While the world celebrated international women’s day on March 8th, the WSA had lined up several events to celebrate the entire week. The poignant portraits that adorned the galleries at Spangler spoke volumes about inspirational women at HBS. Gender equality is a tough topic. The strides that have been taken can mean that we take it for granted. Consider this, it was only in 1963 that the first women were admitted into the MBA program at HBS. The incoming class included 8 women versus the 389 enrolled in the class of 2017.
Such rapid progress is amazing, and perhaps it seems like the majority of the work has been done. However, the numbers show that there is still much to do. In November 2015 an article in the Harvard Business Review by Lydia Frank published findings that women in the same jobs as their male counterparts, with similar experience, job location, education, company size, management responsibilities still earn less. The example given highlighted that women with PhDs earn 95 cents for every dollar their male colleagues earn. This pay gap widens as women advance in their careers.
Relentless focus from both women and men is therefore a necessity. Someone once told me that everyone has a story, and when you hear it you cannot help but fall in love with them. I take it one step further. You cannot help but learn from them. And who better to learn from than the women in our lives at HBS. What follows is a snapshot of some of the women on campus, drawn from talks and events through the WSA Celebrations Week.
Professor Amy Cuddy
Professor Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor and Hellman Faculty Fellow in the Negotiation, Organizations and Markets (NOM) Unit at HBS, who inspired over 30 million viewers with her 2012 TED Talk, addressed a packed room during the WSA celebrations week. An enraptured audience watched on as she demonstrated the “Power Pose”. Professor Cuddy who recently published her latest book, ‘Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges’, challenged women to recognise that there is “no need to embark on a grand spiritual quest or complete an inner transformation to harness the power of presence”. Instead, she urges women to “nudge” themselves moment by moment, tweaking body language, behavior, and mind-set in their day-to-day lives.
LaToya grew up with her single mother – her father enlisted in the US Air Force when she was young, and was sent on several deployments throughout her childhood. She and her mother survived a lot together – various degrees of financial distress and uncertainty. Even through all the ups and downs, her mom’s resilience and her great church family has left her with only wonderful memories. With the support of her high school guidance counselor, she soon applied and was accepted to Georgia Tech to pursue a degree in engineering, buoyed by her father’s faith in her to succeed in a male dominated career. During recruiting, she received advice from career services to use her middle name – that having an ethnic name could be distracting to employers. As a result, she was L. Nicole on her resume for many years. After seven fulfilling years with Teach for America, LaToya is now one of our SA Co-Presidents, living in Boston with her very supportive husband and their two-year-old son.
At HBS, LaToya sometimes feels like an O in a world of X’s. She grapples with several trade-offs and doubts, from bigger ones like wondering if she is selfish because her husband had to take a career pause so that she could be here, to smaller ones like should she wear her hair natural or straighten it to fit in.
“I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m committed to keep pushing and am optimistic about what lies ahead. Finally, I enjoy success – it’s part of how I’m wired and I don’t want to have to deny that because I’m a woman”
Onaizah Panwar’s story is an exemplary testimony to her courage and strength. A tragic car accident when she was 17, killed her parents and left her as the sole caretaker of her three siblings. Her face was badly disfigured and she suffered brain injury that impacted her memory.
Close members of her extended family urged her to marry her cousin who was 12 years older in order to have a male provider for her family, but she stubbornly refused. Instead she moved to Karachi to pursue higher education. Onaizah realized that education would be the best way for her and her siblings to progress. She joined P&G Pakistan and turned down international assignments to take care of her siblings.
A few years later, she found love and married the man of her choosing. After having been a rock for her family all those years, she was elated to find someone with whom she could share her triumphs and vulnerabilities.
When her youngest brother started working after graduation this summer, she knew it was the right time to move to HBS. “Some relatives banned their daughters from interacting with me as they were worried that I may “corrupt” their minds and make them rebels. But now, I am like a role model to them. Those who were against me are now coming to me for guidance and I am glad I can be of inspiration to other women around me”.
Annette Goodfellow is a former entrepreneur and business consultant who has lived her life in reverse. In her twenties she founded Wellington Fragrance Company, an international wholesaler of chemicals and additives to the soap and candle industry. After nine years of exponential growth, Annette sold the business to private investors.
She then attended the University of Michigan as a thirty-something college student. After obtaining her Bachelor’s in Business Administration, she worked as a consultant at Bain & Company in Chicago.
At HBS Annette continues to follow a unique path. She had her daughter, Lily, just weeks before what would’ve been her RC year. Annette subsequently deferred one year, and had her son, Gabriel, between RC and EC year. Her message is clear “Be comfortable taking your own unique path because you never know how your dreams are going to be fulfilled”
These struggles and stories of tenacity are not unusual – I postulate that most women on campus will be able to relate and tell their own examples of courage and bravery. My story begins in East Asia, where I was not only the first, but also the only woman to work in a managerial role in a truck manufacturing company.
“You can’t negotiate because you are a woman”; “Please skip the meeting because I want you to help my wife cook”; “What if you become pregnant during this project, how will you handle it?” These were some of the commonplace questions and statements I had to contend with in my workplace. I decided to focus on my work and to let it speak for itself, but two years into it, I realized that I spent more time fighting battles than working and decided to move on to HBS.
My last assignment involved traveling to a Middle Eastern country where I had to work with smoking truck drivers. I decided to not inform the office of my four months pregnancy. I wanted to prove to everyone that women can have it all. The working environment there almost resulted in my pregnancy being terminated, I spent the rest of my pregnancy bedridden.
I felt I had let down women everywhere, although in hindsight I wonder if I should have just done what was right for myself.
When asked during the WSA celebrations week if women should represent their self-interest or what is right for the larger pool of women, I answered that I truly do not know. “I chose to send a message on behalf all women out there but failed. I wish we could be in a society where these two aren’t this misaligned. Women in the previous generation fought a lot to get us the “choice” to work or not. But as Sheryl says in her book, it is disappointing that lots of people are “choosing” to stay at home. That might be right for them, but it doesn’t help the larger cause. Battles are never won when fought by just one person. If there were probably a few more women, things might have been very different for me.”
I am now at HBS with my partner, Vikram and 20 month old son, Ved. Vikram was a stay-at-home dad for 8 months, and at Crimson parent events, he was often the only male. “If only there were other men” he said, which was ironically similar to my wish of having more women at work.
The way forward
Hopefully these vignettes encourage us to continue marching forward. Importantly, this is not just a march of women. While women can ‘nudge’ themselves with different body language, the entire student population can learn from the stories of the women on campus. A common theme that binds the stories above is the role of supportive partners. All four women had supportive partners who took up the role of primary care givers at home, and in doing so, each of them played a critical role in moving the needle towards equality. An equal number of women at the workplace is an often discussed issue, but we fail to talk as much about an equal representation of men at home. After all, home is where equality begins.
While Women’s Day celebrations were received with enthusiasm worldwide, it can’t be denied that true progress is when such commemorative days are not needed anymore. With collective effort, hopefully, those times shouldn’t be far away.
Charanya Kannan (HBS ’17) is from iCandy and enjoys writing about anything that she wishes to remember, grocery lists inclusive. She also loves talking to people about anything other than the weather, which is what she did in her first job as a TV anchor. She dreams of reading and writing more, if her one year old and a potential consulting career permit her. She is involved in the WSA Conference, India Conference and Student Moms group, and has worked in the Automotive, Education, Hospitality, and Retail industries.
*Introduction by Preeya Sud, HBS ’17 & Harbuc EIC
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