked with consultants who could “think great thoughts,” but were looking for more.

I recall a conversation with senior male partners — we were discussing recommendations for a major client. Brilliant ideas were being proposed… but as the only person (and only woman) in the room who, as a former CEO, had experience being responsible for meeting payroll, I disagreed. I did not believe the good ideas were practical, commenting that the company in its current situation could not achieve targeted results. My comments were dismissed and “the great thoughts” prevailed. Great on paper, not in reality.

My reputation with clients was that I “brought order from chaos” and “simplicity to complexity.” Yes, we don’t want to over-simplify, but at the same time, we don’t need to over-build. Clients appreciated and respected that.

What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?

The topic of DEI is front and center in the media — with exponential attention of corporate investors, rating agencies, government regulatory bodies and prospective employees. Failure to advance DEI initiatives in companies may now result in negative financial consequences, so more organizations are sitting up and paying more attention than before.

But what does that mean for recruiting women? Is the commitment to a diverse workplace part of the fiber of a male-oriented company or simply “marketing?” And let’s not forget — — — “recruiting” does not mean “retaining.”

What can male-oriented organizations do?

Take an unsentimental, introspective look: does the culture of the organization — what it stands for, its values, how it treats and values all employees — support and “live” DEI as part of the core fiber of the company? Perhaps the most objective culture review is one conducted by an outside party.

If conducted, design a strategy and implementation plan — assigning responsibility for each task, timeline, and mechanism to track progress on achieving DEI goals.

Visible, vocal, committed leadership starting with the board and CEO. Culture starts at the top. Regular and frequent communications are required.

Know that D does not = E does not = I. Many companies consider “D” to be a numbers game: x% women, x% men, then percentages by race. Just “check the box.” I’ve seen companies “chest thump” about the number of women they employ — but deeper analyses found that most of the women occupied the lowest levels and lowest paying jobs in the company. The “I” takes us beyond the numbers: what is the representation of women at every level in the organization, including in the C-suite? Which then takes us to “E:” do women have the same opportunities as men for promotions? For raises? For selection on high-visibility projects? Are men and women receiving the same salary for the same job? A salary survey conducted by an outside party may be in order.

DEI statistics are being reported in annual proxy statements by publicly traded companies. Go beyond the numbers and share progress made on a holistic approach to DEI.

Engage in a strategic social media campaign to attract diverse talent. Prospective employees (especially Gen Z) report that to ascertain a company’s culture, they search websites and social media broadly, including press releases and CEO/executives sites before deciding whether to apply. Are the company and leadership “walking the talk,” or is the public position on diversity simply PR?

Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Have thick skin. It’s not personal, but will feel like it. As the only woman in the room for years (and frequently, still), I wish someone had told me this early on. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt — “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as rhinoceros hide.” Not only in public life, but also as the only, or one of the only, women in a company. Been there.

Remember that you’re not an imposter. You’re there because you’re smart, talented, hardworking, and earned the position. No one did you a favor — so don’t act like it. At times it may feel overwhelming to be outnumbered by men, but to again quote Eleanor Roosevelt — “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Don’t give anyone that consent. You have more power than you think. Use it and keep yourself balanced.

Find a Mentor and a Sponsor. When coming up through the ranks in my first global management consulting firm, I was fortunate to have exceptional male mentors and sponsors who counseled me and championed me to early partnership in three years. I’ve passed down to my mentees the lessons these male allies taught me and the role-modeling they exhibited.

Remember that a Mentor and Sponsor are not the same. A Mentor is someone who “talks with you” and a Sponsor is someone who “talks about you.” How to find a mentor? First, consider having more than one. Do an inventory of the leadership/ skill sets you wish to advance or acquire and identify the person who can coach and advise you to help reach your goals. What to look for in a Sponsor? A highly-placed, influential, respected person who will be your champion and highlight your capabilities and accomplishments you when you’re not in the room — for a promotion, raise and high-visibility projects.

Make sure your salary is the same as a man with the same job and same responsibilities. Does the company have an established Salary Transparency policy? An employee’s “value” can be reflected in their pay. Does the company perceive her value to be equal to a man in the same job?

Only a few years ago I was heavily recruited to assist a private equity firm grow one if its recently acquired portfolio companies. The firm pursued me for months given my expertise in the company’s industry. At the same time, a man was also recruited to do the exact same work with the same title. I asked the CEO of the PE firm if this man and I — both outside advisors — were being paid the same in wages and equity:

Male PE Partner: “No.”

Me: “Why? You’ve been pursuing me for months, recognizing the unique skills I bring to this engagement. This doesn’t make sense.”

Male PE Partner: “He’s getting paid more because he’s bringing intellectual property — a slide deck.”

Me: “A slide deck? That’s his intellectual property? I know this guy — and let’s be honest… I’m smarter than he is, and I bring more industry experience to the table. My intellectual property is my brain, which you’ve relentlessly been chasing. Either I make what he’s making, or I’m going to pass.”

A week later, the CEO sent me a revised contract with terms identical to what the man was offered.

My talent and expertise were being valued less than the man. Women need to be paid the equivalent of the value of the position to the company. Not based off previous salary (which was probably too low, and so the underpayment cycle would continue… or women asking for an amount more than they were making but may be lower than what the job offers).

Eat together. I’ve built work relationships and bonded with clients and co-workers over meals. Ideally, it’s an informal time to get to know each other in a way that does not revolve around work. Hearing their stories and experiences helped me understand them better, their interests, and get a view into their decision-making processes. One of my male colleagues and I had a “standing sushi Tuesday” on our calendars. For others it was tacos or the salad bar. I believe our relaxed lunchtime meals helped us also grow as friends, with those friendships continuing to this day.

If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?

If a friend came to me with a question about entering a certain field — whether male or female-dominated — I would encourage her to apply if the opportunity afforded her to capitalize on her talents, learn, gain new skills, challenge herself, develop professionally, achieve her goals, and gain exceptional experience.

If joining a male-dominated field, I would share this article with her!

Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past 10 years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?

First, let’s set the overall context for challenges facing women in the workplace. All of which are exacerbated in male-dominated industries.

Numerous studies across industries report the same obstacles for women in the workplace include: few women in executive roles; lack of childcare support; racial and gender bias (starting with the interview process); sexual harassment; work-life balance; and the persistent 80 cents women vs. the $1 men pay gap. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 100 years to close the wage gap at the current rate.

Now to male-dominated industries… Pew Research Centers found that women in male-dominated industries and fields feel isolated; passed over for important assignments; denied promotions when equally qualified; gender discrimination; and sexual harassment.

Narrowing down, let’s look at law and medicine — two heavily male-dominated industries:

Female law school students make up 54% of law school classes — but only 23% advance to equity partners in law firms. It’s even worse for women of color: they make up 20% of the class, 9% of all attorneys and only 3% of equity partners, according to a 2020 Glass Ceiling Report. What’s in the way? Traditional sex stereotypes; inflexible work schedules; and inadequate access to mentoring, as researched by Professor Deborah Rhode at Stanford Law School.

Female medical students make up 54% of medical school classes. According to the American Medical Association, obstacles for women in this male-dominated field include harassment, bullying and verbal abuse from both colleagues and patients (a quick story — a female MD head of Cardiology — was on rounds with older male colleagues. One asked her name. “Dawn,” she replied. His response — “Isn’t that a stripper’s name? Do you strip with a friend named Dusk?”); gender discrimination; age discrimination (too young = too inexperienced, 60 years and older = can’t keep up); and wide pay gaps from 10% to 30% depending on the specialty.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment ready this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to have a private meal with MacKenzie Scott.

Not because she is ranked the #1 Most Influential Woman by Forbes.

Or because she is the third wealthiest woman in America and the 22nd in the world.

But because she is a role model for quiet philanthropy.

One of the wealthiest women in the world following her divorce from Jeff Bezos, this mother of four plans to distribute her wealth to underfunded and overlooked causes, pledging to “keep at it until the safe is empty.” To date, she has donated to 780 charitable organizations focused on disrupting the status quo for gender equity, racial justice, public health and much more.

Applause.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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