The theme of International Women’s Day on Friday, March 8 considers how to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for a more gender-balanced world through the #BalanceforBetter hashtag. Dawn Zier, president and CEO of Nutrisystem, an innovative provider of weight loss programs, incorporates this theme in her work every day.
Zier, who is also the parent of UD student Kirsten, a junior management major and event management and international business double minor, will be speaking at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics’ Chaplin Tyler Executive Leadership Lecture Series on March 13 starting at 3:00 p.m. in the Gore Recital Hall. This event brings leaders from the business, non-profit and government sectors to the University of Delaware campus to share their experiences and insights. It is open to students, faculty and the business community with advanced registration.
We caught up with Zier for a Q&A on her experiences in corporate leadership, science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) education and promoting gender equity in the workplace.
Q: What can students – both male and female – do to promote and achieve gender equity in education and in the workplace?
A: I encourage open and candid dialogue between men and women. Too often, women speak almost exclusively with other women about this issue. Too often, men speak about it far too little — and rarely with women. Mix it up. I think millennials and Gen Z’s, our current base of students, are very adept at this.
For women leaders of the future, I would add that your gender shouldn’t be a part of the equation: don’t wear it like a badge, don’t let it define you. You want people to know that you’re smart. Period. No need to be the smart female. Be fact-based in your decision making. Trust your intuition but support it with facts. You need an analytic mindset. And raise your hand. Don’t wait to be asked. Advocate for yourself and find sponsors.
Have absolutely no tolerance for harassment. Whenever you see or become aware of such instances, whether in the workplace, streets, home or online, raise your voice against it.
Q: How does Nutrisystem engage and encourage its employees to support gender equity?
A: My approach to gender equality in the workplace is to take a “best athlete” approach when it comes to hiring, promoting and rewarding employees. Gender doesn’t come into play in my final decision making. We are a performance-based culture, and we reward for individual contributions. However, I am very conscious when hiring to make sure that I have a diverse pool of candidates to draw upon. Diversity in the workforce is proven to drive stronger performance across all levels of the company as well as in the boardroom.
Nutrisystem is 59 percent female and 41 percent male, with females in many high-ranking roles. Our Operating Committee, which comprises the top 25 leaders in the company, is 50 percent female.
Q: How can employers do a better job of including women and supporting their development into leaders?
A: I would encourage employers to tap women more often for assignments. In my experience, women sometimes wait to raise their hand to be sure they can do all of the assignment, rather than jumping in. Men often say yes immediately and then figure it out as they go. Companies should have policies in place that provide a degree of flexibility, which is important, especially for millennials – regardless of gender. Be sure to cultivate a culture that allows for open dialogue. And I would encourage companies to push future leaders to identify mentors, champions and supporters both within and outside the organization. I am a strong believer that the best mentors aren’t assigned, they are found.
Q: You have multiple engineering degrees, along with an MBA from MIT. How did your STEM education prepare you for a career as an executive?
A: My education as an engineer has had a profound impact on my career. While I didn’t practice engineering for a long time professionally, engineering taught me critical thinking. This very disciplined process of evaluating information, breaking down complex problems into modules and then building up to solutions has helped me in every job that I have had. This disciplined approach to problem-solving was instrumental in the turnaround of Nutrisystem.
Q: What advice would you give young women who are entering STEM careers?
A: Studying in a STEM field is great not only for traditional STEM careers but for business careers, as well. In addition to STEM studies, there’s more you can do to help your career, male or female, as you enter the workforce:
- Work hard. Don’t expect any breaks, but rather build your reputation, earn what you deserve.
- Raise your hand for assignments, don’t wait to be asked.
- Presentation and communication skills are critical – in a world that is inundated with data, how you present your findings and insights really matters.
- Avoid gossip and office politics.
- When interviewing for a job, do your best to assess the culture of the company and determine if it’s an environment in which you can develop and thrive.
- Find a mentor or sponsor. It is helpful to have someone in your corner who will encourage you in your goals and give you advice. Most STEM professional organizations (i.e. Society of Women Engineers) have programs and resources. Take advantage of those networking opportunities.
Q: Who has had the most influence on your career, and why?
A: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have so many people willing to help me along the way, but in particular, three mentors have really had the most influence. And, interestingly enough, all three are men.
I spent the most formative years of my career at Reader’s Digest under the tutelage of one of the most talented direct-to-consumer marketers in the business, John Klingel. His “don’t-let-the-tail-wag-the-dog” mantra still reminds me not to let process get in the way of innovation. I met another mentor at Reader’s Digest, former CEO Eric Schrier, who taught me to step outside my comfort zone and embrace change. And Brad Thomas, who has held senior leadership positions in human resources at companies such as PepsiCo, General Electric, Citibank and Guardian Life, is another mentor who has been a trusted advisor for almost 10 years. His insights and diverse experiences on both business and cultural issues are invaluable.