Woman and career: a recipe for success. Interview with Karolina Szmidt, President Henkel Poland

Woman and career: a recipe for success. Interview with Karolina Szmidt, President Henkel Poland

Is there still a stereotypical, conservative gender division of roles?

Maybe let’s talk about the facts first. Women, although better educated, make up a smaller portion of the active workforce both globally and in Poland. This is simply a fact.  Why is this the case ? It is mostly related to the caregiving roles that women play and to which they also often devote themselves entirely. Sometimes they do this somewhat unconsciously, succumbing to the pressures of their environment and upbringing patterns. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision – putting family as a priority at a particular time in their lives. Sometimes it’s the result of a financial calculation, when the partner earns more, the chances of which are still quite high. And since the reality around us provides plenty of evidence, the result is that the stereotype that a woman should sacrifice herself and her professional career for home and family is still very much in place in Poland. Moreover, it is perpetuated by the lack of systemic solutions. There is, for example, lack of easy and financially achievable access for young families to nurseries, kindergartens, other forms of day care – which would enable both parents to remain professionally active.

The stereotype that embeds women so firmly in family roles translates into their opportunities in the professional career. A 2021 study by ThinkTank and BIGRAM on the power of women in the labor market asks what could help women to be more successful in the workplace. The most common answer from respondents of both sexes was: combating harmful stereotypes.

And while the process of redefining the role of women has already begun, we need to be patient, because real change on this issue takes not only time, but also generational change. It seems to me that it is only the generation of current teenage girls – that is of my daughter – that has the chance to make a revolution in this regard.

Is it because still today women are too shy to compete for top positions? Maybe they don’t realize their professionalism?

As a flesh-and-blood HR professional, I carefully observe various career patterns, looking for valid recipes for success in Polish reality. From these observations, I have learnt one thing, that the biggest enemy of a woman with career aspirations is her own limiting opinion about herself. There are many wonderfully capable women who, despite their successes, still believe that they don’t have enough experience and skills to reach for more. In the process of self-evaluation, they mainly see their shortcomings and downplay the importance of their strengths. In order to stand up to competition, which, by the way, they avoid for as long as possible, they need to meet 110% of the boundary conditions.

This, in my opinion, certainly has to do with the dominant upbringing patterns. Girls are expected to be polite, sit and wait to be noticed, and of course give way to others. Meanwhile, boys are raised to be fearless knights and valiant conquerors.  

All the more important for women are supportive role models they can reach for, examples of other women who were not afraid to reach for more. And we have such numerous good role models in Henkel. In Poland: a woman in the chair of the CEO, gender balance in the board of directors, women in many top positions, such as heads of marketing, sales, legal, corporate communications. In the Baltics, for which I am also responsible in the HR area: a woman in the chairman’s chair and a purely female board of directors, which, for the sake of a bit of balance, has invited one man as a regular guest at meetings.

This is certainly the result of a company policy that has been in place for many years. It was in 2009 that we first announced a diversity policy with the goal of supporting women’s careers. We now say that our ambitious goal at Henkel is to achieve gender parity in managerial positions.

What qualities did you manifest during your school years, were you active in local government, were you a class president, etc.?

I was the effect of the then dominant pattern passed on by parents to their children, and especially probably to their daughters. And this can be encapsulated in the once popular saying: a humble calf sucks from two mothers. At school I was active, but I was not counted among the primes. The choice of a major in the college was a matter of chance. I myself neither knew what I wanted from life, nor, had I a precise idea of myself. The breakthrough came after reading Murphy’s “The Power of Your Subconscious Mind”. I realized that if you want something strongly, it must come true, that everything is in our head. At that time I also adopted my own life tactics, which I remain faithful to: small but persistent steps.

Did you meet a business mentor on your life path, someone who helped you strike out?

I am a lucky woman, because yes, I met several mentors on my path. One of them was my boss. I received tremendous support from him: he believed in me, he opened many doors for me. He pushed me forward. He kept saying, “I can open some doors for you, but to cross the threshold and find yourself in a new place, to prove your worth, you have to do it yourself.”

Already at Henkel, for the first few years, I could also enjoy the support of another person. It was one of the leaders who created a good aura around me, also in the decision-making circles far beyond Poland.

To both of them I owe a great deal. But I owe no less to my parents and my husband. It is thanks to them that I have never had to make a difficult decision like: work or family. I have never had to give up the possibility of a promotion because of fear that I would not be able to cope with all the business and domestic responsibilities.

I am convinced that in today’s reality, we can safely assume that behind every woman’s professional success are those, who made it possible with their support. There will be no women’s successes without the support of husbands and partners, their understanding of women’s professional aspirations, their help in embracing family responsibilities. There will be no success for women without leaders in companies and organizations who believe in and promote women, support them as mentors or ambassadors of their causes.

Does it work to women’s advantage that the most important qualities of a good leader i.e. empathy, understanding, pro-social outlook on the organization are qualities attributed to women?

The pandemic showed that life is fragile, it brought uncertainty and a tremendous amount of change. It was a shock to individuals and to entire organizations. Many of its consequences have left with us forever. Remote work has become widespread, and employees don’t want to go back to their offices.  They, to an even greater extent, value the kind of work organization that allows them to cope more easily with domestic responsibilities. This river will not be turned back.

Before the pandemic, the team was centered in the office around a leader. He or she was within sight, easily accessible. Now the leader must be able to build a network of connections and relational links between team members sitting mostly at home. Soft skills, attentiveness to the other person, the ability to build a sense of community and unity of purpose have become all the more important in his/her work. Today’s leader must promote cooperation and communication.

Karolina Szmidt, President Henkel Poland

Karolina Szmidt has been the president of the management board of Henkel Polska since April 2020. This position is combined with the function of the HR department director in the North-East Europe region, responsible for the development and implementation of the company’s strategy in the area of human resource management in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

She has over twenty years of experience in working in international organizations, most of which in managerial positions, including at SC Johnson, Royal Unibrew Polska and Skanska. She has been working for Henkel since 2015.
She is a graduate of the University of Physical Education in Krakow, as well as postgraduate studies in human resource management, leadership and the application of psychology and sociology in management.

Last Updated on July 13, 2023 by Anastazja Lach