In 1985, these women vowed to smash the glass ceiling. Few did

It was a challenge from an ambitious female executive: ``Ring me up in 10 years and find out how far I've come,'' declared Christiane Kolbus, then 24 years old, in 1985. An energetic training manager who had her sights set on becoming Commerzbank's first female personnel director, Kolbus was one of a dozen women profiled in a Feb. 18, 1985, BUSINESS WEEK article on corporate women breaking out of the ``velvet ghetto'' of administrative and personnel jobs in Europe. Armed with university degrees and protected by new legislation banning sex discrimination, they vowed to smash through the corporate glass ceiling and reach the top echelons of Europe's executive ranks.

Taking up Kolbus' invitation, BUSINESS WEEK is revisiting members of its ``Class of '85.'' Although a few have achieved their goals, most have had a pretty difficult time over the past 10 years. All have made sacrifices, either in their personal or professional lives. Those who have broken barriers say that holding power in a corporation isn't all it's cracked up to be. Their stories illustrate just how hard it is to change corporate Europe--and how much further women have to go.


Assistant General Manager, Commerzbank


In tradition-bound Germany, bucking the tide can be tough. Or so Christiane Kolbus discovered as she tried to build her professional and personal lives. She chose to enter one of the most profoundly male-dominated industries: banking. And she decided to marry an unemployed machinist, who stayed at home and restored antiques while she went out to earn the family's bread.

But things didn't work out the way that Kolbus had anticipated. After beginning her career as a Commerzbank trainee in Bremen in 1979, she rose through the ranks quickly to become chief of all the bank training programs in her corporate region. Working long hours and traveling more than three months out of the year, she couldn't even contemplate having children. Slowly, as time went on and her career at the bank developed, she and her husband grew apart. ``We developed in two different directions,'' she says. In 1990, when the bank transferred her to Leipzig to develop training programs for Commerzbank in eastern Germany, Kolbus left her husband behind.

Office politics also had an influence on her career. ``The higher up you go, the more political it gets,'' she says. ``And the less honest you can be.'' Now 35 years old and assistant general manager of training in the Saxony-Anhalt region, Kolbus recently quit Com- merzbank's highly coveted executive-training program, which grooms selected bank employees for senior management positions. ``I don't want to fight anymore. It takes a lot longer to change things than I thought,'' she now admits.

No longer driven, Kolbus says she now derives her satisfaction from friendships, skiing, yoga, and motorcycle riding. She has decided to remain childless. ``I'm reconciled to the idea of growing old without children. It's no longer necessary for me to depend on other people to be fulfilled,'' she says. Still, it's a far cry from the home and work life she envisioned just a decade ago.


Partner, Speller Coundley Associates


Among the Class of 1985, Marcelle Speller holds the record for the most jobs in the shortest period of time. Since she received her MBA at INSEAD, the Paris-based business school, in 1981, Speller has held six corporate jobs. They have ranged from senior projects manager at Heineken in Amsterdam to vice-president of strategic planning at American Express in Britain. Why so many moves? Downsizing and restructuring, mostly.

Speller, 45, doesn't blame sex discrimination for her layoffs. ``It never occurred to me because... lots of men had to leave as well,'' she says. But she's seen her share of trouble. After managing a $25 million account at a U.S.-based advertising firm in the early 1980s, she was passed over for promotion because the client expressed preference for a 40-year-old male. The then-31-year-old Speller quit the firm, got an MBA, and switched careers to marketing.

Later, as senior projects manager at Heineken, she was galled when colleagues asked her how it felt to do a man's job. She enjoyed it, but eventually quit to relocate back in Britain. Even in the 1990s, the board members at a ``very proper'' company where she worked as marketing director were reluctant to invite her to a luncheon meeting. ``I might have dropped from Mars for all they knew; they didn't know what to say to me,'' she says.

ENCOURAGING TOKENISM. Speller says this will change as more women prove themselves as managers. She's fiercely opposed to U.S.-style affirmative-action programs for women. They are counterproductive, she argues, because they ``make gender an issue'' and encourage tokenism. Her job as strategic planning manager at American Express, for example, was ill-defined and unrewarding--largely because it was created just to bring in more women executives, she says. ``Americans are naive to think you can make things right by bulldozing your way through with affirmative-action programs,'' she says.

Laid off in 1989, Speller got married, and with her engineer husband established a project management consulting firm, Speller Coundley Assoc. While she might consider returning to the corporate world if the right job comes along, she admits to being a bit frustrated by it all. ``There's one group working 90 hours a week and killing themselves and another which is unemployed,'' she says. For now, she'll stick to being her own boss.


Partner, Korn/Ferry Carre/Orban International


Hilary Sears made it to partner at her company, executive search firm Korn/Ferry Carre/Orban International. But the 49-year-old headhunter is disappointed with the view from the top. Although executive search is considered part of the ``velvet ghetto,'' there are only 21 women among the 170 partners in her firm. Those women who do join the inner circle don't necessarily wield the same influence as their male counterparts. ``All partners are not equal,'' says Sears.

One problem, says Sears, is that women managers in Britain are stifled by male-dominated social convention. Networking, the lifeblood of the search business, is restricted for women because many clubs still exclude them. That's a big drawback for someone at an executive search company where bringing in new business is the key to gaining stature. As a result, women often don't get to shape strategy and management style at the firm, she says.

To get where she is today, Sears had to focus intensely on her goals and make sacrifices in her personal life. She got out of advertising in 1981 when she realized its limitations for women and went into the search business, detouring briefly to pick up an MBA. She put in 12-hour days, networked in the evenings, and made the firm's billing targets. ``I had one objective: becoming a partner,'' recalls Sears, who was 41 when Carre/Orban made her dream come true. When she was 43, she married a former business-school classmate who was divorced with three children. But she has no children of her own.

A popular speaker at management conferences and on radio and television, Sears was asked in 1990 to found the central London branch of the Institute of Directors, a professional association for board members. She built the group up to 5,000 members but was dismayed that only 7% were women, and she, as chairperson, was the only one invited to sit on the board. When she left the association last June, after five years, no one called. ``I was a token,'' she says regretfully. That's not the role she had in mind.


Research Assistant, House of Commons, London


Chantal Davies couldn't have asked for a more exciting career. With an MBA and seven years of international banking under her belt, Davies was jetting around the world as senior project finance director for S.G. Warburg PLC in London when BUSINESS WEEK met her in 1985. From the Channel Tunnel to the North Sea to French West Africa, she was negotiating megadeals and enjoying every minute of it.

Then, in 1988, her first son was born. Trying to be Supermom, Davies would kiss him on her way to Warburg at 7:30 in the morning and kiss him upon return at 8 in the evening, when he was again fast asleep. The weekends were even worse. Her husband, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, expected her to join him at speeches and social functions in his constituency, which is 2 1/2 hours away from London. ``It's expected that the wife of an M.P. be by his side,'' she says.

OPTING OUT. The 43-year-old Davies shudders, recalling tense Friday nights as meetings dragged on at Warburg. Could she finish up business, change from her power suit into a dress, grab the baby to spend the weekend at their country estate, and be on time for an evening fundraiser? ``Corporate life is not family-friendly,'' says Davies, resentfully.

Finally, while on maternity leave with her second son, Davies decided to opt out of international finance. She resigned from Warburg and became her husband's secretary. Now, instead of negotiating megadeals, Davies photocopies and answers telephones in her husband's office at the House of Commons. Every weekday at 3:25 p.m. sharp, she heads off to pick up her two boys from their primary school and get them started on their homework before she returns to her husband's office for another couple of hours of work.

For Davies, it might have been different if Europe's corporate environment had been more flexible--or if her husband had quit his political job to take care of their children. But neither she nor he wanted that, and at Warburg the corporate routine of international banking was relentless. ``It was enormously demanding, and the pressure was high,'' she says. ``Unless you were prepared to make it your top priority, you were heading for trouble.''

Davies misses the intellectual challenge of her career and hopes to resign from her secretarial job after her boys go off to boarding school. But she'll never go back to full-time work in the City. ``I don't want to be in an office 12 hours a day,'' says Davies. She'll be looking for a job with more flexibility than banking.


Retired assistant R&D manager, Nestle


Elvira Senaud-Cristofaro, 60, leads a quiet life on her horse farm 60 kilometers from Lausanne. Last July, the assistant research-and-development manager for Swiss food giant Nestle decided to opt for early retirement after she was asked to share managerial responsibility for worldwide R&D with a man. ``It wasn't logical to have two managers in one group,'' she explains. Instead of spending 12-hour days in the lab, she helps her husband with the horses, flowers, and fruit trees on their 2.5-hectare property.

Senaud-Cristofaro climbed a long way in her 34 years at Nestle. But it was rough going. Born in Turin, she started at the group as a 26-year-old PhD in chemistry, doing basic research in its coffee and tea division. It took six years before she became a manager, responsible for a laboratory, and another 12 years before she was assigned to develop a new product.

LABORATORY PIONEER. In 1984, after 23 years, she finally was promoted to assistant manager of R&D at one of the company's 20 centers for product development. She was the only woman among 150 senior managers in Switzerland. Today, there are five women among 170 such executives. ``The career of a woman is much harder than that of a man,'' says Senaud-Cristofaro, who is sure she would have risen higher and faster at the company had she been a man.

Nevertheless, she's proud of her accomplishments. She developed Yes, a successful chocolate cake snack with a long shelf life. Buitoni's frozen pizza and pasta lines also came out of her laboratory, and she helped pioneer the use of microwave ovens in food processing back in the mid-1960s. Senaud-Cristofaro has no children. She told BUSINESS WEEK in 1985 that she ``had to choose between a career and private life.'' Now, she says that she looks back with no regrets. ``I'm quite happy with what I achieved. I gave a lot but I also got a lot.''


CEO, Basic Petroleum International, Paris


She sits on countless boards, has advised French presidential candidates, and is author of a book on Japan. At 66, Gilberte Beaux, chief executive officer of Paris-based Basic Petroleum International Ltd., is one of Europe's most accomplished women managers. She points to two reasons for her success: She had to work and she wanted to make a lot of money.

Beaux was just 17 when she entered Parisian banking in 1946. Her father, a businessman who fell on hard times during World War II, had died. She was the eldest child. Although not yet finished with secondary school, she took typing and stenography courses and got a job as a shorthand typist at Seligman, a bank on Boulevard Haussmann.

That was just the start. Studying English at night, Beaux pressed her bosses to let her work on the banking side. Three years later, she was named assistant manager of foreign operations. She began studying finance at night and was made head of foreign operations. In 1954, at 25, she became the first woman to graduate with honors from Paris' Technical Institute of Banking and became a top administrator at Seligman.

Beaux moved to the Compagnie Financiere de Paris in 1956 and became a director in 1962. Then, in 1969, came a key turning point. Anglo-French financier Sir James Goldsmith snapped her up to head his banking operations and oversee other international ventures. When Goldsmith divested most of his holdings in the 1980s, Beaux bought into Basic Petroleum, a Guatemalan oil producer. In 1988, she became its CEO. Since then, the market value of the NASDAQ-listed company has soared from $12 million to $160 million.

Beaux has managed to combine a successful career with family life. Although she traveled, her daughter, now 35, was her top priority when they were together. ``It's hard to drop out for a family if you want to get to the top,'' she says. To her, it's no surprise there are so few female CEOs, since many women still choose family over career. But that's all right, she says. ``Women should be able to do what they want in life...just like men.''

By Linda Bernier in Brussels


Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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