CPL Conference Explores Challenges, Obstacles Facing Women Leaders

March 10, 2006
Gavriella R. Kroo and Loren Gary

“Thirty-five years after the beginning of the women’s movement, the shape and path of women’s careers remain significantly different from men’s,” said Center for Work-Life Policy president Sylvia Ann Hewlett, one of the featured speakers at a March 9–10 gathering sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The event, Leadership 2006, focused on issues related to women, leadership, and power in a variety of arenas: politics, government, the judiciary, the military, business, and science.

A panel on women in business emphasized the “double-bind” that women face as a result of persistent gender-role stereotypes. “The same assertiveness that is rewarded in men violates gender-role prescriptions in women,” said New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman.

The number of billable hours at law firms has been going up as the number of women in law firms has decreased, noted Patricia Gillette, shareholder in the law firm Heller Ehrman. “The people making the decisions that affect work-life balance [in the business and professional world] are the men. Their lives are balanced: they’re making plenty of money and can choose to opt in or out of their private lives when they want to. But they aren’t thinking about the effects [of their decisions] on women.”

Hewlett cited research showing that 77 percent of women who have left the workforce “would have stayed if they had had flex time.” Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood cited research pointing to the “very significant—and negative—career consequences for high-skilled women who have children.” Work-life balance “has huge ramifications for the workforce of the future,” Ellwood continued, “and the future of all our societies.”

A panel on women in U.S. presidential politics explored both institutional and psychological factors inhibiting the participation of women in the political arena. Union College political scientist Richard Fox, tracing the root of women’s absence in politics, noted that women are hesitant to see themselves as qualified to occupy public offices primarily because they lack encouragement to do so.

Rutgers University professor of politics Ruth Mandel and former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift were both optimistic about the prospects for women in politics, but they criticized the public sector for its poor support systems for working women. Swift adamantly maintained that traditional female roles and political ambition are not incompatible, adding that more programs to facilitate the integration of work and family, similar to ones currently under way in for-profit companies, must be established. One example she cited was a program by Lehman Brothers which helps women who have left the workforce to care for young children or elderly relatives “on-ramp” back into professional roles.

Marie Wilson, who heads up the White House Project, which has recruited and trained 400 women in four different states to run for office, added, “We are interested in women for the sake of the agenda that they bring. When you get women sitting at the table, things are done differently. Women bring different ideas; they reach out to others who haven’t been included.”

One example of this difference, noted by Swanee Hunt, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at KSG and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, is that “the higher the percentage of women in parliaments, the less corruption there is, and the more money that goes to health and education.”

Gillette stated that women need to say they want the choice to be in positions of power, but also to have a family and an outside life. “But we need to be in positions of power to make that argument,” she said.

Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons

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David Elwood and Patricia Gillette image

Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood and Patricia Gillette discuss women's leadership issues.