Breaking the glass ceiling: Three leading women share their experiences

A panel meeting at SDA Bocconi on the International Women’s Day


“When I started, I was a ‘strange object’ in a male-dominated industry. Now I’m leading the company in the South of Europe, a region that is not easy when it comes to diversity. The first woman, the first engineer. And my core team is made up of women.” There is some satisfaction, and not only personal satisfaction, in Angela Natale’s words. Former Chief Engineer of Boeing in Seattle, she is now Managing Director Southern Europe for the same company. She is one of the three managers participating in the International Women’s Day: A Discussion with Leading Women, organized at SDA Bocconi by the by the Ethica Club in collaboration with the Industry&Operations, Management&Consulting and Tech&Marketing Clubs. “We are here for Women’s Day, and it is a pleasure to see so many men in the audience! Today, we welcome three women, three professionals who have a leadership role in three different international companies – and who will share their experience about how they have developed their career toward the ‘glass ceiling’, and managed to break it,” said Silvia Cinque, Deputy Dean for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) at SDA Bocconi and moderator of the meeting.

Cinzia Pilo, Head of Business Development Visa, added: “My first employment was an extremely selective on-the-job training in finance, a sort of military training. We were three women out of ten participants and we were told that up to that point, female résumés had not even been opened. Then I had to show my boss that I was worth it. At that point, things started to work: I learned a lot from my male bosses and I am grateful to them. It’s true that Visa is among the leading companies as to diversity, but now I only have female bosses, all the way up to the CEO Europe.”

So, some progress has been made. Though not everywhere in the same way. “The United States are certainly at the forefront for D&I, while in Italy it has been harder for me to be a foreigner than a woman,” said the third speaker, Stefanie Lierheimer, Partner Capital Markets & Accounting Advisory Services PwC Italy, introducing one of the key topics that emerged during the panel discussion, the cultural factor, a dimension that also impacts on the language: “I am not a ‘girl’ (unfortunately),” she said with some irony about a word that has often been used to refer to her. “Attitudes change starting with these little things. That’s why it’s so important to have contact with people from different countries, but also from different backgrounds and different teams.” In a dialogue with other diversities, the female difference gains value. Together they create value for the business. In the process, they are all gradually seen as “differences” less and less.

So, these are the first levers for blowing up the glass ceiling. Quotas are just “a last resort that is useful in the most difficult situations, but cannot go without merit,” to use Pilo’s words. “Let’s not forget that promoting gender balance is not only a matter of numbers, but also and especially power,” Cinque highlighted. “There are many organisations or functional areas where women are numerically more then men, but they struggle to develop to leadership roles. We need to have more women in leadership positions.

“That is why,” Natale continued, “we need to take action around education and training, intervening right from primary school to nurture interest in STEM studies in both female and male students. We do this at Boeing.” And Pilo added, “We can mentor and coach other women in the company. We should in fact become their sponsors and give them support, not just advice. And, before we even give something, we should be. So that it becomes clear and visible that they can do what we are doing. Believe and work hard: I’m certain the formula doesn’t apply to me alone.”

“If men are on our side, we can make it,” Lierheimer concluded. “The change is there, we see it and we are it. But more importantly, you are it. The new generations are already behaving differently, inside and outside the company. And this audience is the proof.”

SDA Bocconi School of Management

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