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Early Female Leaders of Harvard Organizations Speak

Trailblazing female alumnae who served as leaders in their undergraduate days engaged in a panel discussion with current female campus leaders for an event that was sponsored by the Women’s Initiative in Leadership at the Institute of Politics.

“This is the first year that we assembled a panel of former women leaders from student organizations as well as the present women who fill those roles,” said Victoria E. Wenger ’14, the student chair of the Women’s Initiative in Leadership.

The panel, which was part of Women’s Week 2012 and was moderated by journalist and IOP Fellow Farai N. Chideya ’90, focused on the perspective of the women who had been some of the first female leaders on campus, and asked the current female leaders to discuss the progress that had been made since that time.

“My class was the first class to have ‘fresh-women’ in the Yard—and it was a successful experiment,” said Nancy J. Sinsabaugh ’76, a higher education consultant who served as the first woman chair of the IOP Student Advisory Committee.

“There have been huge changes in Harvard in the past 30 years,” she added. “When I was a undergraduate, it would have never occurred to me that there would be a woman president of Harvard.”

Susan D. Chira ’80, assistant managing editor for news at the New York Times and the second female president of The Harvard Crimson, noted that while gender issues still persisted during her time at the College, she felt enormous possibilities and freedom as a woman.

“My undergraduate experience was in some ways more of a gender-free zone than after I got out of college and encountered the residual issues in the real world,” said Chira.

Current female leaders at the panel, who commented on the increased opportunities for female leaders on campus over the past few decades while noting a few areas for potential improvements, included Harvard Student Agencies Vice President Elizabeth F. Shuman ’12, Crimson Managing Editor Julie M. Zauzmer ’13, and IOP President Jenny Ye ’13.

One organization that has advanced but still lacks gender parity, Wenger noted, is the Harvard Undergraduate Council, which regularly features more male than female leaders.

On the topic of life balance, most panelists advised being ambitious and not worrying about choosing a “family-friendly” career path. They noted that such an attitude can actually lead to increased flexibility and job satisfaction.

“Don’t clip your wings too soon,” said Chira. “Don’t decide that this career path will be easier in ten years ... Stay open to the fact that when [you] need to attend to the personal parts of your life, it doesn’t doom your trajectory.”

Lynne L. O’Connor ’82, the first female president of Harvard Student Agencies, noted that she did not regret taking extended leave or reducing her consulting load when she started her family.

“There was definitely some backlash from that [when] I made that trade off,” said O’Connor, the current Senior Director for Client and Brand Strategy at Vistaprint, referring to reactions from senior male partners and other colleagues. “It did slow my path to partner and was frustrating at times, but in hindsight, with a daughter in college and a son in high school ... I don’t regret that decision.”

—Staff writer David Song can be reached at davidsong@college.harvard.edu.

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