By Harmesh Bhambra '16
Topics of women in business have been gaining more and more prominence each year. It is against this backdrop that some of the most well known professors at Booth dedicated their time to contribute to the debate as part of the inaugural Open House organized by Chicago Women in Business (CWiB). “We noticed a lack of dialogue on campus regarding gender and the workplace”, said Irene Conlon and Danielle Raniolo, the Open House co-chairs. “We want Booth to be a place where people feel comfortable discussing these issues.” In response to 275 Full Time students signing up for at least one event, the co-chairs mentioned that they, “were overwhelmed by the immediate response and enthusiasm by Booth men and women to attend these events.” In true Booth style, Open House topics kicked off intense debates on Facebook even before the events took place.
Professor Nick Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at Booth, kicked off the series in typically bombastic fashion. Epley revealed that the real source of the problem is the difference between perception and reality among male and female groups. Epley made his audience see things from a different light by revealing research that the mere knowledge of perceived stereotypes can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a particular vivid image of the act of female exam participants writing their gender on an exam paper having the effect of reducing exam performance.
Epley advised the audience to emphasize individuality to confound stereotypes and highlight similarities with other groups; we are all MBA students and we share many characteristics, and experiences. Gunjan Sud, a first-year MBA student, spoke about the difficulties in applying these lessons after attending the session, “It's important to understand these tendencies and I'm still thinking about how to apply these learnings day-to-day, which is the real challenge.”
A few days later, the problem of the paucity of women in leadership roles was addressed head on by Professor Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at Booth. Professor Bertrand suggested that 90% of this problem is due to a lack of supply of female candidates for these leadership roles. Good performance in high schools by girls and better performance at college than boys, however, result in immediate gaps in wage performance on entering the labor force. Professor Bertrand explored four key reasons: family roles women are expected to perform; a lack of role models and mentors; discrimination; and comparative attitudes towards risk and competition.
Some students were skeptical of the observation that women who “have it all” are less happy than those women who choose to give up some career progress for the their family, highlighting that making the trade off is ultimately a personal decision. The audience were left with practical advice: plan ahead, think through the trade off of marrying and having children at different stages of your career, have that conversation about division of responsibilities with your partner, and make your own choice.
By taking a step back and surveying the Open House series, a powerful undercurrent emerges: thinking about issues of women in business should not take place in a vacuum. Many of the problems and solutions uncovered in Open House are complex, covering social stereotypes, household composition and entrenched behaviors. So, as Gillian Tett, Assistant Editor for the Financial Times, puts it, “The way that any society treats its women cuts to the fabric of the whole social group.” It is our challenge to make the difference.
The writer is a first-year student at Booth.