Walking a Mile in My Own Shoes

Black, closed-toe, not too shiny, enough of a heel to announce her arrival--this is the kind of shoe I imagine on successful women. Two days before the Harvard-Radcliffe Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC) in August, I found myself in dire need of such shoes. The sneakers that had protected my feet from lab chemicals during the rest of summer certainly would not do. A hasty shopping trip ensued, and I strode into the conference with two extra inches of height. By lunchtime of day one, however, a blister was already asserting itself, and I was hobbling in a manner that was neither lady- nor leader-like.

My feet were telling me what I had suspected, that maybe this conference on women in leadership wasn’t quite the right place for me. WLC brings together 30 female undergraduates for six days of panels, discussions, and workshops on planning our future personal and professional lives. I had applied on blind faith in a friend’s recommendation, even though I was personally ambivalent about female-only undertakings. By drawing these circles around women, aren’t we further isolating ourselves from the men with whom we have to compete?

At a pre-conference meeting in the spring, we each received a packet of readings for discussion that included an essay by Joanne Lipman, founding editor of Portfolio magazine. “When I was in college in the 1980s,” she writes, “many of us looked derisively at the women’s liberation movement. That was something that strident, humorless, shrill women had done before us. We were sure we were beyond it. We were post-feminists. After all, we lived equally with men.” And here I was in college in the 2010s, still wanting to be post-feminist, and largely indifferent toward women’s movements.

Or was I? On second thought, I have been involved in a number of women’s organizations. I had joined Women in Business freshman year (which is also when I first encountered difficulty in finding good dress shoes). When my interest in business waned and I turned to science, I signed up for the Radcliffe Mentor Program and the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics mentoring program. But I never consciously chose to join women’s organizations, and if equivalent ungendered organizations had existed, I probably would have joined those.

As a young woman in science, I have not personally experienced discrimination based on gender. But that is not to say my experience has been gender-neutral. Of the dozen courses I have taken toward my concentration in neurobiology, exactly two were taught by female professors, both of whom were co-teaching with male colleagues. The neurobiology concentration is 65 percent female. When I took physics, most students who showed up for help at office hours were female, even though the class itself was predominantly male. These statistics are more anecdotal than rigorous, but the fact that these observations have stayed with me suggests their subtle influence.

The conference reminded me how far we have come from a time when discouraging women was not at all subtle. Sandra Moose, Ph.D. ’68, formerly senior vice president and director of the Boston Consulting Group, gave the keynote address. She impressed me as sleek and steely. In the Vietnam era, when Moose earned her doctorate in economics, the campus was especially hostile toward women, she said, because she was seen as taking the place of a male student who would then have been exempt from the draft. In fact, she was not especially interested in academic research, but her preferred choice, Harvard Business School’s two-year M.B.A. program, did not admit women. Neither, she discovered, did Lamont Library. During her first week at Harvard, she settled in to study at Lamont, only to be told, when leaving, never to return. Today, she serves on the Harvard Library’s visiting committee.

In spite of such stories, the more sobering realization, I discovered, is that women still have a long way to go. Throughout the week, we heard repeatedly that women make up at least half of college students, professional-school students, and middle-management positions, yet hold only a fraction of such top positions as tenured professor, partner, or CEO. There are plenty of women in the pipeline, but they are opting out.

In my naïve view, this had seemed to be a problem caused by ingrained cultural attitudes, which are more difficult to change than rules, not as if women are institutionally deterred from those positions. Not quite, argued dean of student life Suzy Nelson, making a point in her speech that I, as a 20-year-old college student, had barely begun to consider: the most important steps toward gender equality are longer maternity leaves for both men and women and access to affordable, quality daycare.


How trivial of me to fixate on shoes, I thought. Surely a discussion about successful men would start with the head, not the toes. But the truth is: women are held to standards of appearance that are double and high. Teresa Valmain, a campaign adviser to Hillary Clinton, talked about the endless press coverage of whether Clinton had shown too much cleavage. The current secretary of state’s famous predilection for pantsuits was challenged by another conference speaker, who advised, “Don’t wear pantsuits. They are never flattering on women, and it looks like you’re trying too hard to be masculine.” As the type of girl who still has not mastered the curling iron, I remain conflicted on whether to play the appearance game or try subverting it. I suddenly missed my summer job, where a lab coat was routine and the only clothing criterion was safety.

I noted that the women who presented at the conference were not, actually, all wearing black pumps. They were remarkable and diverse, including a freelance wedding photographer and a nonprofit consultant who had picked up and moved to Cambodia to start a business. Two dozen incredible young women who are my classmates also became my friends. Their stories inspired me, but I admired them for their accomplishments, neither because nor in spite of their gender. I did come out of the conference more conscious of the barriers, both structural and cultural, that women face.

After six days spent with women, I became more curious about how the other half thinks. Did men understand the unequal burden that childcare placed on women? Did they realize the double standards imposed on women as leaders?

When I posed these questions to male friends over dinner, the first response was, “We’re guys! Why would we even think about that?” The jokester’s exaggerated grin assured me he wasn’t serious, but the laughter seemed to be covering the uncomfortable truth of his words taken at face value. “I would have no problem with being a stay-at-home dad,” replied a more serious friend when pressed for a straight answer, “but that’s not what I plan on doing.” The young men I know are mostly of the liberal type who grew up with working mothers or high-achieving sisters, but in their responses I still detected the strain of gender expectations, explicit and implicit.

In the Crimson earlier this year, Susan Marine, assistant dean for student life and director of the Harvard College Women’s Center, stressed the role of men in promoting gender equality.”When a man addresses another man about a problem in society, he may be more likely to see it as something pertinent to his own life than if a woman brought it up.” Discrimination against women is indeed a problem for society, not just for women. When a woman leaves her job to take care of children or when her effectiveness as a leader is undermined by double standards, everyone is affected. It is important that these issues are understood not only by the women who will encounter them but also by the men who will be working alongside those women.

The end of the conference meant the beginning of the new school year, which in turn meant a flurry of e-mails recruiting students for extracurricular activities. One message arrived from Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe, seeking upperclassmen to mentor younger students interested in science. I reflected on my three years at Harvard--a sliver compared to the experiences of the women at the conference, but still quite hefty compared to my freshman self. Even though I may not be quite ready to carry the torch for successful women, I am now pretty handy with a Bunsen burner. Yes, I replied, I would like to be a Big Sib. But you know what? The Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association (HCURA), a general organization for students of all genders, has a mentorship program as well. I will be signing up for that, too.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Sarah Zhang ’11 is still searching for a good pair of dress shoes.

Read more articles by: Sarah Zhang

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