Pregnant with her third son, Catherine Lang went to ask for a promotion at the Nebraska Department of Revenue. Her male boss told her, “After you deliver, we'll talk about that.”
Lang didn't want to wait. She went over her boss to the tax commissioner herself and got the promotion.
“I leaned in on that,” Lang said Tuesday.
Now serving as Nebraska's labor commissioner and top economic development official, she joined a panel of other accomplished women to discuss the workplace gender issues raised in “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's recent report on the external and internal barriers women face in achieving professional leadership roles.
The breakfast discussion, hosted at the Nebraska Champions Club by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration, drew about 250 women, from CEOs to college students, several of whom said the talk inspired them and reflected the issues on their minds as they navigate or launch a career.
“It made me more excited about the future, because they said you can have it all,” said Katie Mellott, a UNL junior marketing major. That, she said, is a “lingering worry” for her and her peers, especially with some already engaged to be married.
Christie Hinrichs, chief executive officer of Tabitha Health Care, was glad to see students there and told them to take away a reminder to help other women advance.
“We have a responsibility to be accessible to young women,” she said, adding that encouraging others can help them ease the self-doubt Sandberg said can block women's success. “So often we are our own worst enemy.”
The second annual event was part of college Dean Donde Plowman's effort to raise the stature and visibility of the college among Big Ten universities in part by deepening its relationship with the local business community. Plowman said the college has a responsibility to respond to the issues raised in the book, which has generated controversy but also spawned women's discussion groups.
“I read the book and thought, 'Wow, I thought my generation took care of this,' ” Plowman, a baby boomer, told the crowd.
But as three panelists — each representing a different decade of life — discussed, the issues remain.
The conversation touched on navigating promotions, family life and leadership roles.
Lang told the women that advancement is a combination of hard work, expanding their expertise and “saying yes” when opportunities arise.
Men weren't left out of the discussion — investment consultant Lisa Smith of Smith Hayes Financial Services advised women to enlist men as their partners and champions.
“Go to the men in your life” and discuss your goals, Smith said. “Do you leave them open for argument?”
Katie Zulkoski, attorney with Mueller Robak, said that compared with a male colleague, she didn't speak up early enough in her career about her goals, and wound up spending two years with a different law firm before pursuing her preferred path as a lobbyist.
“Sitting back and hoping someone would notice me was a risky approach,” she said.
Zulkoski joined the discussion while on maternity leave. She isn't sure how she will balance her new responsibilities with her job and volunteer work but found comfort in Sandberg's book.
“This is the first one that said it — it's going to be hard, but here's how to do it,” she told the audience. “How it all works, I'll report back.”