Role models help challenge stereotyping

Meet Catherine Ruster

Often even unknowingly, role models can help challenge people’s internalized assumptions and help them see that what’s ‘normal’ to them may not be ‘normal’ for others.
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“I believe the best role models are all among us,” said Catherine Ruster, who heads the Ethics and Compliance program at AlixPartners. “Several months ago, while disembarking from a flight, I walked past the pilot – a woman – and did a double take.

“My reaction was interesting; it reinforced how used to stereotypes – and norms we don’t even recognize – we all are. She was a role model for me and my daughter just by doing her job. I hope not to be surprised the next time I see a female pilot.”

It also reminded Catherine of the experiences of some of her former law school classmates. “Coming out of law school, my class was 45% women. By that count, half of the legal leaders in my generation would now be women, and that didn’t happen.”

In many workplaces, it’s partly owing to expectations – the unconscious bias that leads people to think you don’t look like the kind of person we promote here. “It’s a complicated issue. But often it’s not in the overt issues, but in the things people don’t see or even recognize.”

Catherine has long seen the law as means to combat these biases and as an “avenue for justice and improvement of people’s quality of life.” The women’s movement didn’t just happen organically, she notes, it took legal means. “A precedent is set, and expectations change from there on.”

Her career has been focused on developing ethics and compliance programs, which in addition to ensuring that companies and its people act lawfully and ethically, are “also about making the workplace a better place: having clear standards and communicating about them and giving people opportunities to safely raise concerns.”

Another way Catherine is working to make AlixPartners a more equitable place is volunteering with the firm’s Women’s Empowerment Matters employee resource group (WE Matters). At its core, WE Matters is focused on educating, helping women grow in their careers, helping people challenge assumptions they may have, and making them aware that “what’s normal in one person’s environment may not be what’s normal for someone else.”

ruster iwd 2019
Catherine (fourth from left in the front row) at last year’s Internal Women’s Day celebration in the Southfield office.

The group is also committed to bringing more people into the discussion to shine a light on unconscious biases in the workplace. “Men are very important as allies, whether at our peer-level or in more senior roles. Early in my career, I was told that the most important decisions are made when you’re not in the room – decisions such as promotions and salary, so it’s especially important for leaders to be aware of some of the gender-specific issues that come up.”

For instance, allies can help by calling out an inconsistency if they see a female employee characterized as “being too this or too that” while viewing that same quality in a man as acceptable.   

Catherine is also a strong supporter of the firm’s parental leave policies. “It can be hard being a young mom,” she said. “At times, you feel like you’re not doing a good job, either as an employee or as a parent.” 

In Sweden, she notes, companies offer sixteen months of paid leave, but both parents must take portions of the leave in order to receive all of it. “From what I understand, it’s really changing things,” she said. “More fathers are taking leave than in other countries, and some of the assumptions around who will experience career interruptions are changing. It will be interesting to see if this results in more women staying and advancing in the workforce.”

Still, she sees significant progress in the fact that women increasingly can take ownership of their careers.

“It can sometimes seem difficult and challenging to be a professional woman, but when I see women like Mary Barra of General Motors or Ginni Rometty of IBM who have risen to the very top, it’s clearly not impossible. I look around AlixPartners and see so many top-performing women at all levels and it is inspiring. Whether they know it or not, they are acting as role models for us all.”

Learn More About:
Catherine Ruster
Catherine Ruster
Associate General Counsel - Compliance & Privacy, Detroit

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