Can Harvard Women Have It All?

In 2013, the national debate regarding the equality of women in the workplace still rages.

"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

“Maybe I’m just really lucky and I don’t want to say [gender discrimination] doesn’t exist, but I’ve been able to get anything I’ve wanted and being a girl hasn’t stopped me,” says Carolyn S.M. Stein ’13, an applied math concentrator specializing in economics.

But Stein’s case may not be typical, and she even acknowledges that hopefulness in her own assertion. She continues, “I think also though, partly, very purposely, it’s a mindset I want to stay away from—that it’s not fair I’m a girl. I don’t want to even give myself those excuses.

”Viroopa Volla ’14, an economics concentrator, believes that students of different genders are treated equally at Harvard, at least in the areas that matter for career advancement. Sitting in Adams Dining Hall, a place that 50 years ago would not have served women, Volla explains that she doesn’t believe that gender will play much of a role in her professional life. “I think in all of the different areas that I have been in, whether it comes to finance or innovation or social entrepreneurship, the key is to be motivated and have that initiative…I have never come across gender inequality,” Volla says, her voice assertive and confident.

When Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, lecturer on history and literature and on public policy, sees Harvard students who feel like their gender has never set them back, he fears that they may begin to extend these perceptions of equality into their visions of the world outside Harvard. “I think there’s always a danger when you’re at a place like Harvard of being blind to the kinds of inequalities that still very much exist in the world,” McCarthy asserts, his orange Converse shoes tapping along with his argument. “When you yourself are able to walk through a door of opportunity and dream big dreams, you think that because you have those opportunities then everyone around you has those opportunities, and that’s just not the case. That is a fiction, and a dangerous fiction.”

Undergraduates do not even need to step outside of Harvard to witness the fiction in their perceptions of workplace gender equality. A hop across the Charles River to Harvard Business School reveals first-year classes with assigned seating that appears to minimize the school’s obvious gender disparity by distributing the women evenly around the room. “They kind of have to do that,” says Brooke D. Boyarsky, a second-year Business School student, as she describes the seating chart of her first year classes. The Business School Class of 2013 is just under 40 percent female, while the faculty has a more dramatic gender divide of around 30 percent female, 70 percent male, according to the Harvard Provost’s Fact Book.

Numbers look similar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, whose four graduate degrees also skew male by about 60 percent on average, according to the Kennedy School website. Hannah Schafer, a first-year Masters in Public Policy student at the Kennedy School, describes a recent occurrence encountering an older male from the Kennedy School’s executive education program who was lost and approached Schafer and her male friend for directions. The man reached out to shake the hand of Schafer’s friend and neglected to extend his hand to her, then he asked the friend for directions, refusing to make eye contact with Schafer.

“I answered him,” Schafer explains, her weight forward, arms stiff and determined. “I’m conscious of [gender biases] so I made a clear effort to call his attention to me, to know that I am also capable of giving directions. So I mean it’s all these small battles [at the Kennedy School] in addition to the formal problem of not enough tenured, female professors.” Only 19 percent of senior faculty and 27 percent of junior faculty is female at the Kennedy School.

While the gender dynamics at the Kennedy School may appear to be a world away from those at the College, the same gender imbalance exists within the College’s undergraduate political entity, the Undergraduate Council (UC). September of her freshman year, Tara Raghuveer ’14 decided to run to be a representative on the UC. Like most of the other candidates, Raghuveer made a Facebook group declaring her Ivy Yard candidacy and knocked on doors in every dorm she could. The voting took place online and an email the next day announced the results: Raghuveer was not among the 12 elected representatives. In fact, only one of the 12 freshman seats on the UC would be filled by a female.

“That was a surprising realization,” confesses Raghuveer, admitting her shock upon learning that only one of the 28 freshman women who ran to be representatives was elected. Undeterred by her freshman year loss, Raghuveer won a spot on the UC her sophomore year, and then was elected the sixth female president in UC history her junior fall. Raghuveer says she didn’t consider that her freshman UC election loss could have been influenced by gender until she learned how few women had been elected.

Raghuveer continues on the subject of gender and politics. “I’ve become more and more convinced that there has to be some sort of inherent bias in our society. That is definitely something I’ve realized,” she pauses for a few seconds, then continues, “since I’ve been in college.” Again, she pauses, remembering times past, considering her next words seriously and completely. “Since I’ve been in college, I’ve become acutely aware of those things.”

You’re Doing Fine for a Girl

When Barbara Hackman Franklin arrived for her first year of classes at Harvard Business School, she could barely find a ladies restroom on campus. It was 1963, the year that a United States Presidential Commission issued a report finding discrimination against women in every aspect of American life. Franklin was one of the 12 women in a Business School student body that included 680 men.

“There was suspicion of women in some careers, and business was not considered to be a woman’s purview,” Franklin explains of the 60s and 70s, her voice frank and good-natured. These suspicions didn’t stop Franklin from graduating with a Harvard MBA in 1964, one of the first women to do so, and going on to a full career: assistant vice-president at Citibank, staff assistant to President Nixon, Secretary of Commerce under George H.W. Bush, and now CEO of her own private international consulting firm Barbara Franklin Enterprises.

Despite her significant multi-sector achievements, Franklin’s passage through the American workplace involved episodes of sexual harassment and gender discrimination that many college students today have only witnessed in “Mad Men.” She recalls times when she was paid less than male employees in her same position, “chased around the desk” by her advancing male colleagues, and told “you’re doing fine for a girl,” (a direct quote, Franklin makes clear) in a performance review.

“I thought that was unfair,” Franklin remarks, referring to the performance review. “But who was I going to tell about that? I couldn’t tell my boss—he was the one who said it.”

Franklin feels that while workplace culture has improved dramatically in the past few decades, many of these stereotypes and inappropriate behaviors persist. “Not everyone is going to take women as seriously as you might like,” she warns. “I still run into men who just don’t get it. I don’t think they take women as seriously as they should.”

Franklin, who never had any children of her own, agrees with many of the sentiments in Slaughter’s article about the difficulties women face in balancing careers and family life. “Back then society did not have consensus that it was okay for women to have careers and families both,” Franklin remembers.

Slaughter concurs with Franklin’s assessment of how women were perceived in the 1970s American workforce. “The first generation of feminists—the generation ahead of me—you basically had to be a man. You couldn’t talk about kids; you couldn’t acknowledge any tension,” says Slaughter. “If you had to go see your kids, you said it was a doctor’s appointment or something. You could never, ever, ever acknowledge things that might reinforce stereotypes.”

In 2013, many women do indeed find ways to balance active careers with full family lives, yet most of the top positions across all sectors continue to be dominated by males. The gender disparity at the Business School and the Kennedy School may not seem too surprising because, in their imbalance, they reflect the imbalance of the outside world.

Kathleen E. Goodwin ’13, a Social Studies concentrator, got her first taste of the gender imbalance of the financial world during her junior summer when she interned at a banking firm in New York. Although the intern class was split equally among males and females, the rest of the firm did not maintain that same gender ratio. “It is very clear when you walk into a bank that all the executives are men,” Goodwin asserts. She describes the layout of her workplace: all men with big offices in the higher executive positions, with female assistants sitting outside to support them.

Volla, the economics concentrator who also spent last summer interning at a large New York bank, claims that though banking is a male-centric industry, it is easier for females to get jobs in the industry because of the external resources available for women to gain a head start. Eyes flashing with conviction, Volla defends the business workplace. “People say, ‘Well women aren’t rising to the top because of this glass ceiling, and it’s always been a guy’s world in business,’ but I think that they’re not striving hard enough,” Volla says.

Volla sees the workplace as much more meritocratic, more objective. “When it comes to business, it is not a gender based thing,” she asserts. “It is who can make the most money.”

Most women interviewed for this article, however, voice their belief that it would be impossible to completely ignore the importance of gender in workplace dynamics. Beyond issues of paid leave, women have consistently been paid less than men over the past few decades, a trend that continues through today.

“The gender gap in pay is smallest among white women and white men, and grows as you add women of color,” explains Gina Helfrich, the director of the Harvard College Women’s Center. Helfrich notes that Massachusetts ranks 34th of the 50 states in gender pay equity, a surprising fact, she says, considering the liberal character of the state. She attributes this pay gap to the fact that workers in Massachusetts are very well-paid overall, so their comparatively high earnings distract them from realizing the discrepancies between male and female salaries.

Raghuveer, UC President, says it would be “naïve” of her to hope that gender will not play a role in her life, but hopes it will not be a determining factor in her career. “I would like to think that I am the type of person who is confident in her abilities, in her substance, rather than resting on the fact that I’m a female or blaming the fact that I am a female for any shortcomings I might have,” she says. Still, Raghuveer concedes, “I know [gender] is going to come up, it’s just that my hope is that it doesn’t.”

Separate but Equal?

When Madoff, the student who discovered computer science at her New York high school, enters a Harvard computer science lecture, she notices the dearth of other females in her class. Madoff does not believe that she has faced gender-based discrimination at Harvard, but she describes the environment in her college computer science classes as “weird,” because members of her gender are so clearly in the minority. This weirdness is palpable and affecting, she says.

“When you are the only member of an isolated group, I think there’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders,” Madoff says. “Because of that, it makes me feel that much more nervous about saying the wrong thing in section or having a silly question in office hours,” she admits.

Surprised that her department did not already have some sort of group to support female students in computer science, Madoff reacted to the strange gender dynamics in her classes by taking action. She approached members of the department about the possibility of starting a new club called Women in Computer Science, held a preliminary interest meeting, and was astounded when a flood of women chose to attend. “The volume was just really, really overwhelming,” Madoff remembers, “People really wanted [this club] and saw a need for it.”

Though the Harvard Computer Society, which welcomes students of all genders, already existed, Women in Computer Science holds a slightly different mission: to establish a community of computer science-inclined women, both at Harvard and outside of Harvard, and also to raise awareness of and create opportunities for women in the field.

The segregation of common interest groups along gender lines is starting to become a trend among extracurricular groups at Harvard. Among finance-related extracurricular groups, the Harvard Financial Analysts Club and Veritas Financial Group are open to both genders with memberships that skew male, while newer groups like Harvard Women in Business and Smart Women Securities are now catering specifically to women with these interests.

“It’s an experience tailored to women,” explains Meredith L. Toman ’14, co-president of Smart Women Securities, which has a membership of around 200 women. Toman hails from Atlanta, Ga., and her singsong voice hints at a Southern backstory. Toman emphasizes the importance of a safe environment. “I do think there’s something to be said for learning in an environment where you completely feel comfortable and relaxed,” she says.

Madoff agrees. “To me, the best thing is that [these groups] provide a forum for conversation,” Madoff says. “I don’t consider myself timid at all. But the thing is that there are things I might not want to say in front of a guy.” She cites one speech given by a CEO concerning her time running a company during pregnancy as an example of this sort of conversation.

“I think that’s my biggest pet peeve at Harvard. It’s not that [women] don’t have questions; rather, they aren’t in an environment where they’re 100 percent comfortable speaking up,” says Inesha N. Premaratne ’15, chair of the Women’s Initiative in Leadership at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. After spending her last semester interning in the White House, Premaratne now helps organize seminars, discussions, and workshops through the Women’s Initiative in Leadership that seek to develop aspiring female leaders.

“Having a single-sex situation where we can build a community of girls who are dealing with similar problems across different disciplines allows us to tailor it more to these girls,” says Premaratne. “They really are walking away with not just a community of people who are going through what they’re going through, but with an understanding that they’re not alone.”

But not everyone agrees that segregating common interest groups by gender is beneficial. Though Stein plans to work in finance post-graduation, she has never wanted to join a relevant undergraduate group for girls. “The reason I never participated is because I always thought business is a place dominated by men, so the best practice probably would be to put yourself in a situation where you’re surrounded by men,” Stein asserts. “My gut would be that if you struggle to speak up in a room full of men, you might feel more safe participating in one of these all-girl clubs, but maybe you’re not tackling the real thing that you struggle with.”

For her thesis, Stein is focusing on the achievement gap between the genders in math and sciences. She has observed that while men and women are relatively equal in most academic qualifications, twice as many boys as girls will score an 800 on the math SAT and girls comprise only about 2 percent of all American International Math Olympiad participants. “I’m finding that girls are less likely to participate when they’re put in a competitive environment,” Stein says. “So it seems like there is some sort of intimidation or lack of confidence going on.”

Can Women Have it All?

Despite the continual dialogue concerning women and the workplace, the ubiquitous question, “Can Women Have It All?”, lingers.

“I think the answer to that question is that no one can have it all. No one can be president of the PTA and president of a company,” says Stein in response to Slaughter’s article. “I think that if you look at a lot of men who have really high-powered careers, it’s probably a big regret of theirs that they don’t get to spend more time at home, just like it’s a big regret for women who stay at home that they’re not able to have a high-powered career.”

That said, not all men expect that they will need to make the same kind of compromises in their professional life as their partners might once the pair decides to start a family. “One of my friends from home told me that he could never marry me because he would want to be the breadwinner, and he knows that I personally wouldn’t want that,” Toman, co-president of Smart Woman Securities, comments. “So I think that when I’m going to marry someone, we’re really going to have a lot of conversations about exactly how the relationship will work.”

“If I could find a guy who wants to be a stay-at-home dad and I make enough money so that’s plausible, that would be great,” the banking-bound Goodwin adds. “I hope that there’s a cultural shift so it’s acceptable for men to make professional decisions based on their family. But I am also realistic, and know there are compromises people are going to have to make on both sides.”

Elizabeth S. More, a lecturer on history and literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality, is offering a new class this semester called “Home/Work” that covers the history of working women in the United States. More believes that the “Can Women Have It All?” debate is only really relevant to women who have access to maternity leave and sick days—a luxury that many working women do not have.

“Right now the US has extremely weak family leave policies, by far the weakest in the developed world,” says More, explaining that American employers have the freedom to decide their own leave policies, which can put a lot of strain on employed parents. Paid maternity leave is another major issue, as new mothers are expected to either take six weeks off or exit the workforce. Leaving work, even for just a few years, can have a lasting impact on a woman’s career.

Equalizing the workplace benefits not only female professionals, but also the performance of companies and organizations overall. Research has shown that gender-balanced teams are more effective problem solvers, and that a diversity of perspectives and styles leads to more informed decisions and enhanced results. The same could be true of households. As Sandberg asserted in her 2011 Barnard commencement speech, “A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.”

Unhappy Equilibrium

In the Mather dining hall, the discussion with Premaratne is drawing to a close, the noise in the background fading as people finish their meals. However, Premaratne still has a few final things to say. “We always say ‘these are first world problems,’ but I sort of hate that phrase, to be honest,” Premaratne admits. “We do have problems that women face—here and abroad—and there are a whole scale of approaches and a whole scale of sensitivities we have to employ when we deal with them.”

Achieving gender balance in the workplace will require significant changes: shifts in both cultural paradigms and workplace policy. For McCarthy, these transitions will grow out of increased conversation. “Instead of saying ‘Can women have it all?’ let’s flip the script and ask ourselves why men think they can have it all,” he says. “One of the reasons why men have always assumed they can have it all is that women are doing a lot of the work to allow them to have it all. So let’s have that conversation.”

Though Franklin devoted her time in the Nixon administration to increasing the number of women in upper-level government positions and made much progress in doing so, she explains that Americans have not yet eliminated workplace discrimination completely. “There’s discrimination afoot,” Franklin warns. “I hope you don’t face it. But if you do, you should prepare yourself. Not everyone is going to take women as seriously as you might like.”

Slaughter agrees. “We are at an equilibrium, but it’s not a happy one,” she says. “No individuals feel like they can shift that [equilibrium]. Now we have to take this conversation that shows us how many people feel the way many of us do, and make change.”