In my conversations with female business leaders, I’ve found that most have had one common experience during their careers: that awkward moment when someone asked them an inappropriate or biased question that they would never ask a man.
When such a question arises, a woman must decide how to respond, to defend her rights without risking her career. Should she rebut with indignation? Laugh it off? Report it to HR? Or seethe in silence?
Since this is a dilemma many women encounter, I was eager to discuss this issue when Vibeke Krag, a respected director and former CEO of the Danish arm of RSA Insurance. Her response strategy, refined over her 30-year career, could help other women handle these uncomfortable queries.
Stunned, but seize the seconds to speak:
Vibeke admitted to me that she was unprepared for the first gender-biased question she received: “I grew up in Denmark and was taught that the genders had equal opportunity, and there was no difference if you were a man or a woman.”
So, imagine her shock during an interview for her first job when the interviewers asked, “Do you have any immediate plans to start a family?”
“I was startled, because my male competitors were not asked the same question,” recalls Vibeke, noting that such a comment would be illegal today. “But I did what was in my nature. I stood up for what I intended to do and responded ‘Yes, I plan to have children at some point. Do you have any financial difficulties paying for my maternity leave?’”
Vibeke says that, “This was an outrageous response on my part, but I was young, and my comment pushed them back in their chairs.” She adds that, while she was later offered the job, she declined the offer because, “I really didn’t want to work in a place where that was an issue.”
She explains that, “Looking back, if I had been prepared, I would have just truthfully, politely, and in a matter-of-fact way answered ‘Yes, I plan to have a family,’ and stopped without pushing back, but my reaction helped form the person I became. My style is to be straightforward, and, if the situation requires it, stand up for what I believe in.”
Vibeke emphasizes that for the majority of her work life, gender has not been an issue, but she has faced a few other occasions when she got to practice her response. It is not uncommon that women face subtle comments in the workplace: “I understand that women can still be met by comments like ‘Are you taking a part-time day?’ when leaving work to pick up children. This puts additional pressure on what is probably already quite a load, balancing career and life. It is important to distinguish whether comments like that are meant as a ‘nice tease,’ where you can laugh along, or if there’s an element of bullying in it, in which case you should broaden your shoulders, look confident and push back.”
Vibeke adds, “Building a diverse culture is really the best tool to avoid bias and creates great places to work. One of the best and most dynamic executive teams I have worked for was with RSA Scandinavia, where we were exactly 50 percent men and 50 percent women. Both as an executive and as a non-executive board director, I have found it important to work consistently with diversity and inclusion in order to reflect the surrounding environment and attract talent. In my mind it is important not only to see this as an HR project, but keep it on the board agenda”.
Not always the popular path:
True to Vibeke’s candid personality, she pointed out to me that there can be a price to speaking up: “If you push back and stand up for certain goals – whether they are gender-related or not – people will not always agree in the moment. It may be unpopular and that can be difficult. But I’ve learned that if you are who you are, and act as your authentic self, people will respect that.”
Vibeke adds that those moments of conflict also create an opportunity for self-reflection: “These incidents are always a strain, but they are can also inspire some good thinking, about who you are, how you want to be perceived, where you will bend, and where will you stand.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, Vibeke emphasized that luckily the awareness around bias is growing and proving helpful, but it is a topic that needs to be kept alive, “and your work, Laura, having input from women all around the globe in the ‘Mind the Gap blog series’ is an important contribution”.
More about Vibeke Krag: Vibeke is a non-executive director for various insurance, energy, regulatory and academic institutions, including Nykredit A/S, a leading Danish financial services company active in banking, mortgage lending, insurance and asset management. Most recently, she was the CEO for the Danish operating subsidiary of RSA Insurance, Codan Forsikring A/S, where she oversaw two successful cross-border mergers. Previously, Vibeke was Regional General Counsel for RSA’s international businesses, including its Scandinavian-wide holding company, Codan A/S. Vibeke began her legal career in private practice. After serving as Head of Legal at Forstaedernes Bank A/S, a regional bank now merged into Nykredit, Vibeke joined Eversheds LLP, as a partner and banking specialist, before embarking on her eight-year tenure with the RSA Insurance Group.