by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Way back in 1990 during my first week of business school, a second-year male student I’d met at the campus pub was ruminating – obnoxiously -- on his future career. For those not familiar with b-school students, we can be obsessed – with ourselves, our careers, our future prospects. Pretty calculating, self-centered and generally nauseating overall. Of course I listened carefully – with similar self-interest, in case I might learn something that would help ME.
“The first few years are key,” he mapped out, sipping his beer. “Getting the best job in the most highly compensated industry before graduation, getting promoted within a year, establishing myself as a killer, you know, living and breathing my work. No dating, no family, no vacations, nothing. After about five years it will get easier.”
He didn’t give a reason. I went for the bait. “Why then?”
“All the women will have had kids by then. I won’t have to contend with you anymore. My competition will be cut in half.”
His world view reminded me of the joke about two business school students who go camping, only to have their tents attacked by a bear. The second year b-school student starts lacing up his sneakers.
“What are you doing?” the first year screams. “You can’t outrun a bear!”
The second year laughs. “I don’t have to outrun a bear. I just have to outrun YOU.”
But the student talking to me at the pub clearly wasn’t joking.
Within five years, I found out he was right. I had two kids myself and had voluntarily put myself on the mommy track at Johnson & Johnson so that I could breastfeed, pick my kids up from daycare, have time to feed and bathe my family and myself before midnight. Many of my Wharton female classmates – even the most ambitious ones – had stopped working completely. Like myself, Michelle Obama, and most of the highly-educated, ambitious 40-something women I know, we married men who matched our drive and ambitions. Only to discover, once we had kids, that our husbands didn’t have “stay-at-home dad” in their lexicon, and Jesus, someone had to stay home with the children. The companies who had hired us workaholic women saw no benefit to flex- or part-time jobs just because we’d popped out a baby or two. So by choice or default, a lot of b-school and law school and med school moms of my generation left fulltime work soon after having children. Maybe not for good. But to my fury, that arrogant second year student had turned out to be dead right about his competition at work being halved.
Unfortunately, about this time, my husband organized an outing at a prestigious country club for his Wall Street firm. Five hundred investment bankers came. My husband was raving about the incredible networking grandslam the event turned out to be. I asked how many women were there. He looked at me sharply – he’d clearly not asked himself the same question. He thought for a moment.
“None,” he said.
Zero out of 500 hundred. In the most highly compensated, aggressive industry in the United States, dominated by MBAs from my alma mater. I wasn’t sure who to condemn first – myself and my female colleagues for letting down the sisterhood, or my husband and men like him for contributing to the gender disparity by being so clueless to inequity at work and at home.
I see roughly the same exclusionary dynamic play out across our elite echelons: global law firms that bill clients $600 an hour but boast few female partners; top ranks of national government including the U.S. presidency; Wall Street hedge funds and investment banks; technology powerhouses like Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook (all founded and run by men); corporate boards; or even the construction industry where unskilled male laborers make two to three times minimum wage; the Mafia where women are relegated to the kitchen and the bedroom; the Catholic Church, for centuries the world’s largest financial power, wealth accumulator and property owner, where women can hold no positions of financial power.
Since my girlhood in the 70s, the starting line has become fair to women in America: by law, girls across the country have equal access to education, sports, instruction, mentoring, encouragement and support. But as we become adults and mothers, despite advancements on myriad educational and professional levels, women continue to be systematically and impersonally excluded from the arenas that offer the highest level of financial recompense and power.
“The absence of women at the economic summit is particularly significant because those at the very top of the income distribution have reaped the lion’s share of the rewards in the past couple of decades,” wrote Reuter’s global editor-at-large Chrystia Freeland in a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post. “For all their success elsewhere, it is precisely this economic apex that women are failing to scale .”
Freeland goes on to blame women for failing to top the castle walls, and to gamely encourage younger women to reach higher, work harder, “accumulate their own capital.” I see the dynamic differently. It’s far trickier than we ever imagined to access summits when men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t want women up there. Instead of pointing the finger at women’s deficiencies or “choices,” why aren’t op-ed pieces and economic thinktanks encouraging men to recruit and mentor women and make the most elite workplaces more accessible to everyone?
Although we’ve been “allowed” into business schools, law schools, the government and most other areas since the 1950s, consciously or unconsciously our society seems to have retrenched to limit competition from women within the most lucrative, powerful fraternities. Yes, we’ve lobbed the castle walls, but entrances to various towers – the ones with the best views, if you will – remain subtly but forcefully barred. In some cases, laws or tradition exclude women. In others, moms arguably “opt out” to raise our kids. Some may believe that women, in general, are primarily nurturers and we become less focused on power and money over time as we appreciate the “true meaning” of life.
Blame whomever you want. The end results are the same – we’ve been outrun by men, no matter where we started, because excluding women – or not accommodating our needs -- eliminates 50% of men’s competition. Blocking women – and others not in the majority power base -- works as an effective survival strategy for men. Of course there are exceptions. Elena Kagan. Oprah Winfrey. A few women from each law school, business school, medical school graduating class. A few out of seven billion.