Brandeis International Business School

Shattering glass ceilings: a panel’s perspective

A panel of accomplished Brandeis alumnae and faculty engaged in a dynamic, multigenerational conversation on women in business and economics

Five women spoke at the panel.

(From left to right): The panel consisted of Lisa M. Lynch, Lan Xue, Cathy Minehan, the moderator, Anne P. Carter and Amy Kessler.

Brandeis International Business School recently convened a panel of accomplished Brandeis alumnae and faculty for a dynamic, multigenerational conversation on women in business and economics. They shared their own experiences and personal insights from working in these traditionally male-dominated fields, as well as about the progress women have made toward shattering the glass ceiling.

The panel was introduced by International Business School Senior Associate Dean Kathryn Graddy and included Lisa M. Lynch, Brandeis University provost; Anne P. Carter, professor emerita of economics at Brandeis University; Amy Kessler ’89, MA’90, SVP and head, Longevity Risk Transfer, Prudential Retirement; and Lan Xue ’90, MA’91, founding partner and head of research, Trivest Advisors, Hong Kong. The discussion was moderated by Cathy Minehan, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Here are our top five takeaways from the panel discussion:

1. Don’t be afraid to make your own opportunities

Pathways to advance your career are not always easy to come by, so don’t be afraid to create those chances for yourself. Carter shared her experience of being appointed a senior research associate when her desired vocation was to teach at a time when women in higher education were a rarity rather than the norm. 

“I went to the chair of the department, and he said, ‘You don’t want to teach,’ and I said I did want to teach. He said, ‘There aren’t any courses that we can assign to you.’ So I made up a course for myself.”

2. Play to your strengths and don’t fall prey to the “confidence gap”

When opportunities do present themselves, don’t sell yourself short and not pursue them. Kessler noted that women are far less likely than males to apply for posted job opportunities if they don’t believe they possess every qualification listed. 

“That’s what I call the ‘confidence gap.’ And I believe we can all help each other close it. There probably isn’t anyone who has all of the qualifications stepping into the position. Put yourself forward. Don’t wait to be tapped.”

3. Measure yourself on your achievements – not your gender

Quantifiable benchmarks are an accurate measure of your success and skills. Your gender isn’t. Xue found this to be true throughout her career, but especially early on. 

“Finance, generally, was not considered a female industry, but I actually think women have a very good advantage in this industry. Because your achievement, your work, can be easily quantified.” 

Kessler agreed, noting that in an “ocean of men,” she checks at the door the feeling of being the only woman.

4. Collaboration is key

Don’t feel you have to go it alone. Working as part of a team can help you to achieve your ambitions. During her time as interim president of Brandeis University, Lynch worked toward bringing the campus together. 

“A lot of folks talk about the book Lean In that says women need to lean in in order to take charge and move forward. My own experience throughout my career is that you do best when you’re pulling together. You can do more than when you’re just a party of one.”

5. Diversity is more than just a gender issue

While we still have a way to go in terms of diversity and parity in the workplace, we’ve also made great strides in the past century. The panelists concluded the afternoon with their thoughts on the future: 

“It’s no longer a ‘nice thing’ to do to have diversity in the workplace. It’s no longer the ‘nice thing’ to do to pay people what they’re worth. It is now the businesslike thing to do. It’s the thing that supports the bottom line.” — Minehan 

“Having women in the workforce is not just for your own benefit or satisfaction. It brings psychological benefits to the entire family as well.” —Xue 

“Diversity is not just about women. Diversity is about everybody. It’s about diversity of thought. It’s how you keep your team together and sustainable.” — Kessler