In your book Wonder Women, you’re candid about your previous ambivalence toward feminism. How has that changed and evolved at Barnard?
“I’ve definitely evolved. I never had anything against feminism. I thought it was over. I wished it was over. I was of the generation that grew up believing you could do whatever you wanted as a woman. And then reality hit me over the head midway through my own career when I realized that there weren’t a lot of women where I was hanging out, and that life as a professional woman was different than that of a professional man. I began thinking that when I was at Harvard Business School, and then coming to Barnard gave me the opportunity to think about it somewhat more systematically, instead of just grumbling about it.”
What is your relationship with the idea of feminism today?
“I think I’ve grabbed onto the definition of feminism that many people, including the Barnard Center for Research on Women, have put out there, which is the crazy idea that women are equal to men, and I think that’s as good a definition as anything. Feminism is a huge tent, and there are a lot of pieces underneath it, but the overarching concept is the best way for me to define it.”
I have a lot of friends who graduated from Barnard — I’m an ’05 alum — who feel that the Lean In movement doesn’t define us. We’re ambitious, we’re intelligent, we want great jobs and fulfilling personal lives, but we’re not necessarily looking to land in the C-Suite. How do you advise women like that, to help them strike the right balances in their lives?
“Well, I think all women are going to have different kinds of careers. That’s the beauty of feminism; we don’t all need to be on the same track — whether it’s to be a full-time mom or a full-time CEO. We have options, and that was what feminism was supposed to give us. So, at the risk of sounding trite, I urge people to think, ‘What do you like to do? What are you good at?’
For women and men who may be in their late 20s or early 30s and are feeling burnout, is it ever all right to take a grown-up gap year to travel the world or pursue an impossible dream — or just take a break?
“If you can afford to do that, emotionally and financially, go for it. I’m old enough to know that life is going to throw so many curveballs that trying to plot [things] out six years in advance, or even six months in advance, is tough. Of course, there are certain fields where you have to be proactive. If you’re a surgeon, of course, you have to get on that track.
So, what did you think you were going to be doing with your life when you were 22?
“I was supposed to be a spy or a diplomat! I was all set up — I applied to the Foreign Service and had gotten in. I was ready to go be a political officer in Poland, which would have been incredibly cool in 1984. And then the Foreign Service discovered I was too young, which they [probably should've] discovered earlier (laughs). So, I literally had to go to graduate school to kill time, and my whole life went in a completely different direction.”
And then, where were you at 30? Did you have a clearer picture of the future at that point?
“I ended up getting my PhD and taking a teaching job at the University of Toronto, so my husband, who was in Boston, and I were in a commuter marriage, which was just hell. And, we had a 1-year-old! I do not recommend that arrangement to anyone. So I said, I will take any job in Boston, and that’s how I wound up at Harvard Business School. I’m the only person who wound up at HBS because of a commuter marriage. I learned a ton, it was awesome, and in my mid-40s, I realized I’d made a career at a business school sort of by accident. I wanted to go back to more of my liberal-arts roots, which is how I wound up here.”
That’s awesome! And that leads to my next question, which is that so many young men and women get advice in college that they need to not only prep for their future career, but for their future personal lives, and find a solid partner early. What is your take?
“You have to take life as it comes along. My favorite wisdom on this point is from When Harry Met Sally, when one of the old women is explaining how she knew she'd found the right man. She said: 'You just know, like you know with a good melon.' So I’d say, when the right one comes along, hopefully, you’re wise enough to stay attached to him or her, whoever that may be.
Going from working with mostly men at Harvard Business School to mostly women at Barnard, what have you noticed in terms of managerial styles? I know you speak about this in Wonder Women, noting that one of the big differences is what’s inside people’s drawers: That women have candy. But, what else?
“That’s true! This entire cabinet is chocolate! You know, you would never walk into Barnard or Harvard Business School and mistake one for the other. It looks different. It feels different. The nature of the conversations is different. At Harvard Business School there was a lot of talk about Australian-rules rugby — to the point where I had to learn about it just to contribute to the conversation! Here, I’ve never had a single conversation about rugby. But, here, there’s a lot of 'I love that dress, those shoes are great.' No one would have ever commented on my wardrobe at HBS, because men worried about being inappropriate, and women wouldn’t talk about it.
What advice do you give women who are trying to navigate those different work environments?
“I think awareness [of the differences] is a huge thing. Early in my career, I had a boss who is now a mentor and great friend. But, when he was my boss, I thought he hated me. He would yell at me all the time. It took my husband to tell me, he’s not angry. He’s a coach. He literally had been; his mode of operating was yelling. And, once I understood it — and it took awhile for me to really get it — I didn’t take it personally. And, I learned from him.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the wage gap and know it’s going to be a huge issue to be discussed, politically, in the next few years. What would you say about how women — and men, too — should think about and react to the pay disparity?
“It’s good to know the facts. With the Internet, it’s generally easy to figure out what you’re worth. And, then, lay out the facts. I don’t think these conversations ever work out when it’s a demand. Go into it as a negotiation. Because, even if the boss says no, you have the opportunity to ask if you can come back in six months. And, you can find out what you need to do to get to that next level and get a salary increase.
So with that said, what do you say to women who take things personally and struggle with being on the more emotional side of the spectrum?
“I’m hardcore. Don’t cry in the office. Obviously, if you hear horrible personal news, that’s one thing. But, if you get upset at work, don’t cry. Go to the bathroom, or go for a walk. Screaming in the office isn’t professional, and there’s a whole range of unprofessional office behaviors — but, crying is absolutely one of them."
So, what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten in your career?
“Again: Don’t make work personal.”
What about the worst advice?
“Early in my career, I had an older woman pull me aside and tell me that I needed to make sure men saw me as a professional, not as a woman. She had rules: Don’t dress too feminine, don’t wear too much makeup. And, that’s not true. I wear dresses, and I wear heels. That’s who I am. I like my heels, I like long hair, and I resented being told I couldn’t be feminine and professional. You can’t be flirtatious [in the workplace], but that’s not the same as being feminine.”
Recently, along with a few other schools, Columbia University — which Barnard is closely affiliated with — has come under national scrutiny for its sexual assault policy. As a college president, what are your thoughts on the issue?
“It’s a problem. It’s a real problem. I don’t know if it’s a problem that’s gotten worse in the past few years, but it certainly has gotten on our radar in the past few years. And, while the problem is horrible, the fact we’re doing things about it is a step in the right direction.
On a more celebratory note, Barnard recently saw its 125th anniversary. Do you think single-sex education is still necessary in 2014?
“I didn’t experience single-sex education until I came here, and the more I’ve been here, the more I think there’s a real need and space for single-sex education, as long as we live in a world where women face constraints in the workplace and in everyday life. It isn’t for everyone, but I think there are an awful lot of women who come here not especially interested in single-sex education, but when they get here and see what it’s like to be in a place where women really rule, they realize how valuable it can be.”
Finally, what do you want your legacy to be?
"Ultimately, my legacy is my kids. All of our legacies are children, no matter what we do. After that, my books are my legacy. I hope they have some legs. I’m really lucky in what I do: I interact with thousands of young people, and if I can have an effect on some of their lives, I’ll leave this world happy. "