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When Katherine Depardieu and Stephanie Stanczyk invited their School of Management undergraduate classmates, male and female, to join a new monthly book group focusing on women in the workplace, they were met with some weary responses along the lines of, “Please, not another feminist book club.”
Now in its second semester, the RISE book club has not only proved the naysayers wrong, it is thriving. And although the proceedings kicked off with a discussion of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, the conversation has broadened to embrace matters of gender roles across cultures, explorations of beauty and “hook-up” culture, and challenges faced by men as the corporate playing field evens.
“We’ve done a good job of creating a community, with some of the same people week after week and a lot of newcomers,” says Depardieu (SMG’14). Faculty members join the discussion too, and the choice of books comes “organically” from back and forth on the group’s Facebook page. In addition to Sandberg’s book, the group has discussed Debora L. Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection and a film, Jennifer Siebel’s Miss Representation.
On a recent Friday about 25 students, several professors, and Rachel Reiser, SMG undergraduate program assistant dean, gathered for RISE’s second meeting of the spring semester, veering in a slightly different direction to discuss the bestseller I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb, the memoir of a teen from Pakistan’s Swat valley who drew international attention for her fearless commitment to girls’ education, a fight she carries on in exile after surviving a near-fatal Taliban bullet at age 15. If participants, all swamped with schoolwork, don’t find time to read the books, it’s not a problem; this meeting began with a brief video telling Malala’s story. Just four male undergraduates attended, but they were enthusiastic and vocal.
“We’re all on the same level in RISE, and we’ve gotten to know the professors better,” says Depardieu. Debate is spirited, but civil, and the atmosphere is nonjudgmental and welcoming, helped along by homemade refreshments, most supplied by Reiser. For this meeting it was an egg white and bacon quiche, another time it was pie made with hand-picked blueberries. (Reiser jokes that as a woman she was warned early in her career never to bring baked goods to meetings, but she can’t help herself.)
On learning about RISE, which is gaining momentum through Facebook and word of mouth, people try to puzzle out the acronym. But it isn’t one. The club was named for all things rising: “the morning sun, the morning meetings, our careers,” Depardieu says. The group was formed with three main goals: to increase awareness about gender issues through lively discussion and debate, to encourage members to “look beyond their own personal interests to consider the gender implications” of their decisions, and finally, to forge a sense of community among faculty and students of diverse ages, interests, and backgrounds. As well as monthly meetings, RISE has also hosted faculty panel discussions.
At the meeting to discuss I Am Malala, for example, Stanczyk asked the group to consider how one blends traditional beliefs with modern-day situations. They debated whether the author’s wearing of the Muslim hijab reflects free-thinking choice or cultural oppression, and the author’s description of the strictly proscribed roles of Pakistani village women prompted a male student from the Democratic Republic of Georgia to share the reality that back home he is forbidden to clear the dishes and would be ridiculed if he took up a traditionally female craft such as knitting or cooking. A male student from China, by contrast, was brought up to cook and clean for himself. “A lot of people share personal stories about their choices,” Depardieu says. “You can do that here without being harassed.”
The club’s discussions have shed light on at least one major gender divide. The primary concern for women in business school is balancing work and life—“what will happen when you have a family,” says Depardieu. But when she was trying to convince a male friend at SMG to join the group to discuss work-life balance and related issues, he told her he doesn’t “think about that. He said he would worry about that later on.”
In January RISE got a hefty boost when Bloomberg Businessweek online posted a piece by Stanczyk and Depardieu titled “Can B-School Students Talk about Gender? Yes, and Here’s How.” In it they write, “People often emerge from the discussions surprised, though for different reasons. Some participants are stunned because they were unaware of the gender bias that exists in business. Others are shocked by the current lack of debate about these issues.” Stanczyk, an accounting and finance major, and Depardieu, who is majoring in management information systems and marketing, will both go on to positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers after they graduate. When the group watched Miss Representation, a scathing look at the way media continue to debase women and taint their self-perceptions in the workplace, one male attendee acknowledged that he “had just never thought about how harmful this is,” the pair write.
“I think the biggest part of this ongoing discussion is opening our eyes to what it’s really like out there,” says Depardieu. “We read in Lean In that if there’s a job application, a woman will apply only if she meets 80 percent of criteria, while men won’t hesitate” to apply meeting a much lower percentage. “When I read that, I thought, oh wow, that’s crazy. And now I check myself and think, if I were a guy, I’d say I’d just go for it.”
Brian Kimball (SMG’14) was intrigued when Stanczyk invited him to come to a meeting. He’s become a RISE regular. “The conversations that we’ve had have ranged from traditional gender roles to the current dynamic between women and men in social culture and have given me a much deeper appreciation and knowledge of these issues and made me more conscious of them in my everyday life,” he says. “Men have begun trickling in to the meetings, and it is wonderful to see. The topics are not strictly female issues or male issues. They are people issues, and they will never be properly addressed if there is a gender divide in the discussion. I feel that the mixing of ideas from all different dimensions of gender, race, creed, and age is the best way to move the conversation forward. There has to be progress from asking, ‘Why are there gender lines?’ to asking, ‘What can we do to blur, or better, erase these lines?’”
Gender stereotypes and gender-based discrimination still pervade and plague the business world, so the subject remains ripe for discussion. “We don’t shy away from discussing” these issues,” write Stanczyk and Depardieu. “But our aim is to understand them, to consider how we will address them personally and as leaders—male and female—when we enter the working world.”
The women add that discussions of books like Sandberg’s “fill a gap” in management studies. It’s still true that most case studies focus on the likes of Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs. “They and others like them are certainly worthy of study, and some of the business lessons they have to teach us may largely be gender-neutral,” the women write. “But the sheer number of these stories and the gender issues they omit inadvertently suggest that management is monolithically male.”