It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others ... -W.E.B. Du BoisDuring my time at Booth, in person and on this blog, I talked about the need for more resources and support for female student parents which sounds more burdensome than warranted. Really what I wanted and what I think many women in business want is normalization, which is simultaneously very simple and very challenging.
I unfortunately got off to a very bad start with the school because of my need to accommodate my newborn during LOE and as a result my first 48 hours at the school left me feeling unwanted, distrustful and not at all "normal". I did receive an apology but my sense of abnormality mounted as the school year progressed and the distaste for the childed among some classmates and staff became more apparent. (Consider my interview for a leadership position with CWiB in which I was asked whether I could handle the role given the fact that I had a child … oh, the irony.) Some students were lovely, others were oddly clueless (consider the first-year who asked me how long pregnancy lasted - 6 months, he ventured. I wish! I laughed. Then he went on to tell me about his 11 month old son … errr …) and some were downright mean. The worst came during my second year when I was pregnant. The incessant, often scathing comments about my girth were exhausting. On the one hand, it would have been strange to have no one comment on the fact that I was pregnant, on the other hand, that my entire existence revolved around my uterus was depressing. I just wanted to blend in.
Toward the end of my second year it occurred to me that this matter was not just about my experience as a student but also the experience of the future colleagues and employees of my more clueless or mean classmates. Why should a significant portion of the world's "future leaders" be so ignorant/disdainful of one of life's most fundamental experiences? And furthermore, as an employer itself, why wasn't Booth modelling better human resource practices? (That the school did not think to include a lactation room or provide childcare resources is understandable given the low number of female students with children but then I realized there were plenty of employees with children!)
It is a man's world. I say this without ill will - it has historically made sense to be so. But making it a human being's world requires more than just adding women to the mix and expecting men and childless women to understand the practical reality of birthing and bearing babies.
As I've said before, the only important difference between men and women is babies. All the other alleged differences are trivial. The baby factor affects all women, even if they never have children, as it weeds women out of the public realm. Accommodating women and their wayward uteruses (uteri?) is not about entering a new touchy feely world or lowering the bar, it's about finding clever ways to overcome the inescapable physical burden of motherhood. My pet theory is that women are more risk adverse than men because to possess a uterus is to live in a world of tremendous uncertainty. You have no idea when or if you will become pregnant, how the pregnancy will fare or how long it will last. You have no idea when labor will strike and how it will progress. Will breastfeeding come easily or become a nightmare? How will post-partum recovery evolve? How will your newborn take to the world? And god forbid you become pregnant unintentionally. Taking big career or financial risks is far more dangerous with these realities looming over your head.
I happened to run into a woman who had graduated from law school at BYU (yes, Mormons) and was in Chicago while her husband finished law school at the UoC. Consider these radical measures that BYU took to accommodate their female students. Women could bring a sleeping baby to class. They could request in advance videotapes of any class that would be missed or an audiotape of a class after the fact. If needed, they could come to campus and watch class live in a special family room while nursing or playing with their baby. These family rooms were study rooms with priority given to students (male or female) with children. Let's say you were in class with a sleeping baby which suddenly woke? Just leave class and head to the nearest family room and watch the class on t.v. Compare those attitudes to the experience of a female Booth student who received a lot of snide comments after her baby cried in the Winter Garden.
So what can/should business schools do?
- Drop the excuses - telling female students that you've never had to deal with the child thing before insulting and irrelevant. Well, now you are.
- Get real feedback. Don't just listen to the women who tell you everything is going great and groovy. Find the women who are pissed.
- Be radical! Be creative. Tell recruiters who give a pregnant student a hard time to go to hell. (Not, oh that's none of our business.) Tell staff who trivialize a new mom's needs to shape up or ship out. Tell women's groups who over politicize motherhood that they're no longer needed. Let women hear from all the women out there doing baby + work. Reassure women that their physical needs come before recruiters' needs or professors' needs or classmates needs'. Set up a proper mother's room already. Include families!! Help figure out childcare. Provide recordings of missed classes. Etcetera! (Do some brainstorming already.)
- And don't trivialize this - it's not a Mommy MBA already.
- Women have babies - it's normal. Now act like it is.