When I was in college, I took one of those life-changing classes that completely altered the way I thought about the world. It was called America in the 1950’s, but the discussions were really more about how American society had changed since that time, and the various movements that brought those changes about. One of the major topics in the class was about whether one can really change an institution from within, or whether change has to be effected by outside forces. We spent a lot of time talking about whether a hippie who takes a corporate job with the intention of changing the “old white male” mentality of that corporation could truly maintain his integrity, or whether he was just another sell out who would inevitably become one of the “suits” he intended to change in the first place.
What was never discussed in our class, however, was the idea that you could change an institutional mentality simply by rejecting the institution all together. If women, for example, just said no to Wall Street jobs, then wouldn’t Wall Street firms be forced to change in order to attract women? Why is it that this suggestion was never put forth? One explanation, perhaps, is our professor and his 1960’s peace activist roots. In his mind, change required action. Protests! Government intervention! Supreme Court rulings! Passively invoking a cultural sea change was simply not his style. But that can’t be it. Surely, someone in our class of Ivy League, politically correct, feminist English majors would have been willing to challenge our white male professor’s beliefs, even if it meant losing a few points on the grading scale. No, I think the real reason is that, way back in 1993, we just weren’t there yet. In 1993, women had no power. They were still trying to prove that they could hack it on Wall Street, and the idea that women would turn down jobs that they were barely getting offered in the first place would have seemed preposterous. The argument would have been met with a simple statement: if women turn down Wall Street jobs, Wall Street will just fill them with more men. And besides, Wall Street jobs were coveted. They brought money, security, prestige. And don’t forget money. Back in 1993, we were still too close to the eighties to even entertain the idea that smart people who worked hard would be willing to turn down money just to make a point.
But cut to today: I wonder what the discussion in that class sounds like now. The professor is still there. The kids, I’m sure, are still politically correct, still feminist, still English majors. But Wall Street – and all of corporate America, for that matter – has changed. Women are now a vital and desirable part of the work force. In an August 6th New York Times article, Alice Wang, a managing director of J.P. Morgan, is quoted as saying that, “everyone [now ] recognizes that there is a true business case for having a diverse work force. You don’t have to justify that diversity is good.” Or, in other words, Wall Street values women in a way that it didn’t ten or fifteen years ago. Another thing that has changed since 1993 is the very type of change that women want to see happening. It’s not about inclusion anymore, it’s about balance. Instead of proving that we can “be like one of the boys,” we now want corporations to recognize that we’re not. We want telecommuting, flextime, part time opportunities, creative hours. We want our companies to see that we are workers and mothers, and to find ways to let us, successfully, be both. But how do we do that? How do we bring about institutional change in our country’s corporations? Well, how about by rejecting them.
A company called Universum conducted interviews among female undergraduate and graduate students at the nation’s top universities, and what they found was startling. In 2002, 13 percent of women at top MBA programs preferred a career on Wall Street. Today, only 6.9 percent of them do. Why? The women of Generation Y say that they value balance more than financial security, and that they “care less about money if it comes at too high a price.” I guess the ‘80s are only influencing fashion these days.
What’s even more startling, though, is that Wall Street is responding. Filling the jobs that women don’t want with men is no longer an acceptable option, and according to that same Times article, “concerns [at Wall Street firms] revolve around reshaping the very architecture of Wall Street work in order to keep women involved.” How about them apples, huh? Of course, Wall Street isn’t there yet. Banks, like many companies, are still grappling with how they can help women achieve balance in a demanding, client -service industry, and it will be a long time, if ever, before the workaholic mentality is the exception and not the norm. What’s significant, though, is that the discussion is happening at all. What’s significant is that, as women, we have the power to effect change in places that, not too long ago, would have been more than happy to forget about us all together. America in the 1950’s indeed; my, how far we’ve come.