Jan Babiak avoided women's groups for 15 years. Now she leads a conversation on why women are underrepresented on boards and in high-powered leadership roles.
Jan Babiak set her first 10-year plan at age 8. Growing up in a trailer park in a family that struggled to put food on the table, she had never met anyone with a college degree — until she learned her third-grade teacher had one. So she decided she was going to go to college.
Once she achieved that goal, she decided her next target was to be a partner at a Big Four accounting firm. “I didn't realize it was unusual until I started at (Ernst and Young) and realized none of my peers had that target,” she says. “But that was their thing, not mine.”
Babiak spent 27 years at what's now EY, gradually making her way from intern to managing partner. Now retired from EY, Babiak is an independent director on the boards of drugstore chain giant Walgreens Boots Alliance, with annual global revenue topping $117 billion, and Bank of Montreal, one of the 10 largest banks in North America with more than $700 billion in total assets.
Babiak is also a global leader in the movement to make women on corporate boards a natural step, not a check-the-box chore. She teaches a three-day intensive course to help women prepare for board service through the Corporate Board Academy in Nashville, where she lives.
Babiak visited Tampa in late October for the Women's Conference of Florida, where she gave a keynote presentation on women's representation on company boards and leadership. The Business Observer spoke with Babiak before her presentation, on topics from her upbringing to her best and worst career decisions. Edited excerpts:
Why is there such a small representation of women on boards nationally and worldwide?
Because people are not looking in the right place for board members. In the Fortune 500 last year, there were 345 new board positions. Of those, two-thirds went to men. And that's typical, even for countries that have quotas.
Take that 115 women that went on boards last year and compare to Women Corporate Directors (a worldwide advocacy and support group) of which there are 3,500 members — I've never met one woman who wouldn't be delighted to sit on a board.
We still have three-fold oversupply. This is not a supply issue. This is a demand issue. If people get out of the men's locker room, I think they'll find many more candidates.
What do women bring to boards?
I think women bring the same thing to boards that men do. A board is made up of a matrix of skills. What you're looking for is a small number of people, say eight or 10, who cover off as many of the 20 skills that you can.
And then we often bring a different experience when you look at the workforce. The workforce is made up of 50% women, so we probably understand that experience better than the men do. I always think it is a travesty when you have a retailer, where women are the major buyer, and there are no women on the board or in their management. How can they possibly understand the buyer profile?
Statistics show that if you have a woman on your board, you'll get better return on equity, better return on investment, you'll have higher sales relative to others. That's just diversity of thinking.
How do you think businesses will get past the diversity-of-thinking issue?
I wish I knew. Some countries have gotten over it by quotas. This country does not agree with quotas. When I'm asked the question, I hate quotas, but what's my second option? I don't think we can just wait and watch this fix itself.
We're going to have to do something intentional. Whether it is finding ways like (some major U.S.) orchestras did with blind auditions — or whether we have to do something intentional with target quotas.
What can women do?
Let people know it is something you want to do. We as women, we tend to put our head down, work really hard and expect people to notice and say, 'Well done, let me give you a promotion, let me give you a raise.'
Men are known to negotiate and ask. In the United States, they say 70% of board positions go out through networks, not through headhunters or search firms. If people don't know you're looking, they don't expect you to be interested because you don't look like the profile of their board members who are largely men.
What's the best business decision you've made in your career?
Marrying Brian Babiak. I think so frequently women's careers are disadvantaged by the partner they choose. Because the partner may have expectations that they stay home with the children, or move with them, or that they have to make more money than them. You want someone that supports and celebrates you, realizing your full potential. I was intentional about that. I didn't wait until I was married to have that conversation. You're better to marry someone who is going to be supportive of you than who will support you financially.
What decision would you like to have a mulligan on?
Probably the big one would be that I stayed clear of women's networks for the first 15-plus years of my career because my early exposures to them was there was a lot of whining about work-life balance and child rearing ,and I felt that that's a discussion for both genders.
If people say more of the responsibility falls on the woman, then I say, 'Go talk to your husband, don't blame your employer.' That is not a woman's issue — that is a societal issue, a parenting issue. I came to the women's issues later, when I realized there were a lot of other things we should be talking about. Like unconscious bias.
What made you realize that these groups were talking about deeper topics?
I got exposed to one organization — the Committee of 200. I was in Europe, a senior woman at E&Y. As a favor, I went to this cocktail thing. I called my husband and said you better eat without me — I stayed until midnight. It was this amazing group of women who were entrepreneurs and business leaders and they were talking about raising funds for their companies and whether to get the Manolos or the Jimmy Choos. They were talking about what they thought of the election. I had no idea by the end of the evening if people had children or not.
Where do you get your ideas?
I read everything from traditional press to The Skimm. I read newspapers from four different countries every day. I look across a lot of sources. I read reports from the big consultancies.
Too frequently now people only have one resource... and then you begin to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that everyone thinks like you. I think that is really dangerous. I sit on different boards in different industries with different people and I'm constantly listening and learning.
Where do you get your time to think?
I love flying and I do a lot of international travel. I take work — I don't sit and drink and eat all the cookies and watch the latest movie. I use that time to reflect and read and think and draft most of my speeches on planes. I don't do Wi-Fi on planes. That's the one time I'm not getting email, I'm not in meetings, I don't have conference calls. I'm intentional about how I use my travel.
Did you ever meet any challenges as a woman in leadership?
As a woman you get discriminated against, groped, all of those things. There were times when I was literally told that I couldn't go on the job because I was a woman. I remember going on an engagement for an equipment manufacturer audit. The CEO liked to take the audit team out to strip clubs. It was real bothersome that I was on the job, but I was the only one with the skill set that they needed, so I had to make it clear to them that I didn't need strip clubs or to go out and drink.
What is your advice to women working their way up the ranks?
You have to be authentic to yourself. You have to pick your battles — that may not be a popular thing to say. Sometimes humor is inappropriately placed, other times more sinister. We usually know the difference.
When first having women's groups, men would make fun — 'Oh, are you off to your knitting circles?' We need to teach women what to do on these things. If a guy says that, I say, 'Huh, it's really interesting, I expect that out of a lot of men — but I expected more of you.'
I was at social event and a British gentleman said, 'Oh, husband's got a big job in the city then?' There are many ways you can react to that. But I looked at him, and smiled big and said, 'No, but his wife does.' We had a conversation, I went in to see him the next week and I sold a big contract to him.