September 11, 2013

Three Cornell Alumnae Reflect on Women in the Workplace

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Three Cornell alumnae with diverse backgrounds in law, the pharmaceutical industry and entrepreneurship shared their experiences and advice with students preparing to enter the workforce at a “Women in Leadership” Panel held Tuesday evening.

Christa Downey, assistant dean and director of Career Services for the College of Arts and Sciences, said each of the women on the panel has shown remarkable “fluidity” and “creativity” in their career paths.

Franci Blassbery ’75 J.D. ’77, one of the panelists, recently retired from her position as a partner with business law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and is currently transitioning into teaching; Naomi Kelman ’81 MBA ’83 is an executive at pharmaceutical company Novartis; and Carol Rattray ’78 is the co-founder of Zoomdojo, an “online, open resource for college students and young professionals to facilitate their career search,” according to Zoomdojo’s website.

In addition to discussing their personal experiences in the professional world, the panelists gave practical advice for navigating the job search, marketing oneself, gaining work experience and building networks of mentors and professional contacts.

The opening question referenced Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

“‘Women tend to avoid stretch assignments and new challenges on the job. They worry too much about whether they have the skills needed to take on a new, loftier role,’” Downey quoted from the popular book, asking the panelists to respond to Sandberg’s sentiment.

Blasbury, one of the panelists, said Sandberg’s words are a generalization that, ultimately, “really hurt women.”

“I think there are people who stretch, and there are people who don’t stretch; some are women, some are men. I, in my time in practicing law, have met a lot of lazy men,” Blasbury said.

The conversation soon turned to the tension between family life and professional success.

“Balance is a personal choice,” Rattray said. “You have to make some deliberate choices.”

Kelman said she made the decision to set clear distinctions between home life and work life.

“When I’m home, I’m really home,” Kelman said.

The panelists were also asked to discuss how they came to their respective career path.

All three noted aspects of serendipity in their story while emphasizing that they remained open to prospects even as they were in between jobs or unsure about what they wanted to do.

“At least while I was figuring it out, and really confused inside, I had a great resume,” Kelman said.

When one audience member asked about challenges they had each overcome, Blassbery said that she is a cancer survivor. While battling the disease, she had to take a leave of absence from her demanding career.

“I think it slowed me down a little bit, which is probably a very good thing,” she said.

Kelman said challenges and crises could also be reframed as motivating factors.

“Do we look at life as difficulties or challenges, or do we go after it with gusto to be successful?” Kelman said.

Rattray echoed Kelman’s sentiment, saying adversity should not stop someone from pursuing their goals.

“Things that feel really, really bad now — actually in a day, two days or 10 years, just [aren’t] that important. Or you went through it, and now you’re going to the next thing,” she said.

Although the panelists all said there is a lot of uncertainty and unfairness in professional world, they all agreed that when equipped with the right attitude, skills and openness to new environments, success is attainable.

“It’s not ‘one size fits all,’” Rattray said. “I think it is a matter of everybody need[ing] to find their point of balance.”

Laura Cassidy ’15, who attended the event, said she enjoyed listening to the panelists’ stories.

“I think it was refreshing to see people switch careers so much yet find their niche in each place,” she said.

Another attendee, Jessica Sarkodie ’15, said she learned a lot from the panelists’ stories.

“It’s become even more clear to me that you don’t need to have a linear plan in life. It’s all about taking the opportunities as they come by and doing what you love,” Sarkodie said.