Can Harvard Women Have It All?

Matt O. Ricotta

"Five years ago I was presenting to a group of 160 managing directors, all women, in New York. I was the only man. I have to say it was a humbling experience presenting and participating—truly transformational. I never anticipated being in the minority based on gender. I’ve been the minority in so many different ways, growing up in another country. But this was really different.”

Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg continues to describe his discomfort throughout the all-female conference, after which he approached one of the female organizers of the event to explain how strange it had felt for him to be such a minority. She responded, “Well, now you finally understand how women feel every single day.”

Groysberg sits in a rolling office chair. Tall towers of printer paper surround him on all sides as he elaborates on why he felt so out of place at this conference of female managing directors. He recalls how after joining a breakfast table at the conference the conversation completely died. While walking away from the table after eating his meal, he noticed that the conversation at the table he vacated was picking back up. His outsider presence was significantly changing the group dynamic.

“I always hated inequality, but I always understood it as more of an analytical point about fairness and many other things. That was the time when gender inequality became not only analytical but also emotional. I experienced it,” Groysberg says. “I don’t remember any other project that moved me so much and made me question a number of other things.”

*****

It was a typical day of math team practice at The Dalton School in Manhattan until a teacher interrupted practice looking for girls to join the school’s brand new computer science department. A high school freshman at the time, Anne W. Madoff ’15 loved math and decided she would go ahead and give computer science a try. Now a sophomore at the College, Madoff is concentrating in computer science—a predominantly male field.

“Before coming to college, I had never noticed that I was a woman in an academic setting. I don’t think I would have called myself a feminist—it wasn’t a cause that I took any interest in. And then when I got to Harvard and started sitting in computer science classrooms where all of a sudden it was all guys and then me, I paid attention. If I noticed it, and I felt uncomfortable, other people must have.”

*****

In 2013, the national debate regarding the equality of women in the workplace still rages, with countless studies, women’s leadership initiatives, and op-eds in many major publications proving the relevance of this question. While many college women today aspire to be Fortune 500 CEOs, the data surrounding women in the workplace is dispiriting: Women hold less than 15 percent of executive positions at S&P 500 Companies, and female workers receive 81 percent the salaries of their male counterparts.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and the former Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department, initially believed that any ambitious woman could rise to the top of her chosen field. But working one level under Hillary Clinton while simultaneously raising two teenage boys led Slaughter to a breaking point: She resigned after two years in Washington. Her lingering frustrations from the gendered world she experienced in DC inspired her to write the now ubiquitous article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” the cover story of The Atlantic in July/August 2012. It soon became the most-read story in the publication’s history.

In addition to the national media coverage of her story, Slaughter explains to FM that the individual responses to her article were staggering: “I didn’t expect how many women would write me and say they thought they had really failed because they couldn’t have it all: a career with no tradeoffs and a family,” she says. “These were women who felt like it was their fault. But it wasn’t.

”Along with Slaughter, Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg has emerged as another leading voice in the national conversation about women’s empowerment in the professional world. In her 2011 commencement address at Barnard College, Sandberg warned the 800 female graduates of workplace inequality, urging them to take charge of their own careers and find spouses who will stand by their sides. Since the speech, Sandberg has been busy speaking publicly about women’s issues and writing a book on the subject, “Lean In,” which will be released this March.

Every year, Harvard graduates a new class of ambitious women, many of whom are striving to reach the top of their respective fields. Some female students acknowledge that gender may influence their career trajectories, but prefer not to address the issue now while they are still young undergraduates. Others simply do not think their gender will have an impact. But the data surrounding the issue, as well as stories by Slaughter and the countless women who responded to her article, appear to contradict such hopes.

Fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and the admission of women into Harvard Business School’s full-time MBA program, Slaughter urges the younger generation of American women not to ignore the role of gender in the workplace. “My judgment was that having this conversation and turning it into action is the only way to get to the next step,” Slaughter insists. “We have to get beyond 20 percent of women at the top.”

A Dangerous Fiction

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