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In a breakout session on “Owning Your Opinion in Diverse Group Settings,” Kellogg Professor Katherine Phillips encouraged women to seek out a “partner” on their team who will “ask you what you think in meetings and put you on the spot.”

Professor Katherine Phillips

Listening to your calling

Women’s Business Association Conference speakers encourage female managers to look within to ‘own’ their professional experience

By Rachel Farrell

3/6/2009 - In the business world, it often seems like women have two choices: Pursue their professional goals and neglect a personal life, or sacrifice their career in favor of a personal life.

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Women’s Business Conference keynote speaker Maria Thomas ‘92, CEO of Etsy Inc., offered her “four truths”: “Work hard, embrace balanced imbalance, show up and be ready to receive, and know thyself.’”
Photo © Nathan Mandell
It doesn’t have to be that way, said many of the female executives who spoke at the 2009 Women’s Business Association Conference on March 4. Focusing on the theme, “Make it Mine: Owning Your Professional Experience,” conference speakers encouraged women to find their voice amid the male-dominated business world, and look within themselves to find satisfaction in work and life.

Held at the James L. Allen Center, the daylong conference featured an alumni breakfast, two breakout sessions, two keynote addresses and a networking reception.

During the morning keynote address, Maria Thomas ’92, CEO of Etsy Inc., explained that following her instincts has helped her find “balanced imbalance” and happiness in her life and work. Rather than taking jobs that seem logical for her career, she has pursued only those positions that she feels passionate and excited about. “It’s about seeking out organizations that I consider to be noble – that resonate with me,” she says.

This attitude has opened doors for Thomas at such firms as the International Finance Corporation, Amazon.com, and NPR – and also caused her to move a dozen times in the last 25 years. It also led her to Etsy, a Brooklyn, N.Y,-based online retailer that buys and sells handmade items, which “is passionate and cares about what it stands for: the power of connecting people,” she says. Thomas feels so strongly about Etsy’s mission that she’s willing to commute from her home in Washington, D.C. to Brooklyn every week.

Thomas encouraged conference participants to follow what she calls the four truths: “Work hard, embrace balanced imbalance, show up and be ready to receive, and know thyself,” she says. “Knowing thyself” includes being conscious of personal flaws. “It’s easy to look for faults in others,” Thomas says. “But if you don’t know where your fault lines are, it’s hard to have a happy and satisfied life — either personally or professionally.”

At the breakout session “Owning Your Opinion in Diverse Group Settings,” Associate Professor Katherine Phillips shared her research about how gender impacts communication opportunities and performance levels in a team setting.

“Women are perceived as less competent and influential than men when they are working in teams — this is a fact,” says Phillips, who is co-chair of Northwestern’s Center on the Science of Diversity. She cited her study (featured in Kellogg Insight) in which 150 business students broke into teams and worked on a task. The teams “presumed that men would perform better on the task,” she says. “But men and women actually performed the same.” Moreover, women who were deemed “experts” on the task at hand were perceived as less knowledgeable than male “experts,” and their expertise wasn’t utilized. As a result, “the group didn’t perform as well.”

To make your voice heard in the workplace, Phillips encouraged women to seek out a “partner” on their team “and have a truce,” she says. “In a meeting, have them ask you what you think and put you on the spot. Then you’re given ‘permission’ to speak up.”

The Women’s Business Association Conference was sponsored by Abbott, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Deloitte, John Deere, Microsoft, Bain & Company and Chevron. It was organized by Kellogg students Kimberly Whinna ’09, Melanie Eckenroth ’09, Leslie Mintzer ’09, Samantha Morton ’09 and Catherin Ng Wong ’09.