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B School Sisterhood

I know the words “sisterhood” and “business school” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence.  Women are under-represented among MBAs, to be sure, but females on business school faculties are only a tiny minority.  Most have adopted a “passing” strategy to survive (“If I don’t say the word ‘woman,’ maybe they won’t notice I am one”), so finding a quorum that can (and will) pull together projects and programs by, about, or for women, is rare. It can seem risky to call attention to gender; those who will do it deserve recognition for being who they are, instead of pretending to be someone else.

So I hope readers won’t mind my ringing the bell for the “home girls” at the Said School who have been quietly building programs and projects for women over the past few years. They have some new achievements worth bringing to the fore.

Kate Blackmon and I became instant friends on first meeting when we discovered we were both Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans. Kate is now the Proctor at Oxford, meaning she is the chief disciplinarian. Not exactly a "slayer," but very very close.

First, Kate Blackmon has a fantastic new book project, just awarded a contract by Oxford University Press.  In this book, Kate, along with her co-author Professor Susan Rudy, a feminist theorist, will synthesize a massive dataset recently assembled by The Rhodes Project.  The Rhodes Project is a registered charity that documents and investigates the career trajectories of the female Rhodes scholars.  What Kate and Susan will be doing is sifting through this data looking for patterns in the lives of this distinguished sample of women. Female Rhodes scholars have gone on to become lawyers, artists, doctors, writers, consultants, religious leaders, politicians, and entrepreneurs.  Thus, the Rhodes data present a wonderful sample of high-achievers across many domains, from which to glean insights about what women do to manage careers in a society that still, to a large degree, begrudges their success.

The archive contains more than 300 survey responses collected between 1977 and 2010, so it will also represent a range of generations as they progressed through changing times.  There are more than 100 personal interviews transcribed, which will add detail to the larger database.  Blackmon and Rudy will be pulling together findings about work/life balance, the meaning of success, the availability of role models and mentors, as well as the importance of public service.  Their mixed methods approach is bound to bring us something more usable, dignified, and interesting than your typical stereotype-banging story from the New York Times (or wherever).

There was an art project commissioned in honor of this project, in which 1, 140 gold leaf stars, representing each of the women who have been Rhodes Scholars since 1977, was unveiled.  The piece was displayed as part of the recent 110th anniversary of Rhodes and is now part of their permanent collection.  You can see the art, as well as download all kinds of stuff about the project, here.  I cannot wait to read this book.

IWILL creates just that sort of quiet canopy under which the women in a business school community--faculty, students, and staff--can gather to share and reason together.

Amanda Poole and Elizabeth Paris have been my comrades-in-arms (partners in crime?) for many projects since I came to Oxford in 2006.  They are part of the core team that does Power Shift, something of which we are all so proud!  But, before Power Shift was even imagined, Amanda and Elizabeth were shepherding a program called IWILL (Inspiring Women in Leadership and Learning), which puts on a series to inspire and counsel women in their lives and careers.  IWILL events normally draw a good-sized crowd, but Elizabeth and Amanda manage them in such a way that you feel as if you are curled up in a cozy conversation with friends.  Their next event, on choosing your life’s direction, will be next week. Details are here.

The Oxford involvement in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program in China is concluding next week.  Elizabeth Paris has led this course since its inception in 2008–I think she has been to China something like 25 times since then (maybe more). This program, of course, is important on a global scale and we have all been proud to be part of it.

Caroline Williams, our associate director for executive education, has been indefatigable in her efforts to bring women’s programs into executive education.  For the past few years, she has attended to the development of a women’s leadership program, led by Kathryn Bishop, Gayle Peterson, and Sue Dopson.  This Women Transforming Leadership executive education course is an open enrollment program intended to support and showcase women trying to climb that infamously treacherous corporate ladder.  Kathryn was interviewed recently by BBC, along with two of the program’s participants.  Caroline sent me the link–it is here.  But there is also a nice video on the School site of Kathryn describing the initiative.

So far, business school programs for women are a little bit like one hand clapping because they focus on supporting and counseling and fixing the women–rather than address (or even acknowledge) the very real prejudices and intentional obstacles that hinder women in their lives and work.  Those prejudices and obstacles are only too visible in the business school context, as recent press about Harvard has attested, and our situation is not an exception.

Yet I feel these first steps and programs are extremely important.  They give women in the B-School community visibility to each other, form a canopy for discussion of deeper issues, and create a rallying point around which to demonstrate the importance of women in the economy. So, “sisterhood” and “business school” may be contradictory terms a while longer, but perhaps not forever.I admire people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, while also being willing to live with the contradictions that arise from it.                           –Mary Cleary Kiely, Rhodes Scholar, 1981


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