As part of bringing my whole self to work, I recently started speaking up about the challenges women face in the workforce, something I only had the courage to do in the last few years. Before this, I did my career like everyone else does it. I never told anyone I was a girl. Don’t tell. I left the lights on when I went home to do something for my kids. I locked my office door and pumped milk for my babies while I was on conference calls. People would say, “What is that sound?”
I would say, “What sound?”
“I hear a beep”.
“Well, there is a fire truck”.
“Right outside my office.”
But the lack of progress we’ve made in the past decade has convinced me that we need to start talking about this. I graduated from HBS in 1995 and I thought it was completely clear that by the time someone from my year was invited to speak at this podium, we would have achieved equality in the workforce. But women at the top c-level jobs are stuck at 15% or 16% and has not moved in a decade. Not even close to 50%, and worse, no longer growing.
We need to acknowledge openly that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership. The promise of equality is not equality. We need to start talking about this. We need to start talking about how women underestimate their abilities compared to men and for women, but not men, success and likeability are negatively correlated. That means that as a woman is more successful in your workplaces, she would be less liked. This means that women need a different form of management and mentorship, a different form of sponsorship and encouragement, and some protection, in some ways more than men.
And there aren’t enough senior women out there to do it, so it falls upon the men who are graduating today just as much or more as the women, not just to talk about gender but to help these women succeed. When they hear a woman who is really great at her job but not liked, take a deep breath and ask why.
We need to start talking openly about the flexibility all of us need to have both a job and a life. Couple of weeks ago in an interview I said that I leave the office at 5.30 to have dinner with my children, and I was shocked at the press coverage. One of my friends says she wasn’t sure I could get more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax! I told her I wasn’t really interested in trying that. But this showed me that this is an unresolved issue for all of us, for men and women; otherwise why would everyone write so much about it. And maybe most importantly, we need to start talking about how fewer women than men, even from places like HBS, most likely even in this class, aspire to the very top jobs.
We will not close the leadership gap until we close the professional ambition gap. We need more women not just to sit at the table, but as President Obama said a few weeks ago at Barnard, to take their rightful seats at the head of the table. One of the reasons I was so excited to be here today is that Dean Nohria told me that this year is the 50th anniversary of letting women into this class. Your dean is so passionate about getting more women into leadership positions and he told me he wanted me to speak this year for that reason.
I met a woman from that first class once. She told me that when they first came in, the first class of women, they took a men’s room and converted it to a women’s room. But they left the urinals in. She thought the message was super clear. We’re not sure this whole girl thing is going to work out and in case it doesn’t we won’t have to reinstall the urinals. The urinals are long gone. Let’s make sure that no one ever misses them.
As you and your classmates spread out across the globe and walk across this stage tomorrow, I wish for you four things:
First, that you keep in touch via Facebook. This is critical to your future success. And we’re public now, so can you click on an ad or two while you are there?
Two, that you make the effort to speak as well as seek the truth.
Three, that you remain true to and open about your authentic self.
And four, most deeply, that your generation accomplishes what mine has failed to do. Give us a world where half our homes are run by men and half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a better world.
I join everyone here in offering my most sincere congratulations to the Class of 2012. With your authentic selves, give yourselves a huge round of applause.