Promoting Women Leaders: Q&A With Ellen Taaffe

Promoting Women Leaders: Q&A With Ellen Taaffe

Ellen Taaffe, a long-time industry leader and now director of women's leadership programs at the Kellogg, shares her insights about how to foster women leaders in the workplace.

This past May, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University hosted its first-ever Global Women's Summit. The summit brought together more than 800 women leaders from industry and academia to share advice and insights on topics like how women in the workforce can manage up, lead in a biased world, and make bold moves to advance their careers.

We had the opportunity to talk with one of the summit speakers, Ellen Taaffe, who is a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of women’s leadership programs at Kellogg. Prior to her current position, Taaffe spent many years as an industry leader at companies including PepsiCo, Royal Caribbean, Whirlpool, and Smith-Dahmer Associates. Taaffe shares her perspectives on leadership, drawing on both her corporate experience and her current role in academia.

You’ve experienced a lot of career success so far in your lifetime. How does your work experience inform the women’s leadership programs you direct at Kellogg?

Women now make up more than half of the incoming classes in the top U.S. universities, but still only a small fraction of CEOs, board directors, and NGO and government leaders. While we’re now getting women into the professions in equal numbers, we are not yet getting them to the top through three critical key decision points—career launch, mid-career, and executive sphere—where women face unique issues culturally and biologically.

I personally have had the opportunity to navigate these pivot points myself through a career that included opportunities to lead large consumer brands, run a startup, and become a board director. Additionally, I am a Kellogg alumna and working mother, which, combined with my experience, enables me to recognize the needs across career stages and student programs. The diversity of my experience enables me to bridge the research with practice and bring real-world examples to many of the key topics we address in the programming, including how to make smart, bold career moves, negotiate effectively, and build relationships that nurture and advance.

In your work with women’s leadership programs, do you find that the programming crosses over into other areas of diversity and inclusion?

As part of the overall Kellogg experience, all of our students, regardless of gender, learn about the need to be inclusive leaders, starting from orientation on campus. We see gender as one part of our overall approach to learning about diversity and inclusion.

What can business schools do to help ensure a more inclusive and equal business environment for future workers?

Business schools should focus on developing inclusive leaders who will drive change in their companies and expand opportunities for everyone’s advancement. This focus on inclusive leadership is something that needs to be central to the culture of business school and the workplace.

At Kellogg, for example, our “Manbassadors” club empowers men to be allies for women at Kellogg, at home, and at work. The club engages students in conversations about topics including how to build an inclusive culture when you are a leader at your company one day, and simply being more self-aware of workplace dynamics, like how often women are interrupted in meetings compared to men. Additionally, we have a Supportive Partnership series that addresses topics like how two people in a relationship can have big, bold, rewarding careers at the same time.

Alternatively, what do you think businesses need to do, based on your vast experience in the corporate sector?

Company reflection is critical. Leadership should identify areas of bias and barriers to upward mobility that exist in their current workplace. More than likely they should drive changes today in company policies, practices, and culture that will create more opportunities tomorrow for a diverse team at all levels. For example, businesses should review recruitment language, performance appraisal processes, and selection practices to ensure job postings and promotions do not bias one gender over another.

Companies need to create policies that support different life stages accompanied with a work culture that embeds the policies in practice. For example, offering and encouraging men to take parental leave leads to shared caregiving at home as a key support to working mothers.

Additionally, company leaders should more clearly communicate and encourage the career paths that lead to executive levels while creating a level playing field and the inspiration for all to have a fair chance to ascend to those ranks. Providing the training, the assignments and experiences, and the mentoring required will prepare more women for these opportunities.

In a recent article, you state, “[W]omen have made gains in my lifetime and are afforded opportunities that don’t exist for many women across the globe.” Do you think there’s anything unique about the current calls for more inclusive thinking and practices that will help expand opportunities for women globally?

We are a global marketplace, and clearing the way for more opportunities in the U.S. will positively reflect in the opportunities expected and created in other parts of the world. While there have been tremendous gains in the U.S., there is still significant work to be done in areas such as closing the gender pay gap, increasing the percentage of women in the C-suite and on boards of directors, making paid parental leave a standard policy practice.

In an ideal future in which gender parity is achieved, will we continue to need dedicated women’s programs and initiatives in education and in business? Are there benefits beyond progressing toward equity?

Even when we reach equity, dedicated women’s program and initiatives will still have a strong role to help sustain the equity and support women as they navigate the unique challenges at each of their career pivot points.

Ellen Taaffe is a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of women's leadership programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.