Why The First Years After College Are Crucial For Women Aiming For The C-Suite

The dean of Kellogg School of Management argues why we should be teaching women to take bigger risks early in their careers.

A few years ago, after my daughter Haley got accepted into college, she decided that she wanted to take a gap year. Since she was my oldest child and I was not quite sure how I was going to pay for college for all three children, I told her that if she did, she would have to fund it herself.

Over the next few weeks, Haley proceeded to research and craft an impressive 12-month itinerary that would have her working on three projects in three different countries. As she presented the final plan to me, I suddenly realized that my 18-year-old daughter was proposing to make her way around the world on her own—literally. I flinched and told her that I wasn’t sure I could support her plan.

To my amazement, my strong-willed daughter didn’t lash out to defend her plan. Instead, she reflected a moment, turned to me, and calmly said, "But, Mom, this is what the person I want to become would do." I was blown away.

As you might imagine, Haley has taught me many life lessons. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that we have a responsibility to encourage and support young women to be deliberate in dreaming about the people they want to become.

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 government leaders. This data makes it clear that while we’re now getting women into the game in equal numbers, we are not yet getting them through to the top.

At Kellogg School of Management, we’ve identified three critical pivot points where we’re losing women on the way to the C-suite:

  • The launch
  • The child rearing years
  • The transition to senior leadership.

Here, I focus on the launch—that critical first job after college, because the data suggests that many women may be opting out even before they start.

Recent stats from Northwestern and Harvard show that, in their first year out of college, women from these top schools are up to 50% less likely than their male peers to enter the most competitive business tracks, like investment banking and management consulting.

Yet when I look back at my own career, I realize just how important my first job at the Boston Consulting Group was for setting the trajectory that landed me as the first female dean of a top business school. At BCG, I got important imprinting in the ways of business and how markets work and began building my analytical and problem-solving skills.

If we want our best and brightest young women to become great leaders, we have to convince more of them that their first job out of college ought to be in business, and they should be going for the big jobs regardless of what career they want to pursue.

Because business is the dominant social institution of our age, if you don’t understand business, you won’t be an effective leader in any sector. And that first job is not the time, I would argue, to focus on comfort, balance or even mission. That can, and should, come later.

For ambitious women—women who dream about breaking the glass ceiling—you need to use these early years wisely. Your first job should be a time when you gain credentials, take risks, travel, and go for as big and bold a business opportunity as you can land.

Three years ago, as Haley (who really does want to save the world) was graduating from college, she announced that she was taking a job in management consulting in Mexico City. This time, I checked the clench in my stomach and listened in awe as she went on to explain that she needed to better understand how business works in emerging economies, how it creates jobs and wealth and can be used to lift people out of poverty.

I can’t wait to see the woman she will become.

Sally Blount is dean of Kellogg School of Management.

[Image: Flickr user Alex]

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4 Comments

  • Royce Hauw

    While the article brings about several interesting points, in the particular the valuable training that companies like BCG provides, the article appears to focus only on the top .1 % of young women that are able to get into a top tier school + into a top tier consulting practice. Companies like BCG is a rare exception to the norm in society. Very few companies can attract such talent and have an environment to develop. What makes the situation even worse is the education system is misaligned with the overall needs of the business. My advise to your women would be to take some time and learn more about the world and themselves and see what they want to accomplish. I have seem enough good female friends who have "made it" in the corporate world and finanically well off only to by dissatisfied with their life in their 40's. I would hope to think Ms. Blount has a deeper explanation that what the article is pointing out.

  • mindy

    "If we want our best and brightest young women to become great leaders, we have to convince more of them that their first job out of college ought to be in business" It is not more important for women to shoot for leadership in the business world. How very short-sighted! Maybe setting out on this trajectory will ultimately lead to higher earnings, but it doesn't mean that this is the right choice for all women. In my work on gender and leadership with young women at MIT, I applaud their desire to be leaders in their fields, as engineers and scientists and urban planners and public health leaders and community organizers and educators. Their sights are broader than the corporate boardroom. And this is how it should be. Let's not sell women short by limiting what we value in our society. Yes, I get that as feminists, we want young women to succeed, but let's broaden the definition of success.

  • Courtney Kirschbaum

    Great article. In 15 years in the corporate world, I observed women opting out at the very 'pivot points' mentioned here: the start, later on, for family, and finally moving on when the frustration from equally or less competent male colleagues moving up the ladder faster, pay injustices or just dealing with the old boys network. Professional women, particularly young women, might stick it out and get past these pivot points if they knew they could expect the same support network and solidarity men have in the workplace. In 15 years, I observed that the men almost always took care of men. I rarely saw the same behavior with professional women. I saw some, of course, but a far cry from the way men had each other's backs. One way to get more young women into careers and remaining in careers is to show them that they can expect solidarity and support from other women and then put our money where our mouth is and give it to them.