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Switching Industries and Thriving, with Katie Abouzahr

Switching Industries and Thriving, with Katie Abouzahr

Episode 108: Switching Industries and Thriving, with Katie Abouzahr

Ever wanted to change industries but felt overwhelmed by what it would take to do so? Katie Abouzahr proves that it can be done, and done well at that. Katie served as a Medical Doctor in the National Health Service for years. She loved treating patients but wanted more control over her career. Now, Katie spearheads gender diversity research efforts for Boston Consulting Group. In this episode, Katie gives an honest account of what it's like to transition into a different industry, and she breaks down some of the most interesting and impactful findings from her team's research on diversity.

Episode Transcript

00:11 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera.

00:19 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy, how's it going?

00:20 KW: It's going awesome. It's great. Positive mental attitude.

00:24 MH: I see that, I see that. Send some over.

00:27 KW: I'm sending it. My smile, my smile is big and wide. We're having fun today.

00:33 MH: It's a good day, it's fun, it's always great after being out for a while, having the chance to disconnect, but then you get back and you have this mountain of things to tackle.

00:45 KW: Yeah. One day at a time. It feels so overwhelming, you and I are both so similar, so it feels overwhelming to have all the emails and things on your plate, but you'll get through it.

00:57 MH: It'll be fine. It was worth it, I had a great time on my vacay.

01:00 KW: On your vacay. My guest today, Katie Abouzahr, is with Boston Consulting Group. If you don't know her, you likely know her research, because she does some phenomenal research around gender in the workplace, and talking about, not just what the data tells us but how we can take action on that data to create a more equal and just world, particularly within corporate America in the workplace. Phenomenal research, I would recommend checking it out. She also has a podcast, as well. And even more interesting is that she lives right near Villanova, my alma mater, on the main line in Philly. I have to set up some time to go meet her just so I can get back to my old stomping ground.

01:52 MH: Wait, aren't you gonna be up there soon?

01:54 KW: Soon, yeah. Yeah.

01:55 MH: There you go, you can visit.

01:57 KW: Yeah. Philly, Philly strong. Yeah, so, great with Katie, lots of fun. Do we have a poll this week, Maricella?

02:06 MH: Yeah. I know you and Katie talked about her research, and she does a ton of research focused on gender equality and how to get there. We've been hearing from a lot of our partners and a lot of the people that we're not gonna get there alone, that we need allies, and that men should have a more prominent part in this discussion. So, we asked our community, "What role do you see men playing in gender equality?"

02:33 KW: Cool. What did the community say?

02:35 MH: 30% said that they should be advocates for policies and practices that improve the workplace for everyone, so not just the pay gap but really parental leave and more inclusive policies. 28% said they should speak up when they see bias, that's the biggest role they get to play. 22% said they should hire and promote more women. 16% said they should be sponsors and mentors. And 2% said, "Heck if I know," which is usually my favorite answer.


03:09 KW: Yeah. All of that's important, right? If you wanna be a change-maker in this world for whatever you care about, but I hope that equality is something that all of us care about, and it's how can men support women and support men of color, how do women support women and particularly women of color, and how do we all support each other towards creating a better world for all of us. And so, so much of that, being advocates, using your power and influence to be a change-maker, mentoring and supporting, it's all very important.

03:51 MH: It is. And I was noticing on this poll that a lot of it is all at work. But you always mention the fact that we're not usually thinking about the role men play in the home and in families. I just noticed this, 'cause I know we've talked about it, you've talked about it, that we have a panel coming up...

04:14 KW: Yes, we do.

04:14 MH: About it in the summit. And it's not in these answers, which is interesting.

04:20 KW: It takes a village, and I'm fortunate to have a great husband and we certainly... I think it's balance and fair share is a little bit of a misnomer. We all... Both of us do the best we can, as much as we can, whenever we can. And sometimes it's more on him and sometimes it's more on me, but a big part is just being partners in it together and putting our kids first, and putting our relationship at the top. That's easier said than done, because work can be so stressful and just so involving and so high stress at times, but it's when you have that support network outside of your partner, your community, your friends, your family, that can really help make life more manageable.

05:15 MH: Yeah.

05:17 KW: All right. Great. Well, let's get to my conversation with Katie. We actually talked a little bit about this on the podcast as well, so you'll hear some of her thoughts on families and work.

05:37 MH: Awesome.


05:41 KW: Well, Katie, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast.

05:44 Katie Abouzahr: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

05:46 KW: I'm gonna say your name a million times during the podcast, because I have a twin sister named Katie and a sister-in-law named Katie, and so Katie is a near and dear name to my heart.

05:56 KA: Fabulous, feel free. [laughter] It's short Katherine, in my case.

06:00 KW: In and my sister, too, yes. Katherine and Kristine we're named, but we never went for that. It's weird... It's always interesting to me that you start off with a formal name and then you abbreviate them, nicknames.

06:11 KA: You end up in it, and I would always wonder how much it affects how people see you and how you portray yourself.

06:17 KW: Yep.

06:18 KA: So, I will share, which had been used to almost two of my colleagues, that my real name is Mariam.

06:22 KW: Okay.

06:23 KA: Mariam Katherine, and from the day I was born, my parents proceeded to call me Katie.

06:28 KW: Well, there you go. I mean, just the identity of a name and all that, it's interesting. We could have a whole other podcast on that 'cause, well, we're both parents. I think you think a lot about naming, and what that does to your child, and the impact that that may have.

06:46 KA: Absolutely, absolutely. Mine both have relatively traditional names. They're Olivia and Sophia.

06:52 KW: Oh, those are good names. Those are good.

06:53 KA: Very common though.

06:54 KW: Mine are more traditional. I have Benjamin, Morgan and Zoe, pretty straightforward.

06:58 KA: I love Zoe. We thought about Zoe.

07:00 KW: Yeah. We did not name her until after we met her, and we spent a lot of time in the hospital trying to figure out what she looked... What name she looked like. It actually put us in quite a bind because we were looking at this little baby and, like, "I don't know, I don't know." And so we kept putting names in the hat and pulling it out, and my other kids were being really silly and kept putting weird names in there. Yeah, she almost got... She was almost named Crackers for some... Yeah.

07:27 KA: Crackers is a good one. And so now she's clearly a Zoe.

07:30 KW: Yes. She's very much a Zoe. So, your career story is a unique one, one we haven't heard on the Ellevate Podcast before, because you started practicing medicine.

07:41 KA: I did.

07:42 KW: And you are now working in consulting. How did that happen?

07:47 KA: Yes, it's a good question. A mixture of serendipity, luck, and a little bit of leap of faith. I was a medical doctor in the United Kingdom, in the National Health Service, which is where I thought I would remain for the rest of my working days. And I think, in the end, I had a mixture of push and pull, which is always how these things happen. I was frustrated a little bit around the lack of control that I had, beyond treating the patient that was in front of me, and then I found a place where I actually thought I might have the opportunity to work a level up at the system level. And I say it was serendipity not because I really never intended to leave clinical practice. I deeply love the practice of medicine, but I had frustrations around everything that went around the core of the job. And I saw in BCG an opportunity to take that control over how the system works around the patient in consulting into the healthcare system, and also a little bit control over my own career.

08:50 KA: The NHS is where I grew up. And it's a thing of beauty, not without its many flaws, but the control that you have of your career is relatively minimal, or at least I felt it to be at the time. So, I found myself in the summer of 2007 with a consulting offer to BCG. I think the equivalent is... I was progressing through my residency, so I'm a member of The Royal College of Physicians, and I was a couple of years out from that, faced with, honestly, one of the most difficult decisions I've ever made.

09:26 KW: Well, it's really interesting what you're saying 'cause I think, oftentimes, we feel that we don't have control in our careers and that maybe we're not meant to have control. There's always something higher, your employer, your industry, your sector, whatever it is, that's really calling the shots, and so we're along for the ride. And hearing your story about really identifying what are the things you wanted and going for it is really inspiring.

09:57 KA: Thank you. I shall take... Thank you. I would say, at the time, it felt very tentative and unclear. I genuinely felt as though I was jumping off a proverbial cliff. I think partly as well because this was 10 years ago, and very few people left clinical practice, certainly that I was aware of. I would say now there's growing awareness of the alternatives. I had a lot of guilt associated with it. It's very hard after 10... Six years of training, four, five years of practice in a nationally funded system, to then leave that, and I had a huge... I still have a huge amount of guilt around that move. And so I would say, in retrospect, the story fits and I can see that everything, as you say, was meant to be, but at the time it felt hard.

10:46 KW: Well, thank you for that, too. What you just said, "In retrospect, it fits," is something that resonates a lot with me, because when women are on the podcast and we hear stories that sound so perfect, like, "Oh, you figured this out, you ended up in this great job, you launched a successful company," and we don't talk enough about how, in the moment, it actually is terrifying, and it doesn't seem like it's gonna work out, and you don't know what direction it's headed. And then it happens. If it's not right, then you change. And if it's right, then that's great, but thank you for that comment.

11:21 KA: Oh no, for sure. It's not to say that I don't think you should own your own brand, so to speak. At BCG, we often get really amazing trainings, and one of the things they always used to say was, "Own your own brand," and I'd be like, "What is it? What is brand? What on earth does that mean?" So, in my head, brand means the story that you tell about yourself is basically the one that other people will tell about you. And one way of thinking about it is people are a little bit lazy to make up their own story, so choose what you want people to say. I would say that I can see, in retrospect, it fits, but I do think it's important to be honest about how I really felt at the time. And also I was much younger then. It was just early in my career. I was still in my 20s when I did this, so I think I had less of the confidence that I do now that whatever a choice I make will ultimately be the right one.

12:09 KW: Absolutely. Well, that's an interesting career transition as well, because we're hearing more and more about non-traditional career paths and the value that someone with that medical background or understanding of the industry and what that can bring to what you're doing now, aside from having 10 people that all went to the same business school and have the same background and are tackling the same problem in the same way. How has this path really impacted you?

12:43 KA: It's so interesting you say that. We're about to publish some research at BCG about diversity, looking... And our usual focus, the focus of my day job, is gender diversity, but this is looking at six different dimensions of diversity, including industry background, so diversity of industry background in the management team. And we looked at 1700 companies, and they reported in on the diversity of their management team and their innovation, so the degree to which they innovate, we used innovation revenues as a proxy for that. And we found that the strongest effect... So, all six dimensions of diversity that we looked at correlated, including gender, industry background, nation of origin, career path, age, and education. The strongest effect was from industry background. So, diversity of industry background in a management team is actually good for your ability to innovate. So, to your point...

13:39 KW: But that's... It's a huge finding, because when you think about the traditional hiring systems and mechanisms, you are looking for someone who comes from the same industry or fits the traditional job description of that role. And so we have an inbound funnel that's so focused on hiring people that are very similar to the person prior to that preconceived notion, so you're just proving that in a really interesting way.

14:10 KA: It's a great finding, I think, because in the end we all have something to bring, and diversity is more than... In my mind, it's more than just gender or ethnicity or industry background. It is a collection of who you are and what your experiences have been. And you are quite right, when we hire, there's a deep affinity bias. We want to hire people in our own image, and it's quite deeply within all of us, myself included. I'm the first to put my hands up and say, "I love hiring... I'm more likely to hire a medical doctor, because I can see myself in them." But I think the findings of this are quite important because they remind us that if you have different perspectives, that is the fundamental fuel that allows you to innovate. And innovation really is a term for how you adapt, and how you adapt to changing environments and circumstances. And in my mind, I always think Darwin did not say survival of the fittest, he said survival of the most adaptable. And it's pretty brutal out there if you're a business, so probably good to have different views on your team.

15:13 KW: You've done some other really interesting research, one of which is on the ambition gap of women.

15:21 KA: Yes.

15:21 KW: Because we all know that when women have kids, they just don't wanna be in leadership anymore. Right? [laughter] I'm kidding. We're both looking it... But that's this belief of women aren't in leadership 'cause they don't want it. That's not what they...

15:36 KA: My goodness. And we are living embodiment that that's not the case. When we wrote that paper, I have to say that paper was a real baby of mine. The team and I, all of us have children and we all had this real deep internal rage that this was not true and we wanted to prove it in the data. We're management consultants, we needed data. We wanted to prove it in the data. And the first piece that we set out to dispel was that women, somehow there's a gender difference in ambition, which is obviously floored. In fact, at entry level, and depending on which dataset we use, women were more ambitious when they come into the workforce.

16:14 KW: Sure. I'd believe that.

16:15 KA: And then the second was this idea that their ambition changes when they have children. And I, if anything, feel more ambitious. I feel like I have something to prove to my two daughters. So, driven by this internal rage, we tried to make it productive, and when we cut the data, it was 200,000 data points. And the question was, "Do you aspire to take on a leadership position?" And the answer was yes, and there was no difference between women with children and women without. But that did get us on to the question, "So, where does this come from? What does make a difference?" We looked at a slightly different dataset, and we cut the companies into those where everyone, men and women, said the culture was improving on diversity versus the bottom quartile of that set. And in that bottom quartile, women are 17 percentage points less ambitious between the ages of 30 and 40, and interestingly, men were also less ambitious. It was just a smaller drop.

17:08 KW: So, companies that lacking in culture, you find employees, men and women...

17:15 KA: Are not as ambitious.

17:16 KW: Which I think makes sense because there's this... The least that's happened to me when I had children was you feel that either because we've been told it enough times or perceived belief that I have kids, so I can't manage the hours, I can't manage the workload, I can't travel, I can't move up in my career because I need to find a place, I may need to compromise my ambition to then balance my life. And that's a company culture issue. That is not a reality of what working parents will need to compromise.

17:58 KA: I absolutely agree. I think it's too forward. I think it's... There's a lot of how we socialize our children on what they hear us say, and they hear more than we think they do. The second thing is... The reason the culture of the company is so important is, first of all, it's a great thing 'cause it means, as a CEO, this is within your power to change. You can tap into that. The second reason that culture is important is, if you think about what we do every day as working parents, men and women, we're constantly making trade-offs. I will or I won't go to New York today to do a podcast at Ellevate, or I will or won't fly to Boston to do a recruiting presentation on a Saturday.

18:37 KA: If a company makes those trade-offs easier, where you feel you can say no, actually none of these are difficult. It becomes easier. Yes, there are crazy weeks, but overall the pain of each trade-off is lessened. In a company, when no one else is making those trade-offs and/or every single one is painful, we're very rational. It's an absolute myth, that's my next myth to disprove one day, that women are irrational creatures. We will opt out. Why would we stay? And I often think about the "Lean In" book that Sheryl Sandberg wrote, which I deeply love, and I enjoyed reading and has so much amazing information and data and advice in it, and I think that what this brings to the picture is you have to lean in and the culture also needs to be ripe.

19:25 KW: It's hard to find that. There's a lot of resources out there that talk about the culture of companies and where it's a great place to work. But I think, until you really see those companies succeeding on a large landscape, a public landscape, and showing they're succeeding because they have invested in the workforce, which is driving innovation, you're seeing diversity in senior leadership, you're seeing the retention, which lack of retention has a hugely negative impact on company's bottom lines and financials, until we really start showing that more, we're gonna have a hard time proving it. And I hate to be a naysayer there but...

20:09 KA: I agree. I do think it's hard, otherwise we would've done it.

20:13 KW: Yeah.

20:14 KA: I have heard about the next generation. We did this study on millennial men... Full disclosure, I'm not a millennial. I'm just about that Star Wars generation, I think, in between. But we looked specifically at the perspectives of millennial men. And when we ran the research, we just had in our minds, "I wonder if they think differently." And we looked down responses around 39 different interventions that improve diversity, and compared men that are 40, 'cause that's where we had the cutoff, and that's millennials and xennials, versus men over 40. And we ran the 39 interventions and looked for where there was the greatest discrepancy. There were only two where they were more than 10 ranking points apart. And in those two, millennial men had ranked in their top six, and men over 40 barely made the top half. And they were child care on site and parental leave, which to me signals a change in how millennial men expect a parent. And when we re-run that day, looking at whether or not these men had children, it didn't make a difference. So, even those without kids were thinking, "I'm going to be... Potentially I'm gonna think about how I parent differently." When that comes through, dual career couples might start to have an easier time of making it in the workplace.

21:34 KW: That is promising. What is the makeup of your team? Who do you report in to?

21:40 KA: I work with the women at BCG director and the Global People team director, who are two fabulous working mothers. And I have another side to my work now, where I'm 50% running a case team as a principal and I report into an executing partner team. It's a good mix.

22:02 KW: Yeah. But I think, as we talked earlier about the makeup of leadership teams, but then also the importance of those teams really driving the innovation within the company, and that includes culture, it's great to see women in leadership of BCG and then those women having an impact on not just women but men, 'cause I know that a lot of your culture and your flex time extends across the whole company.

22:27 KA: Explicitly, yes.

22:28 KW: Which is an important part of that conversation, too, right? It doesn't have to be society, it's all about women as the mothers, and it's a role that I value deeply. I love being with my family and supporting them, but my husband does, too. And we work together, and dynamics are different in every family, but having... Changing the dialogue around that and being more inclusive, as you mentioned, millennial men of all workers and their needs to be whole people is really important.

23:05 KA: Absolutely. And I think it really... My sincere hope is that this stops being just a general conversation, and becomes a conversation about all of us making our way in the workplace. One of the joys of the team that I do work on is we will share these goals and we are able to talk openly about how, within you as an individual, man or woman, when you are a parent or you have another half of your life that eats you up whole, you're constantly trying to balance, "I wanna go conquer the universe," and, "All I wanna do is go home and hold my children." And how you reconcile that in your day-to-day, we're just doing our best.

23:38 KW: Yeah. We're figuring it out as we go.

23:41 KA: I know.

23:41 KW: Well, you're doing an amazing job, Katie.

23:43 KA: Thank you, and likewise.

23:43 KW: Thank for joining us today, this was great. It was really great.

23:45 KA: Oh, thank you so much for having me. My pleasure.


23:50 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website,, that's And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks, and to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.


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