We recently received this report from Yael Grushka-Cockayne:
Exciting things are happening here at Darden – namely, the execution of my dream idea!
In November, I announced the kick-off of the TEDxWomen competition and the start of our conversation: How can we change the statistics such as only 18 women CEO’s among the Fortune 500 companies? How can we promote the success of the female MBA’s during their studies and beyond? What are our personal and institutional responsibilities associated with supporting women to succeed in their business endeavors?
As part of this discussion, I wanted the group to be inspired together. I invited students to send me their proposals for a short TED talk on the topic of the promotion of women and diversity in business (loosely defined). Twenty students joined the conversation and we each voted on our three favorite submissions. The top three submissions (see essays BELOW) were invited to join me on the trip to attend the TEDxWomen event in Washington, D.C.
And so, last weekend, Ashley, Catherine, Julie and I spent a day and a half at the event. We were joined by one of Darden’s Alums, Natalie Schafer Foley (MBA2011).
I think it is fair to say it was a thought-provoking, emotional, educational and inspirational weekend. Together we learned and listened to a board set of personal stories of role models from different parts of society. The rest of the group that did not travel with us were able to follow the live streaming of the event, most of which can be found on the event website http://tedxwomen.org/ . One idea that emerged while we were there was to try and sign up for next year, 2013, to serve as a TEDx organizer and host a livestream here at Darden so that a much larger group at UVA and in Charlottesville can experience these talks jointly and reflect together.
Looking forward, we will continue our joint discussion in 2013, where we will meet for two events: January 28, dinning out in Charlottesville and February 21, dinner and discussion at my house. I hope to spend the time together pushing on some of the written ideas and coming up with much more food for thought. For this purpose, I have purchased each student a copy of the book The Difference, by Scott Page from Michigan, and I look forward to seeing how kind of conversation it will generate.
Thank you, Yael, for the report and the extraordinary experience you are sharing with your students.
For the last four years I have lived in Cairo, Egypt. For the last four years I have been sexually harassed every day I left my apartment.
Living in Egypt taught me the struggles faced by minorities in general and the struggles that my mother and grandmother must have dealt with in their careers. While I struggled to live both as a religious and ethnic minority and as a woman in a patriarchal society, I also learned that women need to support each other if we are to succeed.
I first landed in Egypt in January 2007 to begin a study abroad program at the American University in Cairo. I later returned after graduating from New York University in May 2008 and lived in Egypt until this past July.
Generally my day would start with the simple exercise of getting dressed. But there were so many more considerations than just putting on clothes. Am I sure everything is covered? Is this a little too tight or short? Is it cold enough yet to wear my rain jacket that goes to my knees? Should I wear a scarf to cover up that little bit of exposed skin? These questions had nothing to do with legal restrictions but everything to do with how comfortable I would feel walking down the street.
Exit apartment. Wait for the elevator and ride the nine floors downstairs and pray another single man would not get on with me. The fear of what that man would do if we were alone for even a few minutes in the elevator was something I dreaded every time I got into an elevator.
Exit building. Say good morning to the bowab (door man) and walk down the street to get a cab to work. Eyes looking straight ahead, don’t make eye contact. Eye contact could be interpreted as an invitation. Is that guy staring at me? Why is he walking so close? Just keep walking, it’s probably not a big deal.
Go to the corner and look for a cab. Endure cat calls from other cars. Finally here’s a cab. Jump in, tell the driver where to go. Is he really staring in his mirror so often because he’s worried about the traffic? Okay, now he’s just blatantly staring. Where are his hands? Oh good, they’re both on the steering wheel. Just look out the window. Okay the staring is getting really annoying. I’ll just take out the phone and pretend to be on a phone call. Hand money, get out of cab.
Walk to building and endure more cat calls of “hey hot chick!” or “ hey foreigner! Looking good!” Enter building, breath sigh of relief.
Getting home was pretty much the same process in reverse. Thankfully, most days were not any worse than this. Most days guys at least kept their hands to themselves. But then there were the days where a guy would grab at me from his bicycle or even from his car; there was also the day after the Egypt-Algeria soccer match riots when military police lined the streets and felt that it was much their duty to protect the streets from rioters as it was to harass and assault passing females. I have friends who have been assaulted by men in elevators, propositioned and threatened by taxi drivers, and witnessed crude public indecency.
My worst experience with sexual harassment was in October 2010 at a colleague’s wedding. I was standing outside the church waiting to go in when a man came behind me and grabbed my buttocks. He walked away but even in heels I quickly caught up to him. I’m not sure what came over me, some ingrained sense of injustice or simply having had enough, but I grabbed onto the guys shirt until some friends and colleagues joined me and wouldn’t let go until we quite literally dragged him to a police station. I filed a police report, but not before being confronted with the guys’ father, accused of ruining his life for pressing charges, yelled at, humiliated and being accused of inviting the assault.
The good news is that Egyptian women are banding together and standing against this cruel daily treatment. In the past few years, more and more women have reacted when men harass them and more and more rights groups are raising awareness about this issue. Just recently, during the holy holiday of Eid, police arrested tens of men on the streets of Cairo for sexual harassment. It is slow progress but progress nonetheless, a far cry from 2008 when many women even refused to admit what was happening was harassment. This is only because some brave women stood against societal pressure to vocalize their stories and experiences. As awful as routine sexual harassment is, witnessing the power of women to come together and fight against injustice is equally as inspiring.
What does hit have to do with business? Quite simply, how can women move forward in any country when there is such severe oppression? When women need to endure such daily torture just to get to work, it is easy to understand why many would simply opt not to leave their house. Being at a top business school, I aspire to have a successful career and have always taken my work very seriously. But there were days that I didn’t want to go to work simply because the journey there was littered with such annoyances and degradations.
Despite this, I enjoyed my time living in Egypt immensely mostly because I learned more simply by living and experiencing than any master’s program could teach. Namely, our global world makes it unlikely that a person can have a career that does not extend beyond the border of their backyard and we cannot pretend that the plights of our sisters in other countries are not our own. We can also no longer pretend that inequality in the ranks of senior business and political leadership is not a cause for concern or that our world can move forward without diversity of thought and perspective. There are two ways to move a society forward: to have organic grassroots efforts like those described above or to have leaders in place that challenge norms and standards. Think how quickly change could happen for Egyptian women if there were more women leaders, how much more quickly this issue could have been discussed on a national stage.
Without half the world helping lead, our world will only get halfway forward.
There is a lot of research regarding women in the workplace, particularly for MBA women. In fact, an hold Harvard Business School study found that of the women who graduated with an MBA from Harvard, only about 30% remained in the workplace. Many theories have been offered as to why women leave, but I feel that a big part of the reason as to why firms cannot manage to keep more women is because they make the issue a woman’s issue.
Sheryl Sandberg presented her own reasons for why women leave the workforce at a Ted Talk. Prior to coming to business school, I watched Sheryl Sandberg’s talk. It was as if her message was intended solely for me. Here I was, almost 30 years old, eager to settle down and start a family, but not entirely happy in my career. I knew I wanted to be a working mother someday, and I had stayed in my role because I recognized that it would give me work-life balance. Yet I was unhappy and unchallenged in the job and wanted my career to take a new direction. Furthermore, I was not married, or even engaged, so I recognized this line of thinking was taking me out of the game too soon.
I had been contemplating business school, and Sheryl’s words were the inspiration I needed. I arrived at school eager to find a new job that I wanted to stay in for the long haul. I was going to “stay in the game” and I felt investing in an MBA education to get a job that motivated me to keep working would be essential to my goal. I resolved to live in the present and find a job that would set me up for career success in the long-run by giving me a lot of experience for my resume.
I decided to go all in and try an internship in investment banking. Investment banking is a well-respected industry, where the best and the brightest seem to flock for the experience and financial reward. The people I met seemed to love their job and the fast-paced environment, and they appeared to be extremely satisfied with their work.
What I still did not understand was why there were so few women in the industry? Banks seemed to be tripping over themselves to recruit more women as the female representation was abysmally low at 25% or less. I knew investment banking would be challenging for many reasons including the long hours, lack of work-life balance, and male-dominated culture. I wondered if the women had tried it were not as aggressive as I am or not as willing to try to do it all. I felt this was an opportunity for me to discover a role that would set me up for a great career while also allowing me to pave the path for other women.
As the summer progressed, I received positive feedback from my department. I was willing to work the long hours and was able to pick up concepts quickly. The lifestyle was grueling, but I was able to sustain it and still work at a high level. In the end, I proved to myself that I could do the job and I earned an offer to return full-time after school. However, as I talked with more people at the firm, I started to realize that this was not an environment where one simply puts in her time for a few years and then has success and balance later. These employees traveled constantly, were always at the whim of the client regarding when they needed to be at work, and never seemed to have a predictable schedule. Furthermore, they seemed to accept that this was the way the business worked, and never challenged the lifestyle or why it was this way.
Surely, I thought, there must be someone who has challenged the status quo? As it turns out, there was. One woman at the firm had managed to find balance (one person out of hundreds of bankers) – Lindsay. After two years in her role, Lindsay had gone to her managers and informed them she was leaving as she could not maintain the lifestyle any more. Desperate to keep her, her manager allowed her to be siloed to one boss, which would reduce her workload and allow her to spend more time at home with her new husband. This arrangement worked for Lindsay.
But when another female at the firm told me about Lindsay, she did so with disdain. That was not the solution for women because apparently every man in the bank whispered about her “special treatment” behind her back. It seemed that the way to “stay in the game” was to have the firm give you a special set of rules from everyone else. I suddenly realized why so many women had chosen to leave.
I became quite conflicted. I desperately wanted to follow Sheryl’s advice; I had a few years before I wanted to have kids, so if I was going to do this job, now I realized now is the time. Plus, none of the other jobs I had heard about while in business school seemed to have great work-life balance, so why not give it a shot for a few years? But I was not naive enough to think I could battle the culture of the industry and knew when I was ready to have children, I would not be able to work in this role and be the mother and wife I wanted to be.
Finally a friend suggested I speak to a woman, Barbara, he knew at a major accounting firm. He said she had multiple children and still managed a successful career and perhaps she could give me some advice. I told her about Sheryl’s talk, and the challenge I had given myself.
Barbara told me about her accounting firm and how it allowed her to reduce her work-load to find better balance once she had children. She said accounting firms started offering this flexibility once they realized how many talented women were leaving the industry because they could not do it all. But this idea became the culture of the firm, and it became acceptable for any employee, male or female, to seek a better balance.
That’s when it dawned on me. Although Lindsay found an arrangement that worked for her, she would never really be able to win. Investment banks are not interested in keeping women (or men) who wanted balance. They simply wanted soldiers who would work until the job was done, no questions asked. That was not a game I wanted to play. I want a firm that wants to keep me, that values my contribution, and is willing to give me as much as I give to it. As a person with an immense amount of drive, it was painful for me to say no to investment banking. I had proven to myself that I could have been a banker, but I was choosing to give up. But I now realized that “staying in the game” involves choosing the game carefully.
Women should stay in the game, I still agree with Sheryl. But in order to increase the number of women in the workplace, companies have to be able to offer a flexible culture where hard work can be matched with understanding that life gets hectic and sometimes family comes first. This culture needs to be prevalent and applied to women and men, so that men are not jealous of a woman’s superior status as both parents need balance. Women will be more willing to stay in the game if they see that they can pursue a high-powered career in a respected role and industry, but also ratchet their workload down when needed for balance and still be accepted by their counterparts.
The Space Between: Women’s Issues and Just Plain Human Issues
To begin my talk, allow me to share a conversation I had recently with my boyfriend:
Me: “Have you always imagined that you would work full time when you were done with school?”
Me: “Have you always imagined that, one day, when you’re ready, you would get married and have children?”
BF: Yes… “
Me: “Has anyone ever asked you how you plan to do both of those things? Or asked you how you plan to ‘have it all’?”
BF: “No. Definitely not.”
“No. Definitely not” There was no hesitation to his answer. No moment where he tried to remember a “men’s issues” talk he had gone to where they addressed this topic. Nothing.
I share this story not to highlight how I duped my boyfriend into providing material for this talk, but to highlight what I believe to be a greater issue. I believe that the issue illustrated here and the question we, as women, need to address is: How are we ever supposed to be equal in the workplace if we continue to treat the dilemma of how to “have it all” as a strictly female issue?
I have seen and heard countless discussions around this topic yet, rarely, if ever, is there a man in the room for this discussion. So long as we continue to leave men out of this conversation and raise them to believe that their path is always to work full time, be the main providers, and let someone else will worry about the family component, we are doing men, children, and ourselves a disfavor.
To illustrate this point, I have three main hypotheses that, with additional research as support, I would ask my audience to consider during my TEDx talk: If we do not start encouraging men to also think about their professional careers as something to balance with their family lives, we will never be equal in the workplace. The flexible arrangements that now exist for women will remain strictly for women and, so long as our partners work too, this means we will always be the ones who have to have to compromise to meet these two obligations.
If men were to begin to consider both family and career when planning their futures, our children would benefit, as well. Too often, and as a child of an investment banker I can relate, children, who go to bed early, are raised without seeing much of their fathers during their younger years because Dad’s job consistently requires that he leave early and get home late. Seeking more flexible options for men could translate to more Dad time for our children.
Lastly, if, if we encourage men to think about family, too, this would hopefully lead to more men pursuing historically “family friendly” jobs, such as k-12 teaching. To that point, the same way that the absence of women in the business world is detrimental to business, the absence of men in teaching deprives all of us of individuals who otherwise might be excellent teachers and this change would benefit young boys in particular by providing positive male as role models.
In conclusion, I think the question of “how to have it all” is a very important one, but one which women should also feel compelled to introduce to the men in their lives. If we want men to work with us in the business world, we certainly need to encourage them to come join us in the family world, too.