When I went to MIT in 1981, I viewed myself as a groundbreaker. After all, the ratio of men to women was 11:1. So right there, I was doing something out of the norm. Moreover every Registration Day, a series of three Triple-X movies were shown as a tension breaker. Registration was a huge ordeal then. It was a manual process where you waited in line in the gym at your allotted time to register for classes knowing that many would already be filled. So, the student body needed something cathartic. Even then, I knew that hard porn wasn’t a great way for students to “relieve stress.” So, I started working with fellow women students and the Dean’s Office to eliminate this tradition. I am happy to report that it did happen.
But that wasn’t the only thing I did to advance the cause of women at MIT. I was a founding member of the first sorority, Alpha Phi. I helped secure the resources to support the first Student Art Gallery. Then, I helped coordinate MIT’s first Black Tie Ball to commemorate it. If someone had called me a feminist then, I would have been offended.
In my professional life, I’ve always worked side by side with a lot of men. I started in consulting as one of two women in the firm (that ratio was more like 15:1). During my time at Eli Lilly & Company, I helped bring professional market researchers to the organization. At that time, all the women in market research were professionals and all of the professional market researchers were women. So, every professional market researcher added meant one more potential woman manager over time. Even now as a professor in a top-ranked business school, women account for about 35% of faculty and students. So, the ratio has certainly improved at about 2:1. But it wasn’t until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, that I decided it was time to start calling myself a feminist. In truth, I had been a feminist all that time. I helped create opportunities for women. I supported other women. I helped other women be successful. But, the word “feminist” called to mind bra burning and other in-the-face efforts to help women.
After nearly 30 years in the workforce, the situation for women overall had not really changed.
But, the facts in Lean In got me thinking. After nearly 30 years in the workforce, the situation for women overall had not really changed:
1. Women haven’t gotten to positions of leadership. Women are nearly 60% of college graduates (actually 57% of undergrads and 63% of masters degrees) but still less than 20% of leaders in businesses, government and boards of directors. Woman college graduates have outnumbered men since 1978.
2. Wage gap has made little progress. In 1970, women made 59 cents for every dollar a man makes. By 2010, this had increased to 77 cents. That’s 18 cents in 40 years!
3. Performance evaluations of women are tougher. Both women and men rate women’s performance lower than men’s even when objectively it was better.
4. The criteria for evaluating men and women differ. Men are evaluated on their potential but women on their accomplishments. The most disconcerting aspect of this is that people who say they are not gender-biased in the evaluations are more likely to shift their evaluation criteria when gender changes. They don’t even realize they are biased.
5. Success for women leads to dislike. Successful men are well-liked. Successful women are not as likable – by either women or men. A Harvard study described the accomplishments of an entrepreneur exactly the same, describing one as Howard and the other as Heidi. Heidi was “not the kind of person you want to hire or work for.”
6. Women asking for something need to avoid looking selfish. Women who frame their requests on their own behalf look selfish, when they are expected to be nurturing. The same request framed as helping others or the common good are more likely to be accepted.
7. Women don’t even want to be leaders or think they should be. Study after study shows that starting as early as middle school, women are less likely to say they want to be a CEO or government leader than men. Moreover, men are 2 to 3 more likely to believe they are qualified to lead.
8. Stepping off the career path for motherhood leads to income decline. Women lose 20% of income after 1 year out of workforce and more than 30% if they stay out for 2 or more years.
So, I decided to own up that I am a feminist and that being a feminist meant that I could openly support women. What have I done since 2012 when I first read Lean In? First, I shared my professional success story at a Linking Indy Women event. Then, I championed having a group of women students attend the Indiana Conference for Women. It was eye opening to see how empowered the day made them feel. Then, we started a Lean In Circle at the Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. In 2016, that Lean In Circle morphed into a recognized graduate student group – Kelley Indianapolis Women’s MBA Association. This organization gave us the entre to reach out to other professional women in Indianapolis. So far, we’ve teamed up with The Startup Ladies, Melissa Greenwell from the Finish Line and a recognized Woman of Influence, Barnes & Thornburg, Interactive Intelligence and Eli Lilly and Company. The group has been through negotiations training and learned how to play golf. This fall, we are once again going to be attending the Indiana Conference for Women. Why? Because it’s pretty clear that when you get women together, they inspire confidence in each other. And, that confidence not only breeds a willingness to try new things but also makes them better leaders. So, let’s all be feminists and help other women be more successful.