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Remarks at Leadership 2006: Women/Leadership Conference

The Center for Public Leadership, Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, Mass.

Joe [Nye], thank you very, very much for those kind words. You said that you sought a little advice as to what you should say in introducing me at a conference on women and leadership this week. If you found that to be a difficult problem, you can imagine that I was a little bit puzzled as to what I should say in speaking to a conference on women in leadership. So let me just begin by saying this. Joe talked about many aspects of university life and academic life and much that is special about universities. He didn’t use one word that we often use in talking about universities, and that was learning. And this is a subject about which I have had occasion to learn a great deal over the last 15 months – to learn about preconceptions that I had that were wrong, to learn about an immense body of scholarship that has taken place in this area, to learn about just how strong the feelings are that this subject arouses, and to learn about just how important this subject is.

And so what I thought I might do this morning is to share some of what I’ve learned and some of what I think after the last couple of years about the profoundly important subject that you are going to be talking about.

Let me make several observations if I could. First, the inclusion of women in leadership positions in every walk of our national life is of profound importance. Why do I say that? I think there are three separate reasons why this is something that is critical and that is critical for every organization. First, it is a matter of simple fairness and what is right that everyone who works in a business should have a chance to be a CEO. Everyone who comes to a university to teach should have a chance to be a tenured professor. Everyone who enters a law firm should have a chance to be a partner. Everyone who goes into political life should have a chance to be a congressperson or a governor or a senator or yes, a president. And it is a matter of basic fairness that those opportunities not just be open but be seen to be open for everyone. If one asks what is different and what is better about Harvard today than a century ago, well we have a long way to go. Probably there has been no single improvement clearly more important than the fact that a century ago we were a place where New England gentlemen taught other New England self-regarding gentlemen. And today we are a place that’s open to people from every part of the country, of every ethnic background, of every gender and increasingly of every part of the world. So simple fairness is one part of why this is important.

A second reason why this is important that carries great force, even if one was unconcerned with fairness, is that the logic of excellence requires openness. You know it’s a basic axiom of common sense that if you want to catch the biggest possible fish, you’d best go out fishing in the largest possible lake. And it stands to reason that if we wish for positions that are crucial to our organizations or to any other organizations to get the most impressive and extraordinary people that we can, that we need to search as openly and as widely as we possibly can. Those who deny themselves access to a portion of the pool of talent are not just discriminating and being unfair, they are sacrificing their opportunity to be excellent. A society that does not establish pathways to leadership for all of its citizens is a society that is denying itself a possibility of excellence that it could have had in leadership. And in this sense there is no conflict between the objective of promoting openness and inclusion and the values of meritocracy and excellence. They are reinforcing. They are not opposing.

A third reason that would make these deliberations crucial even if somehow the first two considerations did not have force is the importance of diverse perspective. You know it’s an interesting observation on academic life that no one has provided a completely satisfactory explanation for that if you look at the patterns of authorship in published research papers, a much higher fraction of them are co-authored today than used to be the case. Part of that is because there is more interdisciplinary work and political scientists like Joe work with economists like me. And things cut across boundaries. But that’s not all of it. If you look within economics, if you take my discipline, the fraction of the papers that are co-authored has substantially increased over the last 25 or 30 years. And I’m told that something very similar is true in other disciplines. I’m told by those who know much more about it than I that the number of physicians with different backgrounds who think about what’s wrong with you and what should be done if you are lying in a hospital room at the Brigham is substantially greater than it was 25 years ago. You approach a major American law firm today, your matter is much more likely to be handled by a team of lawyers rather than an individual lawyer than was the case a generation ago. And I could proliferate these kinds of examples throughout other organizations. And so we are increasingly relying on teams to do things rather than on individuals. And increasingly the question of how teams best function is being studied.

And I see from your program that there will be people who actually have deep knowledge of that subject who will be talking later, so I will only offer what seems to me to be a broad gloss on that literature. And that broad gloss is that the teams function better if the people come with more variety of perspective, that indeed when you get a team of people all of whom have the same perspective there’s actually a very substantial danger that it can so mutually reinforce itself that the team gets to a view more extreme than any individual member of the team had at the beginning. And there are those who look at certain aspects of American foreign policy in the last years and see a process of that kind at work. Well what I would suggest to you is that if teams are going to be more important, and we know that diversity of perspective is increasingly important within teams, it only magnifies the importance of having leadership positions be held by people with a diverse array of perspectives. This is a crucial issue for reasons of fairness, for reasons of excellence, for reasons of diverse perspective.

A second observation, a word about where we are succeeding and where there is much to worry about. Start with an observation that would have seemed almost inconceivable in the 1950s. There are today 130 women graduating from college in the United States for every 100 men. From looks at the nation’s leading law schools, the nation’s leading public policy schools, the nation’s leading medical schools, they are very close to 50/50 in the representation of men and women. If one looks at the leading business schools, the situation is not quite there. The fraction of women is much closer to a third, but it is way up from where it has been. And so with respect to what is happening to young girls as they go out to college, as they then go and pursue careers in graduate school, we are in a very different place as a country than we were at the time that I was born, and that’s something from which we can take great satisfaction. What I think many of us would have expected at the time when these trends began to be strongly marked in the mid-1970s, late 1970s, early 1980s is that we would have seen somewhat more change than has taken place in the composition of those who are in leadership positions. Yes, 50 percent of those going to leading law schools are women but only about 16 percent of partners in major law firms are women. Yes, a third of those going to business schools are women, but less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and even if one goes down to a broader and more expansive corporate offices category, it’s hard to get that figure up above 15 percent. Yes, in many fields the fraction of women who are going for PhDs is substantially enhanced, but at Harvard, which is just about at the national average for leading universities, 29 percent of our tenured faculty in the humanities and social sciences are women and only 8 percent of our tenured faculty in the natural sciences are women. And if one looks across the professional schools, whether it is law, whether it is the Kennedy School, whether it is the Business School, the figures are certainly not substantially more encouraging. Nor because if we benchmark ourselves against our competitors is the situation qualitatively different elsewhere.

So the phenomenon I would suggest to you that needs overall to be understood and addressed without minimizing the huge issues that exist at early stages of the educational system is what is it that is taking us from a substantial majority of the college graduates being women, half of the leaders in professional schools being women, to an outcome that doesn’t fully seem to represent the potential contribution to excellence in our society. There are many, many answers to these questions and I don’t presume to speak to them and I trust that more will come from the discussions at this conference. But I do want to say a little bit about what we’ve been doing at Harvard lately and then make a final observation on this broad question. In the wake of everything that happened last year we established two task forces that worked very hard to look at these issues, particularly with respect to women in science but more broadly with respect to women in academic careers at Harvard, and to think about what it was that we could do. Frankly the easy part is putting resources behind the efforts for a wealthy institution like Harvard. The hard part is addressing some of the many kinds of challenges that arise. And I’ll tell you what surprised me most about the reports that came back from those task forces that Evelynn Hammonds, new senior vice provost with responsibility in this area, is doing such a great job of implementing. What surprised me most was that almost all the ideas that came were good ideas even if you weren’t concerned about diversity. They found that we were losing women to careers in science because they didn’t have opportunities of the kind that students at small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore or Amherst have to work closely with professors who could emerge as role models and draw them into a career in science. And so we’ve established a substantially expanded undergraduate mentorship program. That’s good for diversity. That’s good for drawing scientists into academic life more generally. They said, and they were right, that when we search for assistant professors, too often we search for assistant professors in the way that poorly managed football teams do their draft. The guy who was playing right guard last year graduated or got injured and so we’re drafting for a person who can play right guard. That’s what football teams that stay mediocre do. What football teams that do much better do is they look for the best players and they search very widely and if they find someone who is terrific, they recruit that person and they assume that things will work themselves out and that they’ll allocate people to positions in an appropriate way. And we were missing huge numbers of extraordinarily talented people who could contribute to our diversity certainly because we didn’t do any search for which they qualified. We concluded that we needed to substantially broaden our searches. Well, that’s the right thing to do for diversity. It’s also the right thing to do quite apart from diversity to build a much stronger Harvard faculty.

I can go on with more examples but perhaps the anomaly that I am most struck by, and it is something I remarked on, though not the heart of my NBER speech that received the most attention, is this. If you look at any major American university today, if you are a member of the faculty and you have a child who is between the ages of 18 and 22 and going to college, it is happy times for you in the point of view of the university. The university pays your whole tuition if you go to that school. The university pays $20,000 a year as a tuition grant to you for those years. Or the university makes you an interest-free loan. Just what’s done varies university to university, but if you have children over age 18, you are getting huge help in what is meeting your personal problem of the moment. Well, I say to you, what about all of those with children who aren’t over 18 but children who are much younger? A group that is probably still waiting to see whether they are going to establish their career successfully, a group that is facing a much more profound time crunch in their lives, a group that represents, given the way American families don’t need to be but the way they are today, a set of burdens that fall disproportionately on them. What do we do for those with family responsibilities to young families? The traditional answer across academic life is precious little. And that’s why a significant part of what Harvard’s $50 million commitment is going to do is towards improving the quality of the support we give for childcare, improving what we do to provide research leads for those with family responsibilities, providing for systems of evaluation for tenure, our version of partnership, that recognize that there is no standard career path for which eight years up or out makes precise sense. And you know what, this is going to be good for mothers. And what we’re increasingly finding is that this is good for fathers as well. And as more and more fathers are taking advantage of these programs, something very important is starting to happen. It’s starting to be much more comfortable for mothers to take advantage of as well because they’re increasingly recognizing that it’s showing that they are living the kind of balanced life that we want people to live as they provide role models to our students. And we’ve got a long way to go. But a culture where taking advantage of such benefits too often is taken as some sign of lack of seriousness about your career is beginning to give way.

If we’re serious about being fair, if we’re serious about being excellent, if we’re serious about having the diverse pool of people, these are the kinds of things that we need to do. There is much else that we need to do. But I believe that above all if we are able to open ourselves up, remove the blinders from our eyes, cause everyone who is involved in any kind of personnel evaluation everywhere to know about that famous study that you’ve all heard about of what happens when they chose people to play instruments in orchestras when you brought down a screen and so you no longer were looking at the person as they were playing, you were just listening to their music and all of a sudden that seemed to make the men play less well and the women play better. If we get that kind of knowledge out and we support the development of career paths in the kinds of ways that I spoke about, I am confident that we can make progress in addressing issues that are very, very important to the University.

A final thought, and a thought for the conference, and a thought for the University and beyond. I spoke in ways that 14 months ago at the NBER that I obviously would not speak today if I had it to do over again. Reflecting things I didn’t understand, reflecting consequences of the leadership position that I held and the way certain kinds of speculations would be taken. But I hope and I trust that at conferences like this one and in the work of universities like Harvard and other universities that in addition to what we are doing, what law firms are doing, what hospitals are doing, what businesses are doing in working pragmatically to find the most effective and best ways to advance this crucial agenda year by year by year, that we are also thinking in fundamental ways about the sources of this problem, doing research, drawing on all that is known in the social sciences and the sciences, putting forth hypotheses, some of which are attractive, some of which are unattractive, some of which ultimately prove to be right, some of which ultimately prove to be wrong, but opening this subject up to the most vigorous possible debate in every aspect. Because as much as a great university depends on a commitment to the mutually reinforcing goals of diversity and excellence, it also stands for the idea that only through the most vigorous, open, and challenging debate, bringing knowledge from all sources, do we promote the kinds of understanding that ultimately make the greatest contribution. And so I hope that when this conference, this series of conferences continue, and someone comes back and speaks as the president of Harvard 15 years from now, they will see some things that are different. They will see more men in the audience for a conference on this important topic. They will see more people in leadership positions not just in universities but in each of our great areas of society. They will see trends that are clearly pointing upwards, but they will also see that in addition to mutually reinforcing each others’ sense of importance and passion around these issues, that over the next decade some very important new ideas, new ways, new approaches that we don’t think of today have emerged. That some ideas we thought were obvious today turned out to be wrong and that we will make progress in understanding, and that that progress in understanding will have served its truest and deepest purpose by contributing to progress in action.

Thank you very much.