Women in Leadership Conference

May 10, 2017

Talented women in male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are sometimes reluctant to contribute their ideas in a group. That reticence not only helps perpetuate that field as male-dominated, said Harvard Business School Assistant Professor of Business Administration Katherine Coffman, it also harms women’s promotions, raises and recognitions.

Coffman spoke at “Competition & Gender: Insights for Aspiring Women and Managers,” a panel at the May 4 Women in Leadership conference, co-sponsored by the Watson Institute and the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab. Other panels addressed “Penalties for Success? Gender Norms and Women’s Leadership” and “Structural Challenges to Work-life Balance.”

The inaugural conference was inspired by the personal experiences of STEM women leaders and the global challenges women face in reaching their full potential, said Justine Hastings, Watson Institute professor of economics and international and public affairs, and RIIPL founding director. “We wanted to create a forum for learning from research, developing solutions and creating opportunities for mentorship.”

While panelists all acknowledged experiencing micro- and/or macro-aggressions in their respective fields, research and real-life experiences reveal that women may self-discriminate.

Self-discrimination is the part we can control, said panelist Nancy Zimmerman, ’85, a Brown Corporation trustee emerita. “So you lose; people lose all the time… they don’t leave the tournament,” said Zimmerman, co-founding partner of Bracebridge Capital. If men don’t like their first job, they don’t leave the workplace; they find a better job, she said. “We need to make this the normal response.”  

Alexandra Pruner, ’83, chief financial officer for Perella Weinberg Partners, agreed; women who fear negative feedback and perceive men’s rapid-fire, highly assertive communications as sexist, may avoid competition and self-discriminate.

Mentoring is essential

Mentors – of any gender – are invaluable, panelists asserted. The first woman to get tenure in her department, panelist Muriel Niederle, a Stanford University economics professor, cited the benefits of having female friends – and being a cheerleader for them.  “Now, 40 percent of Stanford’s graduate students [in economics] are women,” she said. Of the workplace, she said, “It’s more fun if more women are around.”  

Acknowledging that work may be filled with arbitrary events, unpleasant assignments or difficult colleagues, Zimmerman encouraged young people to find work for which they have passion – a magnet for prospective mentors.   

Young career women especially need “a mentor, someone to cheerlead and push [them] forward,” said panelist Phyllis Dennery, Sylvia Kay Hassenfeld Professor and chair of pediatrics, Brown University, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital pediatrician-in-chief and medical director. She believes that time, practice and a mentor help women navigate their environments and grow into confident people who can take credit openly for their contributions.

Diversity pays dividends

Pruner found that female applicants weren’t interviewing as well as their male counterparts, though all came from Ivy League institutions. Aiming for a diverse workforce to mirror its clients, Perella Weinberg Partners launched a highly competitive advisory prep program on investment banking for female college sophomores. Companies with more than 22 percent of women senior managers outperform, she said. “Selfishly, it makes economic good sense for us to get more women in the lineup,” she said.

Although women now comprise 50 percent of medical school classes, those entering certain male-dominated health care fields – such as surgery and biomedical engineering – are not welcomed, said Dennery. Having heard, “You can’t be a doctor; you’re a woman,” Dennery believes that broader public exposure to women in STEM fields will reduce such misperceptions.

While law enforcement is traditionally male-dominated, Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Colonel Ann Assumpico, another panelist, referenced studies over the past 25 years citing women’s excellent law enforcement skills. “We de-escalate [conflicts], and are very good listeners and good shots,” she said. “It’s better when those doors are open to … all types of men and women.”

At RIIPL, where approximately half the leadership and staff roles are held by women, STEM gender disparities aside, those doors are open. “We didn’t aim for this; we just hire great people,” Hastings said.

Student engagement

Moderator Carrie Nordlund, associate director of the Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program at Watson, fielded questions – from students and other attendees – such as these: How do researchers address the risk that women underperform by succumbing to oppressive stereotypical expectations? Are women less supportive of other women whom they might view as competition? How many women are enough – is there a quota?

Several student volunteers helped to promote the conference and register attendees, said Amamah Sardar, RIIPL smart policy analyst and Brown MPA candidate.

Bastien Ibri ’19 and RIIPL intern, came to support his colleagues and learn. “Men tend to dominate in the workplace… so being educated on … women in leadership and how we can lift up women in the workplace is something every young man should know,” said Ibri, who recognized he will never struggle to be heard in the workplace, given his gender. “It makes me think about the dynamics of work in a much more reflective way.”

– Nancy Kirsch

Visit the conference website and read research summaries.