The challenges women face often cut across industries. But some are also unique to specific sectors. Women who have risen high in four industries -- finance, health, technology and media -- illuminated these issues at The Wall Street Journal Women in the Economy conference last week by recounting their own experiences and assessing how women generally have fared in their fields.
Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments in Chicago, spoke with The Wall Street Journal's Rebecca Blumenstein. Julie Louise Gerberding, president of Merck & Co.'s Merck Vaccines unit, sat down with the Journal's Laura Landro. Marissa Mayer, Google Inc.'s vice president, consumer products, talked with the Journal's Julia Angwin. And Debra L. Lee, chairman and chief executive of BET Networks, a unit of Viacom Inc., spoke with the Journal's Alessandra Galloni.
Here are edited excerpts of their conversations.
Related: What's Next For Google's Marissa Mayer?
A Broader Perspective
Rebecca Blumenstein: Mellody, you played such a major role in building Ariel up. Could you describe how you did it? There's a stereotype that women don't know how to manage money and don't know how to take risks.
Mellody Hobson: I was an intern at my firm. I fell in love with the investment business, and from the very beginning I knew this was where I was going to work for my career. So I could think very long term about how to build our company. That ultimately allowed us to accomplish quite a bit.
RB: Did you have more freedom as a woman, less of a hindrance from some of the structural barriers that might have come up at a big company?
MH: There's no question about it. My business partner, John Rogers, who started our firm, was very used to strong women. His mother was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Chicago law school, in the '40s.
So John was always very happy for me to be out and about representing Ariel.
RB: You have very strong ties politically in Chicago. You appear on "Good Morning America. " You're very involved in your community and things outside of work. Could you talk about the importance of reaching out and almost building your own persona?
MH: With some women, even in my own firm, you have to sort of push them out because they think, "I've got to do a really good job, which means staying very focused." I learned very early that I can do a better job if I have other stimuli that give me a broader perspective.
And what people with that focused mind-set don't realize is how important those outside relationships can be. I helped Bill Bradley when he ran for president in 2000. I worked as hard on his campaign as I worked on my job every single day. Obviously, we were unsuccessful. But then one day, Bill calls and says, "I'm on the board of Starbucks, and I'm taking you with me." He recommended me to Howard Schultz. I never imagined that was possible -- I'm like this pipsqueak in Chicago.
So I get to be in the room with one of the most successful brands in the world, with a front-row seat to all the things that are going on around the world. And, ultimately, I get to bring those ideas and knowledge back to our firm as it relates to all the other investing that we are doing.
So I always say to people in terms of going out and being of this world -- be it business, politics, nonprofit or whatever -- it actually makes you a better businessperson.
The Nature of Leadership
Laura Landro: For those of you who aren't familiar with Dr. Gerberding's many accomplishments, she started out as a physician and was in academia for some years before she went into public service and ran the Centers for Disease Control, where she was basically on the front lines protecting us from all of the horrible things out there -- bioterrorism, SARS, anthrax. After leaving public service, she went to head a large business, Merck Vaccines. You've said you think women have certain characteristics that make it easier for them to be good managers. Can you elaborate on that?
Louise Gerberding: In a word, meta leadership. Which is not just knowing yourself and being able to lead within your organization, in a vertical way, but it's the horizontal leadership: the ability to lead networks of people who are not in your own power domain. That horizontal leadership takes different skills than vertical leadership. And it requires people to know how to negotiate, to be able to be true and effective partners and collaborators, to find that third path, to be able to walk in someone else's shoes with emotional intelligence and empathy.
And while men and women possess those skills, I think some of them are attributes that women are naturally inclined or more socialized to excel in. And in this very complicated world in which we live, that horizontal leadership probably is one of the key success factors for any organization.
LL: Tell us about how you wound up at the CDC and reorganized some things there.
LG: I was asked to come there to lead the Patient Safety Hospital Infections Group. Then, by an amazing set of coincidences, I was involved in the response to the anthrax attacks.
And I think that's what prompted the secretary to ask me to take on the leadership of the agency. Having been an emergency-room doctor and an ICU attending, I think I was naturally better at making decisions in those kinds of situations than people who hadn't been used to crisis management.
I think the CDC is the finest government agency there is. And yet it was not an agency designed for public-health preparedness or for emergency response. And suddenly our nation found itself in a situation where those were really important public-health imperatives. We had anthrax, we had SARS, we had avian influenza, we had monkey pox, we had West Nile marching across the U.S.
We had one public-health crisis after another. And so I felt that the public-health agency needed to evolve another set of capabilities and another set of strengths.
I went to the CEOs of the business leaders in Atlanta like Bernie Marcus from Home Depot, Oz Nelson, the former CEO of UPS, the CEO of Delta. I went and consulted with people who had to have faced organizational transformation in their own organizations and asked for their advice and consultation. I also went to the military because I have learned that our military probably does the best job of any organization in investing in leadership development. I hired some retired military personnel to come and help us with the preparedness planning for influenza pandemic.
Audience Question: At the CDC you had an opportunity during a time of crisis that gave you greater leadership. In your career or others, have you seen where women have stepped up to take jobs where others were reluctant to go because there's great opportunity for failure? And yet by taking those risky situations, those turnaround situations, they really did add to their toolbox.
LG: I certainly have seen women accept challenges that would be considered high-risk challenges. I don't know whether or not women or men are preferentially more suitable to those kinds of crises.
But what I do notice in crises is that women are more likely to reach to each other for support. So it was very natural for me when I was leading the CDC to find other women in government that I could connect to or confer with or talk to who would help me. And I in turn would try to support and help them.
I didn't observe much of that among the men that I encountered. I think men want to be perceived as more competent and more independently effective. And it may be harder to acknowledge that they need help or that you can create a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts.
Making Tech Safe for Women
Julia Angwin: Marissa, you joined Google in '99 as the first female engineer. You've been a manager at Google since...
Marissa Mayer: Probably since about 2002.
JA: And so you manage a lot of male engineers, right? How is that for you?
MM: People ask me a lot about what it's like to be a woman at Google, but I'm not really a woman at Google -- I'm a geek at Google. I'm surrounded by people who love technology and love to try out the latest gadgets and love to see what can you do with this piece of code or that piece of code. We're excited about all the same things, and that's our common ground.
JA: One thing that's interesting about your generation is that in the past women in business tried to maybe keep some of their femaleness in check, whereas you celebrate your love of fashion, your love of cupcakes. These are two things the brand Marissa stands for. How has that helped or hurt you within the organization?
MM: I think it's just something that's separate. One of the things that's really important to me is getting more young women into science and technology. One of the trade-offs that often happens for girls is they think, "I like art. I like fashion. And I'm going to have to hide that or dial that back in order to get taken seriously." I don't think that's necessarily the case. In a lot of issues of fashion and things like that, there is also just an engineering problem that has to do with material strength and how something moves, how something works. A lot of times it's very engineered, so there are commonalities there.
I think it's important to send the message that you don't have to give up your femininity in order to be in a male-dominated space like the Internet.
JA: The McKinsey report did say tech and finance are lagging behind other industries in terms of women's success.
MM: I personally am very optimistic. I think that one of the things that really helps is the idea of, one, role models, but two, actually getting to see how technology applies in your everyday life. For me, growing up, I knew one woman computer scientist, and she worked at J.C. Penney on the catalog system. That wasn't something that I got to touch and feel every day.
Now, with the pervasiveness of the Internet, videogames, technology just being all around us, I hope a lot more young women get interested in how can you build that and how can you build the next great thing that really helps people.
Related: What's Next For Google's Marissa Mayer?
Team and Brand Building
Alessandra Galloni: Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks, is the woman behind famous shows like "The Game" and "The Mo'Nique Show." You started at BET in 1986 as general counsel. And then 10 years later you were promoted to chief operating officer. And you say many people below you tried to sort of trick you. They figured, "She doesn't know my business, so I'm not going to tell her things." Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened? And how much do you think that that had to do with the fact that you were a woman?
Debra Lee: It was a small, entrepreneurial company. I had been part of a peer group of probably seven or eight other executives. All except two were male. I went from being part of the peer group to being the boss. And I found out all the other men had asked for the COO position, so they were not happy when I was given it.
So there was a lot of "hide the ball" going on. They didn't feel like they should educate me and give me insight into their divisions. They thought the more they could just run their divisions and keep them away from me, that I would be unsuccessful. Little by little, I had to change that team and hire people who were loyal to me, who wanted to see me succeed and weren't there to see my demise.
AG: How long did it take you to complete the process?
DL: It took about six years before I felt very comfortable that it was my own team. And that's longer than it should have taken.
I don't want to generalize about women, but I was trying the "nice girl" approach. So I didn't come in, as some men do, and fire everyone and start all over. I tried to work with them. I tried to support them. I tried to show them that I was a good person. And then when I saw it wasn't going to work, I eventually had to fire most of them.
If I had to do it over again, I would come in day one and make changes.
AG: As we'll see in the media breakout session and part of the McKinsey report, the media actually do quite badly in terms of the advancement of women. But media also are very influential in terms of perception. Do you think the image of women in media does not help the advancement of women?
DL: It probably does not help. But I just think it's so important to have women in the rooms making decisions about programming and images, because that's the only we'll ever be at parity and ever really change the way we're going.
When I became CEO of BET, it was right after the Don Imus incident with Rutgers women's basketball. And people were looking at hip-hop and saying, "If Don Imus was wrong, then all these young hip-hop artists must be wrong, too, for calling women names and everything."
And all of a sudden one day I had protesters outside my house. And I'm like, "How does this happen? I'm doing the right thing, I care about women, I care about the images of African-Americans. And now I have protesters outside my house?"
But it really made me sit back and think about BET, BET as a brand, what I wanted my legacy to be, what I wanted to leave in terms of programming. And that's really influenced my approach to original programming and really has turned BET around in the past couple of years. I'm very proud of that.
This story originally appeared on WSJ.com.