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Cindy Schipani is a professor of business law at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in the US. She has recently explored how mentoring helps to boost career outcomes for women and discovered that women with dependants seem to need more mentoring. As a result, she recommends having a government entity, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, impose mentoring programmes. She also believes the Securities and Exchange Commission should make gender diversity a priority.
Before joining Michigan Ross, Prof Schipani worked in commercial law. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and attending Bruce Springsteen concerts.
1. Why did you decide to leave commercial law for teaching?
I caught the bug for teaching as an undergraduate teaching assistant. But I have always been interested in and fascinated by law – and went to law school knowing that there were many paths my career could take. I started in commercial law practice and enjoyed it, but when I learnt of the opening in teaching business law at the Ross School, the position was the best of both worlds.
2. What academic achievement are you most proud of?
I won the Sarah Goddard Power Award from the University of Michigan. This award recognises contribution to the betterment of women through scholarship, leadership and service. I’m most honoured to have received it.
3. What is the strangest thing you have ever done when teaching?
I taught a short course in Beijing and attempted to speak a greeting in Chinese. Unfortunately, my attempt at the language lost everything in translation – instead of the greeting I intended, the phrase I started the evening with translated to “Hello, I’m going to eat you”. Fortunately, the students had a great sense of humour and the evening started with a good laugh.
4. Why did you decide to focus your research on women and mentoring?
Several years ago, a few colleagues and I were interested in learning more about pathways, as well as the obstacles, for women to achieve career success in business. We had some seed funding and organised focus groups on the issue – bringing together academics with successful women in business. We set up each focus group to discuss one topic, such as whether successful women need to be willing to travel, whether success is more difficult for women with dependants, what types of childcare arrangements were important, etc, as well as the role of mentoring and networking. Every focus group, regardless of the topic assigned for discussion, raised the importance of mentoring and networking for career success. It then became clear to us that these issues merited further study.
5. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?
Aim high and be true to yourself. Trust your instincts, embrace challenges and learn from your mistakes. Seek out mentors along the way – in doing so, not only look for people from who you can learn, but also those who may provide sponsorship. Be willing to work hard for that sponsorship, remembering that mentoring is a two-way street.
6. What are your top tips for networking?
Be deliberate in your choice of networks. Examine your career and personal needs and seek out networks that will help you connect with the skills you need. The Academy of Legal Studies in Business has been the most important network in my career.
7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
I think it’s important to always strive to excel at your work, regardless of whether the environment is or is not male-dominated. This includes being willing to speak up and promote your ideas. Most of the time, it’s the quality of the work that speaks volumes.
8. What is the worst job you have ever had?
I think the worst one – and this really dates me – was my work as a keypunch operator. It was wonderful in helping me pay for my education and I worked with some wonderful women, but the job required sitting in front of a computer, inputting automobile serial numbers all day and sometimes all through the night. It was mind-numbing.
9. What is the last book you read?
I am currently reading My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. Her story is inspiring. I’m particularly impressed with her reflections on mentoring. She talks about how nobody succeeds alone and that it is important to choose mentors who are good at things you are not. She reflects on many mentors throughout her life and career – it seems it is important to recognise that you may need different mentors at various stages in your life and career. It is also apparent that she worked hard and had incredible self-discipline.
10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I would become proficient in several languages. I have particularly enjoyed the international experiences in my career and know they would be enhanced with knowledge of language.
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