CEO Who Was Once a Man Brings Unique Gender-Equality Perspective

Caroline Farberger, the chief executive of a Swedish insurance company, remembers how she conducted meetings when she was a man.

“I would unthinkingly turn to my favorites in the room, the ones I knew shared my views, and suddenly we were three people in agreement,” she said. “Then I’d glance at the others and ask if there were any other opinions, and of course there weren’t. I could just say ‘great we have a decision’ and move on.”

Farberger, 53, who in 2018 underwent a gender correction and this week published a book about it, says she sees now that as Carl — as she was then called — she just had “equality on paper.”

The head of ICA Forsakring AB, the insurance arm of Sweden’s grocery giant ICA, is the first business chief in Sweden — and perhaps among very few, if any, in the world — to go through a gender transition. She says it has given her a singular take on gender-equality issues in business.

The executive’s book, titled “Jag, Caroline, yrkeskvinna och familjefar (Me, Caroline: businesswoman and family father),” lays out her transformational journey, showing how it gave her new insights into gender matters and changed her leadership style.

Until September 2018, Farberger was a man who had fathered three children, topped military service class, was a Freemason and at one point was a McKinsey consultant.

Undercover Man

“I’ve been undercover as a man for 50 years,” she said in an interview. “I know how men talk to each other and how they reason. I know that I need to talk in terms of business value in order to get through to them.”

Many men “disconnect” when they hear words like patriarchy or feminism, she said. “They immediately think, ‘this is a person who doesn’t understand anything about business.’”

Farberger says her transition has made her more inclusive. She seeks out different points of view before making a decision. She now holds fewer management meetings that end after 6 p.m. because it precludes having family dinners.

“Men will likely just see it as a cost of doing business, while many women would see it as too high a price for a career,” she said.

Unequal Representation

In the months following her transition, women came to her with their stories. She was told about a case of sexual harassment at an earlier place of work. Asked why the person hadn’t approached her sooner, she said she was told, “because you were a man. If I had told you each time it happened, I would have become the problem.”

Farberger says she’s now more aware of how few women there are in positions of power in Swedish business. A recent report by Allbright showed that only one in 10 listed companies in Sweden is headed by a woman. Only 15% of top operative positions — heads of business areas — are held by females.

“That’s where you create the culture and where decisions are made,” she said, adding that “as long as it’s men who are heads of P&L units and women get to be in HR and communication, you haven’t achieved anything.”

The business community in Sweden has largely accepted her transformation, Farberger said, noting that while it raised some eyebrows, she had no negative feedback.

“She obviously has an interesting perspective on things, but from my business perspective, I see her as the same person,” said Marie Halling, the CEO of ICA Bank, who’s Farberger’s boss. “I would say she’s more confident now.”

Decision Time

Farberger says it took her a long time to take the plunge.

“I had this idea of a transsexual person as an old man in a dress, some tragic and ridiculous figure,” she said.

With support from his wife, Carl decided to go for it. A reporter from Sweden’s leading business daily, Dagens Industri, followed the transformational process.

Her story made the paper’s front page on the day she stepped into her office as Caroline for the first time, in a dress, make-up and high heels.

“It helped a lot that a respectable newspaper said, ‘this is part of the new normal, end of discussion,” she said.

In 2019, she was awarded Sweden’s LGTBQ person of the year.

“My insights from comparing living as a man and living as a woman is that we still have a very long way to go,” she said.

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