Influential Women in Europe Take Different Paths to the Top


The Wall Street Journal

The glass ceiling in Europe is cracking.

But a woman’s road to the top still isn’t easy, and it’s more likely to be winding than straightforward. It also may involve some trans-Atlantic shuttling.

In fact, five of the top 10 women voted most influential in European business by an independent panel formed by The Wall Street Journal Europe either hail from the U.S. or spent formative years there. That includes the top two. Fabiola Arredondo, the departing managing director of Yahoo! Inc.‘s European unit, was born in the U.S. to Spanish parents. She narrowly edged out Texan Marjorie Scardino, chief executive officer of U.K. media conglomerate Pearson PLC.

It’s not that a woman has to have an American connection to make it in corporate Europe. Far from it — the majority of the 30 most influential businesswomen selected by the Journal panel spent most of their working lives here. The U.K. and the Continent have made progress in the past decade in producing and promoting businesswomen, as proved by the clout of the likes of Marianne Nivert, chief executive of the Swedish telecommunications company Telia AB, and Ana Patricia Botin, the head of Suala Capital Advisers and a member of the board of Spain’s Banco Santander Central Hispano SA.

But few of the female power brokers — though ultimately all tremendously successful — followed the traditional European route of the homegrown company manager who slowly rises through the ranks of a big corporation. Some on the Journal list came to prominence in family-run companies, while many others made their marks in young, talent-strapped concerns in the technology sector. Interestingly, several operate in Central Europe, where the demise of socialism triggered a huge demand for a new generation of leaders.

“As a result of the opening of Eastern Europe and the massive privatization programs, young people and women got new and more opportunities,” says Barbara Kux, director of Central European sales for Ford Motor Co., who spent years herself building the Central European operations of Nestle SA and ABB Ltd.

Off the Beaten Track

Those rare few who spent decades with Europe’s big, established companies mostly enjoyed unusual careers. Concetta Lanciaux joined the French luxury-goods giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA 15 years ago and is now the company’s head of human resources. But in the 1970s, the native of Italy earned her Ph.D. in social studies in the U.S., taught film studies at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and wrote a history of creativity there. Today, Marie-Claude Peyrache sits on the executive board of France Telecom SA. Before that, she spent years in France Telecom’s international division — far from the power circles of government officials and engineers who still dominate the company. Generally speaking, Ms. Peyrache says that “French companies are starting to want” to bring more women into senior positions. But she adds that “you really have to make an effort if you want to put a woman in a post of responsibility at France Telecom today.”

Given the obstacles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CVs of many powerful women in Europe have “U.S.” written all over them. “Certainly a large percentage of women leaders who I have come across in Europe have had some sort of exposure to America — whether they’ve been brought up there, educated there or worked there,” says Lucy Marcus, a London-based venture capitalist who runs HighTech Women, a meeting-and-mentoring organization.

Theories abound as to the reason: that women reared or educated in America have an edge here because they are more assertive, or that they know more about technology, or that they have more experience dealing directly with men in power. What might best explain the American connection is that the U.S. got a head start on Europe in training women to serve in the executive suite, and then on accepting them there. Women started enrolling in business schools earlier and in greater numbers in the U.S., though Europe is catching up: In the Financial Times’s 2000 ranking of the top 50 global business schools, the average student body of those in the U.S. were 30% female, while those in Europe were 26%.

The U.S. Connection

So, considering that the experience pool is larger across the Atlantic, it makes sense that some of it would spill over to Europe, where there aren’t as many women in the pipeline for top corporate slots.

“To get into influential positions at big companies you have to have been working for 10 to 15 years — and there are few women over here who have really done that,” says Ann-Kristin Achleitner, a banking and finance professor at the European Business School in Oestrich-Winkel near Frankfurt and a member of the Journal’s panel. Some of the highfliers came with the tide of U.S. talent of both genders that arrived when the Internet boom caught on here. While there is little doubt that the Internet has created new career opportunities for all women in Europe, American women seem to have been particularly adept at exploiting them.

Careful not to attribute individual success stories to either gender or U.S. roots, many women — European and American — nevertheless say that U.S. universities and corporate training grounds churn out a type of female who appears confident and at ease in high-powered working environments. “U.S. universities teach women a different concept of their careers and they boost their confidence,” says Martina Rissmann, a Berlin-based partner for Boston Consulting Group. “So you don’t get the kind of restraint and understatement that even extremely well-educated women tend to exhibit over here.”

Martha Lane Fox, who in 1998 co-founded PLC, a U.K. based online retailer, is one of Europe’s best-known female entrepreneurs. She recalls that Linda Fayne-Levinson, a Los-Angeles-based director of Lastminute, once told her that “you’d be so much happier in the U.S. where there are many women high up in business.”

Style Over Substance

Ms. Lane Fox no doubt would have been happier with the kind of publicity businesswomen tend to receive in the U.S. In London, newspapers referred to her by her first name, dwelled on her aristocratic roots and Oxbridge upbringing and interviewed school chums to find out whether she had been pushy as a teenager.

Then, a year ago, at the time of’s initial public offering, The Daily Telegraph gave Ms. Lane Fox a makeover, using collage photo-technology to show her wearing what the Telegraph, at least, thought were fashionable outfits. “She is extremely pretty and has a great figure,” the Telegraph wrote. “Sadly, though she does not make the best of herself… While we would never want to criticize the founder’s business accomplishments, when it comes to style, we think she could do with some tips.”

Ms. Lane Fox says the personality-based coverage she got “did a lot of things for the company.” But she didn’t enjoy that kind of spotlight. “I get a lot of things written about me that would never get written about a man,” she says. “Stuff like [the Telegraph story] chipped away at me.”

Businesswomen in Europe also complain about the attention given to their home life, reflecting what they say is an attitude that still pervades in corporate Europe (and that is certainly not unheard of in America): that women need to decide between careers and families. When Clara Furse, a Canadian-born executive, took the top job at the London Stock Exchange in January, she snapped at reporters who asked how she balanced work and family. “I’m very disciplined and I have time for work and time for my family,” she said.

But the atmosphere is changing, however slowly, as the demand for new ideas and talent triggered by globalization and the technology boom helps break down barriers. “The market in Europe in Q1 of 2001 is too competitive and too fast-moving to have biases against sex, race or anything else,” says Julie Meyer, a California native and a graduate of French business school Insead who heads Ariadne Capital, a London-based venture-capital fund. “Globalization, the Internet and the knowledge economy have created a level playing field.”

— Kevin Delaney in Paris, Deborah Ball in Milan and Silvia Ascarelli in London contributed to this article.


1 March 2001

In the Press Archive