Money and power are not women’s goals: they want to have influence and impact

Originally posted on 12 March 2018 

Carien van der Laan was the first Dutch woman to attend Harvard Business School, graduating with an MBA in 1980, and she was the first woman to work as a consultant at McKinsey & Company in the Netherlands. She was brought up in the USA and completed studies both in the USA and in Netherlands. She now has her own executive search company, Van der Laan & Co., placing women in top positions.

What was the strategy behind wanting to add an MBA to your education?

My first degree was in law, I studied at Utrecht University specialising in Civil Law. My second degree was an MBA, which I pursued because as a lawyer,  we wrote the contracts but hardly took part in the negotiations. I wanted to be involved during the negotiations too. I was lucky enough to be accepted to Harvard Business School’s MBA program class of 1980,  the first Dutch woman to attend.

In retrospect, did the MBA add value the value that you were aiming for?

In retrospect, pursuing an MBA was the best thing I ever did: business school was exciting and sometimes hair raising, but the students and professors were inspiring and there was such energy in the classroom and such great people to meet. In the summer between the two years, I worked for McKinsey in Amsterdam and this is where I started work after graduation until 1983.   

The first female consultant at McKinsey in the Netherlands

McKinsey did not have any female consultants when you started, how did you manage to make yourself visible to acquire this position? 

I always knew I wanted to join McKinsey, so before I left to go to business school I informed them that I had an interest in joining the company. So they kept tabs on me and offered the summer position. They did say that a law degree alone would not have interested them, having an MBA from Harvard vastly improved my chances of acquiring this job.

Did you encounter any challenges being the first female consultant?

McKinsey told me at the outset that I would initially work on government studies, because “Dutch executives were not used to female consultants”. But I was soon doing all manner of private sector studies and the fear of not being accepted turned out to be groundless.   I also never saw myself as being any different from the men, nor did I notice that they thought any differently.

Women and ambition

It has been said in the media that women in the Netherlands are not ambitious. Did you feel the need to dismiss this stereotype in the course of your career? 

I never thought that Dutch women were not ambitious; I thought that all Dutch people were less ambitious than Americans. I called it: ‘ the self-satisfied smoel (face)’ this expression that says: that’s just the way I am, and accepting it. In the US I had grown up believing that you could and should work to improve yourself and you could achieve anything if you applied yourself and worked hard enough.

Did you feel the need to prove that this statement is incorrect?

The myth of women not being ambitious is strangely persistent: women in the Netherlands do work less outside the home compared to men in the Netherlands or even compared to women in the US. Here in the Netherlands, we are still often stuck in the gender role patterns so that men see it as their duty to ‘bring home the bacon’ and women are under less pressure to work for financial reasons than women in the US. The thousands of women that I have met in the course of the past 13 years of Van der Laan & Co,  my executive search firm for women, are all as ambitious as hell to find meaningful work with impact and personal growth, if not aiming for the CEO job. Money and power are not women’s goals: women want to have influence and impact.

Making a difference

You started your executive search firm Van der Laan en & Co in 2011. What were the main reasons for starting this company? 

At a certain point in my career, it just became crystal clear to me that the reason that there were so very few women in top positions in Dutch businesses was because they were not even being considered for those positions. After I finished working for McKinsey I had an interview with one of the big headhunter firms and the partner just said to me “there is no demand for women” and that was that.

At the time of starting your own company what was the most valuable life lesson? 

I was consumed by the idea that this (sometimes unconscious) discrimination against women should stop and that the most practical way to do that was to ensure that women would at least be considered for positions for which they were qualified. Men just always believed that there were no qualified women. For example, I recently spoke with a man who said that during his years at the aerospace company Fokker, there were never any women working in production. However, when I mentioned two women of whom I knew were working in production at Fokker, he was caught by surprise, he had completely forgotten about them. Apparently just blocked them out. Even so, visibility of women in these roles is crucial to prove that there are qualified women for every position.

How is Van der Laan & Co making a difference for women? 

We usually present a 50-50 split of candidates for every position, men and women, unless we are specifically asked for female candidates only. We still do get many requests for women only as candidates, and it helps clients to see that there are always extremely well qualified women  for every job. Of course these requests only come from organizations that have already decided they want to appoint a woman. In other words, I still don’t think I can change a man’s mind about this subject. However, we have been instrumental in getting hundreds of women appointed to positions on boards and in top management.

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