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Sexual Politics: Leading Questions

How men can help women

Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

Rosabeth Moss Kanter couldn’t contain her smile. “I thought about this question,” said Kanter, as she stepped up to the Diana Center’s stage for the conference, “Building Partnerships: What Men Can Do To Advance Women’s Leadership.”

“What can men do?” Kanter asked. She grinned. “The laundry.” The crowd erupted in laughter. But she wasn’t joking.

“Household division of labor has barely budged in years,” said Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, and a former editor of the Harvard Business Review. “Women still do a disproportionate share of household and family work.” Kanter explained that “to rise in leadership roles, it’s important to have time for extras such as special projects, travel, and development programs. So men can help by freeing up their wives’ time.”

The largest initiative to date of Barnard College’s year-old Athena Center for Leadership Studies, the conference drew more than 200 women of all ages, and perhaps two dozen men. The October 5 event sparked much animated discussion, as speakers proposed strategies to improve women’s status in the workplace, ranging from flex-time to female role models—as well as relief from the laundry—and some less widely accepted tactics.

In its focus on men, the conference marked a departure from the Athena Center’s previous programs, and may be the first time a women’s college sponsored an event of this nature. “When you talk to high-level women you realize that they didn’t do it on their own. They did it with colleagues, many of whom are men,” said Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center. “We want to give students the tools to excel in a world that includes men.”

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, a married couple who won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China for The New York Times, kicked off the event with a presentation on the status of women in developing nations. This keynote was followed by a panel on strategies for advancement in the public sphere, moderated by Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project; a second panel, moderated by Kanter, dealt with lessons learned in the corporate world.

At times, discussion strayed from the overall theme. Kristof, who has won a second Pulitzer for his New York Times columns, and WuDunn, now a business executive, shared heartbreaking anecdotes from their most recent work, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The pair focused on how Americans of both sexes can further the opportunities of women raised in dire, dismal circumstances - individuals like the Ethiopian girl who gave birth alone in a bush at the age of 14, was left to die by the villagers, but crawled to an American missionary 30 miles away.

The couple urged the audience members, many of them current Barnard students, to consider leaving their comfort zone and inhabit a world unknown to them, whether it’s a local prison or an impoverished village across the ocean. They urged the crowd to establish grassroots projects to help the women they encounter in these desperate circumstances, Kristof said, “You can become a happier person, gain perspective, and you can change the world at the margins—a little bit.”

An advocate of women’s issues for 30 years, Wilson said she’s “given up hope on the more traditional ways.”

“I’ve asked women around the world what works, and they say, ‘quotas’,” Wilson said. She pointed to the transformation in Norway, where 2004 legislation required that 40 percent of corporate boards be composed of women. But Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and a speaker on the public sector panel, suggested that while “quotas played a significant constructive role in opening up opportunities for women around the world, in the United States they are an anathema for a whole variety of reasons.”

Instead, Henderson called for wage transparency. “We need collateral ways of showing inequality, some way of comparing salaries,” he said. Several practical solutions were proposed by James Basker, a speaker on the public sector panel who is a professor of English literature at Barnard as well as president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Basker spoke of the role of mentors in building female leaders, and the importance of offering flexible schedules, including project-based work that can be done at home.

As a general matter, the corporate panel adopted a more pragmatic, less idealistic approach than the public-sector panel. Two of the three speakers on the corporate panel came from the fast-paced, competitive world of finance, a sector “not known to be warm and fuzzy,” in the words of Kanter.

Ravi Singh, a speaker and trustee of the College who is a managing director of Credit Suisse, spoke bluntly of his focus—“making sure the top people stick around,” he said, explaining that sometimes that means finding ways to allow employees more time with their families. “Getting talented women in the door is really easy,” said Singh. “Keeping them in the door is hard.”

- Elicia Brown ’90