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EDITORIAL: Irene Rosenfeld showed women the way

Longtime Mondelez chairman and CEO Irene Rosenfeld

Longtime Mondelez chairman and CEO Irene Rosenfeld will step down as chief executive in November. | Sun-Times file photo

As a woman in business, coming up in the 1980s, Irene Rosenfeld came to believe there was an inevitable tension between being a spouse, a mother and a business executive.

The three roles would seldom be in harmony, she decided, but if at least two were in “reasonable alignment” at any given time, that could be enough.


Society’s expectation was that women, far more so than men, would find a way to make it all work — at home and at the office — if they dared to presume to climb to the highest ranks in business. And that is still society’s sexist expectation, though less so because of trail-blazers such as Rosenfeld.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Rosenfeld, now one of the most powerful female executives in the country, will retire in November as the CEO of Chicago-based Mondelez International, the $23 billion maker of Oreo cookies, Trident gum and other foods and snacks. She was a leader in growing the global giant and, in the course of doing so, broke down barriers for women.

How did Rosenfeld do it? By being the best.

Women really are held to a different standard, she said in a May interview for the podcast Pivot Points. She recalled how reporters covering former Ambassador Madeleine Albright used to write more about her earrings than her work.

“But the fact of the matter is, if you perform the rest does take care of itself,” Rosenfeld said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about whether you are competent and whether you can deliver.”

Long before Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, urged women to “lean in,” Rosenfeld taught a new generation of female leaders how to navigate the shark-infested waters of corporate America. One secret, she said, is to know what you want, prepare yourself, and ask for it.

Rosenfeld grew up in suburban New York, the daughter of an accountant and a homemaker. She excelled at everything, even serving as treasurer of her Brownies troupe, and earned a Ph.D. in marketing from Cornell University. She got into business and never looked back, even as she and her husband raised two children.

A big break — and a revelation as to how careers are made — came one evening when a boss asked her what company job she’d most like to have. She said she’d love to run Kraft Canada, though she knew there was no opening. Two weeks later, she got the call.

Too often, Rosenfeld said in May, women ask not for what they want, but for what’s “available.” So go the subtle ways of gender politics.

“If I had not raised my hand, I’m not sure it would have come my way,” she said. “Know what you want, be prepared, and ask for it.”

Long before it became a catchphrase, Irene Rosenfeld was leaning in.

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