Inspirational Women- Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is the CEO of the consultancy 20-first, one of the world’s leading gender consultancies. In addition she is the author of two of my favourite books on gender equality, Why Women Mean Business and How Women Mean Business. And if that wasn’t enough she is the founder and honorary president for The European Professional Women’s Network, and Elle magazine put her in their top 40 list of most influential women leading change!

In short, she is a hugely successful and inspirational woman and I am thrilled to be able to bring you this interview with her. We spoke when Avivah was on a brief pit stop at her home in Paris, following trips to her birthplace Canada, Brazil and India!

Jane: Avivah, Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.

It’s no secret that I loved your first book co authored with Alison Maitland, for the fresh new perspective it brought to the gender debate. And the second, ‘How Women mean Business’ threatens to be just as successful. How did the writing of these books come about?

Avivah: The raw material came through my consultancy work with 20-first, but I had written books before as part of my previous work with The European Professional Women’s Network. Under the name of the network we had published a series of guides for professional women. I had some previous experience of the book world.

There are also two good reasons for writing a book:
1)    It gives you some form of copyright on your ideas. At least if you have it in print you can claim some ownership of your ideas when they are ‘borrowed’.
2)    It’s great to have all your ideas in one place so you don’t have to repeat yourself too often!

Did you have a specific career path? Did you plan your business career?

I grew up in Canada and was part of a very academic family. Business was not on the horizon throughout my education and I took a joint honours degree in Computer Science and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.

I didn’t have any goal at all. But I had heard my parents discussing the shortcomings of the academic life enough times to dissuade me from that route, so I went to Paris for a year and got a great job with L’Oreal. It involved lots of travel and eventually led me to attending INSEAD Business School at Fontainebleau. That opened lots of doors to me.

How did you get involved in gender politics? Was there a specific incident that triggered it? Were you subject to discrimination?
No, not myself; I grew up in Canada thinking the whole concept of gender was obsolete!  I have always had an interest in women and my mother was a very strong character. (My father died when I was quite young).

I started a communications company in the 80s and founded the European Professional Women’s Network in the 90s as a side line.It was listening to thousands of women across Europe talk about their careers and aspirations that really awakened to my interest..

I had also undertaken some research on dual career couples and knew that two corporate careers was not easy to combine. That research was partly prompted by my own marriage to a high flying executive. It’s an art to be complimentary and not competitive when two careers are involved.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing women in the workforce today?

I think the issue of gender being seen as a women’s issue. The corporate culture, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, sees the problems as being a woman’s responsibility; and worse – women often see it as women’s problems too!

A tick box mentality can result in organisations where women organise themselves into women’s groups, men support them but don’t get involved, and everyone feels comfortable. But absolutely nothing changes! I’d say don’t create women’s networks!
There has to be a fundamental rethink at the top executive level.

You mentioned Anglo-Saxon Culture as being particularly entrenched. You now live in Paris; do you find the issues for women there to be significantly different?
Yes, very. French women seem to me to have managed being both feminine and powerful. Anglo Saxon cultures still seem to frame choices between work and family. French women are not so tied to the idea that they should provide all the child care and the idea of having other forms of childcare and help in the home is not so frowned upon. There is no disapproval from others and a lot of public policy to support whatever choices parents make.

And French women are confident of their femininity. They wear make-up, heels, feminine clothes and have never thought they have to dress like men. If women in your organisation are still in grey and black suits the gender issue is still very live!

Mistakes help us grow and learn. What has been your best mistake in terms of the lessons it taught you?
When I created 20-First we started out as a coaching firm for women. And I realised it wasn’t going to achieve my aims, that something else needed to be done rather than just talking to women. My overall goal became to have a gender balance in the powerful positions as the only way to effect real change.

Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
My mother, a very strong woman as I mentioned before. I have learnt so much from the women I’ve worked with: balance, managing work, child rearing, everything. And there are women I admire greatly, like Christine Lagarde the French finance minister, who is a great supporter of women.

What has been the best piece of advice you have been given?

Be the change you want to see. Be different. Stay authentic, look and feel like a woman. People will listen to you if you have authority, professionalism and something to say! It’s about being comfortable in your skin and true to yourself.

What advice would you give to any aspiring business woman?

You mean apart from reading my books! I would say pay attention to the pacing of your career. Look particularly at your thirties, preferably before you get there. It’s a challenging time so discuss it and plan for it. Use a coach, listen to older women and learn from them So may women drop out in their thirties which is a huge loss to business. Think about it in advance.

And don’t worry about getting older! Getting older is great, possibly the best time of your life as your wisdom and experience grows.

And my final question, Avivah, what does the future hold for you? What are you looking to achieve over the next few years?

Good question! I want to push against the tidal wave, the tsunami of ‘let’s just do it the old way’. I want to change the mindset from a problem of genderto a major opportunity to reshape capitalism, the 20th century and the world, thanks to harnessing the complementary skills, styles and values of both women and men. I want to advance quickly with a handful of truly stellar corporate organisations that grab these ideas and lead the way.

Avivah, this is rousing stuff! Thank you so much. I hope the new book is a great success. I think it should be in every HR department!
If you’d like to find out more about Avivah and her company, click here


Posted on June 10th, 2010 by

2 Responses to “Inspirational Women- Avivah Wittenberg-Cox”

  1. Thanks Jane for this inspirational interview. I agree with Avivah’s views: it is up to women to make choices: do you want to wear boots or crystal shoes? Everything is allowed, as long as the choice is coherent. Showing up at work with crystal shoes for a race is not clever. Feeling comfortable and wearing the attitude that makes you feel good and is appropriate for your chosen path makes more sense.

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