Episode 70: A Female Education

Our students do come out of here quite confident…they have a sense of self, a sense of poise and confidence I don’t see coming out of many of the co-ed schools.
— Debora Spar

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, making a traditionally female institution a bit more diverse…

“We want to make sure that men who might be applying for our jobs understand that we are an equal opportunity employer and this is a very good place to be a man.”

But it is still a women’s college, with feminist ideals – ideals that don’t always triumph in the workplace…

“Barnard really created such a strong sense of self-worth but it left it up to us and up to me how to translate that sense of self worth into actual behavior once you start working fulltime.”

Coming up – the merits of a single-sex college education and how that prepares women for work.

Barnard College sits just across the street from Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was founded in 1889 to give women access to the same kind of liberal arts education that was already available to men. America used to have lots of women’s colleges before higher education became mixed. According to the Women’s College Coalition back in 1960 there were 230 women’s colleges. Today, there are just over 40.

But Barnard is in demand. Last year it got more than six times as may applications as it had places.

Debora Spar is the president of Barnard. She has been at the helm since 2008. Before that she was a professor at Harvard Business School.

AM-T: “You’ve had this illustrious career at a famous institution, Harvard Business School…which we know is mostly male, and there’s been a lot of coverage of that…and then you came here to Barnard…it must have been very different. What was that like?”

“Well I always joke I underwent a hormonal transformation when I went from Harvard to Barnard. I joke but I mean it quite seriously, that at least in my own experience being at a place run by and dominated by men is fundamentally different from being at a place that’s run by and dominated by women. And it’s not better or worse but it’s quite different.

At Harvard and male places in general people are quite frontal – people are comfortable with conflict, with saying ‘that was stupid’ or ‘that’s a bad idea’ or ‘God, I disagree with you.’ And generally they move on from that – the attacks are loud but short and generally forgotten by next day. Whereas at Barnard and women-dominated places generally people are less comfortable with conflict. There are very few instances of what I call a frontal stabbing. But people are more likely to paper over their disagreements…things tend to simmer a little bit more, old wounds tend to fester, to stay around longer. And it’s a different management style. And to jump to a conclusion, I come away from this dual experience even more firmly convinced than at the outset that diversity is a really good thing. It’s not that you want places to be run just by women any more than you want them to be run just by men – but you want an environment with men and women, different ages, different ethnicities, different, preferences, so you get that mix and the good parts of all the different components.”

AM-T: “What is the makeup here, you joked at the last conference I went to, oh, we need more men here…but what is the makeup?”

“Well I have worked to get more men here. On the student side of course we’re all female. On faculty side it’s about 50/50…On the staff side I’ve hired quite a few men. So 2 of my senior staff members are now male, 2 out of 9 – it’s a flip of what I experienced in my old life, 2 women in a room of 8 men…you know, we don’t only hire men of course, but we want people to understand we are an equal opportunity employer…and this is a very good place to be a man although if you’re a man here you have to get used to being in a female environment. The bad joke I use is the chitchat before a meeting will be about hairstyles and handbags from time to time, and if you’re the only guy in the room that’s awkward. Just as it’s often awkward – well I’ll personalize it. In my old life I was always awkward when people spoke about Australian rules rugby, as I know nothing about that. But you get used to different kids of chit chat. And I think there’s some benefit in seeing that, but there’s more benefit in getting the diversity so everyone feels comfortable with the chitchat.

The other place we’ve brought men in is on the board level. The Barnard board historically was mostly composed of alumnae, who by definition were women. We now have a number of dads, husbands of alums…men who are just interested in women’s leadership, and that’s been a really good thing.”

She says another good thing about having more men around? Men still have most of the influence in the corporate world. So the more of them you involve the more doors you can open for your female alumnae. And she says there’s something else….

“And I want to be careful not to go too far into gender stereotypes, but I think in general men are more comfortable than women are talking about money – and in areas like fundraising it’s actually very helpful to have a bit of a macho attitude in the room sometimes, where a woman might tend to say, 'This is really important, we all need to think about this,' I remember one meeting where one male said, 'Enough talk, this is how much money I’m going to give, I want everyone to open their checkbooks right now.' It’s not that a woman would never say those words, but they’re words more commonly attributed to men.”

And sticking to stereotypes for a minute, more commonly attributed to women is the idea that they don’t support eachother – we talked about this in detail on the last show. Debora Spar says no, women don’t always treat eachother well, but…

“I think there are some problems with how the issue is framed. I think we expect women to be more supportive. And maybe that’s just an unfair expectation. I remember a male colleague of mine, junior, saying to me some years ago ‘how come you’re not more nurturing to the other junior people in the organization?’ And I got quite angry, and this is someone I was very fond of, had in fact hired and promoted. I said ‘what do you mean I’m not nurturing? I hired you, I promoted you.’ He said ‘yes but you know, I don’t spend a lot of time telling you my troubles.’ And I said ‘well, do you spent a lot of time telling your troubles to Tom, Dick and Harry?’ Of course not. So I think there’s an additional expectation on women that we will be nurturing and supportive and provide shoulder to cry on, even when it’s not in our job description.”

And that can skew men’s and women’s views of female authority figures or colleagues who aren’t warm and fuzzy.

President Spar says – and of course she would – that at Barnard, all the students are supportive of one another. She says during the course of their four years there they learn how to stand up for themselves…without deferring to anyone…

“I think there’s some benefit that occurs from spending these four very previous years in an environment where the social life is quite separate from the academic life. We have boys everywhere because we have so many Columbia students, but I think our young women get more opportunities to sit in class, sit in a math class, a statistics class, any class really, and focus on the material, the reaction to the material, focus on developing their own brains…rather than constantly worrying about, oh, the guy next to me, do I sound like a girl if I say this, do I sound like a girl if I don’t put my hand up, if I do put my hand up? They get rid of those invisible bubbles that so many women still have inside their heads all the time.

Ashley Pope can attest to that. She graduated from Barnard in 2007. She wasn’t specifically seeking a women’s college at 17 or 18…but she’s glad she went to one.

“How many 18-year-old girls, women, are so confident in their abilities and speaking for themselves, advocating for themselves that they could go and succeed in he workplace right then? I know I wasn’t ready to. Barnard gave me the time and support I needed for that.”

She says she was shy and withdrawn when she got there and changed a lot during those years.  She says her experience at college also gave her something else – the ability to take criticism…

“Did I take it perfectly? No. But I learned how to take criticism. I didn’t know how to take criticism before I went to Barnard…and especially being a woman going out into the workplace you have to know how to take criticism, and not take it personally, and just speaking for myself, not cry, feel like you’re getting in trouble…”

She needs a tough hide now she’s a lawyer in New York City – although she says so far she hasn’t come up against any gender issues at work. I wondered whether an alumni network of mostly women was as useful as a mixed network might have been…but Ashley has no complaints.

“It’s a good network of women and especially the older generations – you know, those were the colleges that women went to, so when you look at some of the graduates, some of the older women who are CEOs or successful politicians, a fair number of them went to a women’s college."

Hillary Clinton went to Wellesley. And she is in the running for the most powerful position in the world.  

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Jamie Buck-Tomek attended Smith College in Massachusetts. She graduated in the early 2000s. She’d been to a technical college for a year before Smith and that was full of men. Being at a women’s college, looking around at her classmates, she felt inspired…

“Being in the classes people were very supportive, there was not a lot of talking over eachother, which I know is a common refrain of co-ed classes – so it really changed my perspective on what was normal.”

And what it was reasonable for her to do with her life. She’s pretty much always worked in a tech role.

And you know what she said about her classmates being supportive – I wanted to hear more about that. I did not go to a women’s college but I did go to an all-girls’ school until I was 18. And while I have great friends from those days, supportive is not a word I associate with many of the girls there. There were cliques, bitchiness and bullying by an active minority. And even when all that died down, I couldn’t wait to get out into a co-ed world.

But Jamie’s experience at college was very different…

“A lot of the student body at Smith was almost counter-culture in a way, and that was actually not only supported but encouraged…there was a lot of time and activity spent on what might be considered different and minority groups, and it is what you think, there are a lot of gay women who go to all women’s colleges…I think with that they likely did not have such a welcoming environment where they were and Smith became a welcoming environment, and it became welcoming to anyone who was different…one, it attracted people who were generally nice, it also encouraged people to work together, there were a lot of events about sisterhood and such – so they wanted it to be a community.”

In a real ‘we’re all learning what it is to be women together’ kind of way. She loved it. But one thing she wishes she’d learned more about back then? How the workplace actually works…

“I mean I’m pretty sure that even my first job I got paid less than a male counterpart – I obviously don’t have any truth to that, but just the sense I got about what other people were making, they got me for a steel, and I didn’t know. I think maybe part of it was if you’re in an all-women’s college and you’re not facing those kinds of issues you probably aren’t prepared for that, and you may think that, ‘oh, this is great, everybody’s nice, everybody’s supportive, everyone wants me to be a powerful woman’ because that’s what you’ve experienced. And the people we’d go see, if we were to see alumnae, it was always very positive about their role in the company – there wasn’t a lot, at least at the events I went to, about the struggles that they had, so I think they wanted people to be confident that they could go out there, but maybe at the same time we just weren’t aware that we might still be facing some of those very common problems about negotiating salary and advancing.”

Smith’s director of career development told me last week that these days Smith offers salary negotiation workshops and workshops about living on a budget- she says they’re both popular.

Unlike Jamie, Michelle Fan was aware of what she might be up against once she started working. Or at least partly aware. She graduated from Barnard in 2009 and now works in London for a branding company.

She says Barnard inculcated in her the idea that she could do anything, that what she thought had merit, and she that needed to speak her mind But once she started working, things got more complicated…

“It was harder to figure out on my own how to apply this belief that my thoughts were important to the workplace. So for instance, when I was first negotiating my salary at my current company I really was hyper-aware…not just through what I learned at Barnard but through articles I had read, that women ask for less money, so I tried to be as assertive as possible to ask for what I wanted for my salary, to try to aim higher and not be too modest in terms of what I was asking for.”

The problem was, with all she knew about the fact she should negotiate…she didn’t really know how to do the delicate dance a negotiation can require – especially if you’re female…

“So in one of these conversations I think I came across as quite rude and demanding – I was quite adamant about not underestimating what I could make and shooting as high as possible…”

Things turned out OK. She wasn’t totally rebuffed. But looking back, she wishes she’d been channeled her assertiveness a bit differently. Then there was the sexual comment a colleague made on her first day at work – not about her – but again, her feminist education hadn’t quite prepared her for how to respond.

He was in his 40s and they were discussing X Factor, the reality show. He brought up a female singer he thought was hot…

“And how he’d like to – and it’s just something really vulgar, maybe you’ll have to edit this out – but something about how he’d like to take a shot into her, or something, just like something really not appropriate. And I didn’t think this was a pattern in that workplace in particular, but that comment really struck me and I thought it was really, really rude. Yet at the same time I didn’t feel that I had the skills…especially looking at that situation in retrospect, I don’t know what I could have done to stick up to myself better – so in the end I didn’t end up saying anything even though I thought it was inappropriate that he’d end up saying something like that.”

We could probably do a whole show just on the best ways to respond to sexist comments at work. But Michelle was brand new in the job – she hadn’t been working in London that long and thought well, maybe this is just the culture here. Like so many other women through the decades, she didn’t want to make a fuss. Still, the whole episode was confusing…

“Barnard really created such a strong sense of self-worth but it left it up to us and up to me how to translate that sense of self worth into actual behavior once you start working fulltime.”

And she mentioned culture just now – Michelle was born in China, mostly raised in America, now living in England. And one thing the British do a lot is apologize. That’s something Michelle and her class at Barnard were taught not to do – that too many women apologize over nothing, that it undermines your authority…be assertive, they were told.

Then, she started working in the land of Hugh Grant…

“So if you go into a culture where apologizing is so embedded into politeness and how people speak to one another, and there are so many nuanced meanings to the word ‘sorry’ – it could be an aggressive sorry, it could be like sorry, but I’m not sorry at all’ – if I’ve been taught not to apologize and to be super assertive, how do I behave in this new environment?”

She’s only been in London a year and a half, but she’s mustered up a few tactics…

“So far what I’ve been doing is not apologizing but trying to be as considerate and as polite as possible…it still feels weird because ‘sorry’ is still very much a part of the English lingo and I do want to participate in that. But you know, now there’s this tension between I don’t want to apologize because I want to say what I need and ask for what I need without communicating guilt. But on the other hand I think this is just another example of how maybe it would have been helpful and it would be helpful now to have more examples of how to translate these ideals about the equality between men and women into reality, into a world and a life where you don’t see that equality played out in a lot of circumstances.”

Homework for colleges, perhaps.

And speaking of equality, when I was with Debora Spar, the president of Barnard, we got onto the topic of men’s and women’s behavior in the office. I mentioned an email I got from a listener. She talked about a time she was with a female supervisor when that woman suddenly bent down to adjust her stocking – she joked that as they were two girls together it was OK. But my listener thought it was unprofessional. 

Debora Spar agrees.

“I’m pretty hard core about this. I think we all need to separate our emotional lives from our work lives. I’ve been quoted harshly but I still stand by the quote. Don’t cry in the office. Don’t put your stockings on in full view, I don’t care who’s in the room, your work life is not your personal life. Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t share celebrations or God forbid tragedies with your co-workers. But our work lives are not our personal lives.”

AM-T: “But what if something at work is making you cry?”

“Go to the ladies’ room, wait till you get home…I don’t think the work environment demands crying. It just shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel like it from time to time, but keep it out of your professional life…and I say that to both men and women but I think women are a little bit more prone to thinking it’s OK.”

AM-T: “But we’re also more prone to cry for physiological reasons actually, so that’s why I think it’s a bit unfair on us because if we do well up in a work situation people are rolling their eyes…”

“But I think there’s an analog to it – men, don’t lose your tempers at work, I don’t care how angry you get, work is not an environment for screaming…keep your tempers in check, don’t tell sexual jokes, they don’t belong in the workplace…so I think there are different things I would push out of the workplace for men and women but I think there’s a list that applies to everybody. There are certain behaviors that don’t belong in the workplace. They’re not professional.”

Debora Spar – thanks so much to her and my other guests for appearing in this episode. Last year I did a whole show on emotions at the office – you can find it in the archives, it was number 36 - people do have quite different opinions on that topic of crying at work.

And don’t forget to check out my sponsor – especially if you’re a news junkie – they’re at ForeignAffairs.com/broad – you’ll get a huge discount on a year’s subscription by going to that web address.

And I want to recommend an episode of another podcast that a listener recommended to me on Twitter. It’s the Freakonomics podcast and the episode I loved recently is the one where host Stephen Dubner interviewed Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust. She went to an all women’s college herself – Bryn Mawr – she now runs one of the most famous educational institutions in the world. It’s a great listen.

And of course if you had an all-female education I’d love to hear from you – actually even if you didn’t – you can post a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page.

And for those of you who were incensed by some of the comments in my last show about the innate characteristics of men and women – I do plan to tackle this topic with a neuroscientist in a future show, hopefully before the end of this year.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.