NEW YORK — Maureen Chiquet, former global chief executive officer of Chanel and author of the new book “Beyond the Label,” took to the stage Wednesday night to discuss a wide range of topics, from female leadership and her mentor Millard “Mickey” Drexler to the importance of studying the humanities in college and watching more TV.
Speaking at the Rubin Museum of Art here, Chiquet was interviewed by Vivian Diller, a psychologist in private practice who sees individual patients and helps companies such as L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson define what real women are all about. She is also the author of the book “Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.” The title of the discussion was “How are Women Perceived in the Workplace?”
Diller called Chiquet, dressed casually in jeans, white sneakers and a printed blouse, “a self-proclaimed introvert.” A literature major at Yale, Chiquet studied French film and wanted to travel the world. Her career first brought her to L’Oréal in Paris and then The Gap before landing a job at Chanel, where she was global ceo from 2007 until she was abruptly dismissed in 2016.
Discussing her early career choices, Chiquet said she loved France so much and wanted to go back there. She has a deep love for the culture, art and language. “Being in France and being surrounded by beauty, just kind of loaded all of my senses,” she said
After college, Chiquet took the LSAT (her father was a lawyer) for law school admission, and after the fifth question, the words started getting all blurry and she said to herself, “I can’t do this,” and left. She was fortunate to get an internship at L’Oréal in brand marketing. She stayed three years, met her then-husband (they have since separated) and they moved to California without having jobs, “which was not so smart.”
Chiquet said San Francisco at the time had only a handful of consumer products companies such as Del Monte and Clorox. She interviewed at Clorox. But when she was walking down the street one day, she spotted “an amazing poster” of jazz musician Miles Davis, who was appearing in a Gap ad. (Before she had left for France, Gap was selling records and jeans at their stores “and was totally not cool.”) She sent in her résumé and ended up getting a job there in merchandising. She worked her way up at Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy before getting a call from someone telling her he “had an offer you can’t refuse at Chanel.”
Diller talked about the beauty paradox and the fact that one raises one’s children to put their accomplishments and experiences at the forefront of their identity and are told to put looks in the backseat. However, when one enters the career world, looks play a powerful role and it becomes some women’s currency while for others, it’s an obstacle.
One of the hardest things is not being recognized for one’s contributions, said Chiquet. Sometimes when you’re climbing the ladder and trying to prove yourself, you’re recognized for what dress you wore and how you look, she said. She found at Chanel that when she tried to act like “one of the guys,” she wasn’t very good at it. “If I’m trying to be really tough, it rings as inauthentic,” she said.
Diller said there’s a need to redefine leadership less from a patriarchal point of view.
Chiquet added good leaders have to be empathetic and listen. Those are 21st-century qualities. Some call it feminine qualities, but men have them too, she said.
Diller pointed out that about 50 percent of professional managerial roles are held by women, but in the Fortune 500, women comprise 15 percent of executive roles and only 4 percent of ceo roles. She said there are three reasons. One is that the opportunities aren’t there; two, women can’t do the role, and three, women don’t want the role. She described a study that showed that when women enter their careers, they are more optimistic than men. But within the first five to 10 years, they have been passed over, take maternity leave and the pay is not the same.
“They become rather discouraged,” she said, and find the opportunities aren’t there as promised. Further, she said, people have asked men and women to rate themselves as leaders. Men and women rated men as more competent in the role of leaders, and women rated themselves as better caretakers.
Diller also noted that some women say they don’t want leadership positions and prefer a work/life balance.
“The label of ‘good mother’ comes with a heavy load of expectations,” said Chiquet. Mothers are expected to wake up, get the kids breakfast, drive them to school, attend the soccer games, she said. “There’s no such thing as perfection, and I learned it the hard way,” she said.
She recalled taking her daughter Pauline to look at colleges and when they visited the Harvard campus (Chiquet preferred her daughter go to Yale) Chiquet was being snide during the tour. That night they were having dinner at a restaurant, and Chiquet made some comment. “Mom, you have never been there. You can’t tell me what to do. Daddy was there for everything,” the daughter said.
Chiquet said her tongue started swelling and her ears got red and she went to the bathroom and sobbed. It was heartbreaking. Several months later, when her daughter was doing college applications in her bedroom, she asked Chiquet to help her with her essay, and Chiquet gave her an idea and her daughter thanked her. After she graduated from college, Chiquet helped her find her first job. Her daughter said to her, “You didn’t cook or clean, but I’d rather have a mom who could find me a job,” she recalled her daughter saying.
Chiquet said she was fortunate to have a husband who didn’t work. “He was French, he didn’t work and he was called Mr. Mom at school,” she said.
In the question-and-answer period, Chiquet was asked the value of studying the humanities. She said she never went to business school and although STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is important, “it drives me nuts that they don’t talk about the humanities enough.” She said humanities teaches you about emotion. “Those skills feel really critical in the business world and leaders really need this,” she said.
Asked if she’s always had in mind that she’d be a ceo, Chiquet said, she worked for Mickey Drexler for 15 years. “I never really pegged the idea of being a ceo or being a president…Not even when I was in middle management, I really wanted to do a good job. I was a merchant. I loved when product sold. I loved the energy of being in that job, and I liked working with people. I’ve trained a lot of young merchants.”
Finally, asked to what degree meditation has helped her, Chiquet said just slowing down, whether it’s meditating, hiking or reading, helps. “My new favorite thing now is watching TV. I did not get to watch TV for so many years. I spent most of my time on airplanes. I love art and I love stories. TV has some of the greatest stories. In a way, it’s a form of meditation for me.”