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Pull Up a Chair

Alumnae leaders discuss how to take that “seat at the table”

By Stephanie Shestakow ’98

In a now famous 2010 TED Talk, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urged working women to take control of their careers and demand the chance to “sit at the table,” a notion she reemphasized in her 2011 Barnard Commencement address. The following year, President Barack Obama echoed the point in his speech to the Class of 2012, encouraging the graduates to “fight for your seat at the table.” But what does it really take to earn—and keep—that proverbial seat? At Reunion, several alumnae who have risen to executive levels shared their stories at the Friday panel, “A Seat at the Table.”

Linda Fayne Levinson ’62, Katherine Plourde ’73, and Bernice Clark-Bonnett ’85, discussed their career paths and offered insight into the realities of achieving and maintaining their “seats.” Dana Points ’88, the editor-in-chief of Parents and American Baby magazines who serves on the boards of the March of Dimes and Safe Kids Worldwide, moderated the conversation.

Levinson, a Barnard trustee, serves as a director at car-rental company Hertz, as well as at technology companies Ingram Micro and NCR, Jacobs Engineering Group, and Western Union. She majored in Russian studies at Barnard, received a master’s from Harvard, and holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. “I continually reinvent myself,” she said. The first woman elected partner at McKinsey & Co., Levinson has also been a partner at venture-capital firm GRP partners and at private-equity firm Wings Partners. She credited good problem-solving and people skills as elements of her success. She also stressed the importance of finding mentors, whom she defined as “people who can tell you how an organization works, who have your back, and who can walk you through complicated political situations.” One does not only have to look to female mentors; you can learn from both men and women. Said Clark-Bonnett, “It’s about who you find a connection with—people you respect in how they lead.”

Plourde, who holds a BA in English literature and an MBA from Fordham University, championed the qualities of flexibility and adaptability. She serves on the boards of the Pall Corporation, a filtration company, specialty-chemicals producer OM group, and 120 East End Corporation, with previous service on the boards of Asphalt Green and National Child Labor Committee. Plourde said that the culture of corporate boards is changing; in the past, board members were CEOs or friends of the board’s chair. Now more boards seek experts to include in the conversation, such as Plourde, who brings her expertise with chemical companies (she was rated the number-one specialty-chemical analyst in the annual Institutional Investor poll from 1987 to 1997) to those boards on which she serves. At the panel, Plourde described women as the “worker bees” of these boards. In every meeting, she said, women are ready and willing to contribute. Women are also good at picking up subtexts, added Levinson, “[They] tend to name the elephant in the room,” she said. Still, in 2012, only 17 percent of all Standard and Poor’s companies’ board seats belonged to women.

Clark-Bonnett double-majored in sociology and piano performance in the arts program. She too earned an MBA from Stern. In the 1980s she joined the world of advertising, which she described as “very hierarchical and male-dominated, much like the television show Mad Men—even in the 80s.” After working 15 years at top-tier agencies, Clark-Bonnett joined Macy’s, where she’s now senior vice president of marketing and leads a combination of teams that include almost 100 people. She said perseverance and hard work have earned her a seat at the table, as has seizing the right opportunities to lead.

How do women find or choose a leadership style? “Be heard,” advised Levinson, “and stick with who you are, but find a style of being a strong persona [that] does not make everyone in the room uncomfortable.” Great leaders are not afraid of change—all panelists mentioned the value of flexibility, and the ability not to panic. All found that as leaders in companies, it is important to keep staff motivated, and show appreciation for everyone’s role and hard work. Good leaders create good companies and select a diverse group of people to manage. As women, they need to be skilled and forthright negotiators, both for themselves and with others. “Women are terrified, they won’t negotiate for themselves,” remarked Levinson. All the panel participants agreed that women should not compromise themselves in terms of higher salaries or promotions.

A common theme of the conversation: Own your success. Men often have no problem doing this, while women are reluctant to draw attention to how accomplished they are. Successful people talk about their paths to achievement, and their results. “Don’t just come in and do your work,” said Plourde, “Let people know what you accomplished today.” And every day.

Latest IssueWinter 2023