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Alice Buttrick

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Rhodes Women: Shifting the Power of Balance

Posted: 10/03/11 07:43 PM ET

National Work and Family Month celebrates every person's right to choose balance, and find within that balance the same potential for both capital "S" Success and the lasting impact and importance of a well-lived personal life. The Rhodes Project's goal is to examine the intersection between gender and success, using as its first main case study the first twenty-odd years of female Rhodes Scholars.

I frequently attend seminars on female leadership due to my work with the Project. I have never been to a session, whether with young professionals or established executives, where the question of managing a family is not raised. At a recent event, where older women, already accomplished in their fields, were advising a group of women in their early 20s, all four panelists agreed that it was most important to "find a solution that works for you," and suggested "getting good help." One panelist laid out her solution in detail: "I pay a lot of money for a nanny I love." Although the crowd had college degrees and boardroom aspirations, to the young mother in her first junior position who had asked the question, this solution was probably not going to be a possibility. It is even less accessible to women trying to make ends meet in wage-earning positions, or doing unpredictable shift work. But for some reason, although we have by now accepted the right to equal opportunity in employment, as a society, we have not yet come to realize any intrinsically related right to equal opportunity for balance, or at least, for seeking a flexible solution.

All of the women on the panel recognized that balancing work and family was an almost universal issue. One panelist who did not have children discussed the flipside of the problem, unfairly having to cope with the overflow from parents who could not manage all of their responsibilities, demonstrating how even those without traditional family commitments were affected. The panelists were partners in their law firms, heads of their banks, and directors of strategy at their companies; they were decision makers. And yet not one of them talked about advocating for policies that might allow other men and women to navigate the difficulties that they themselves were so keenly aware of, and that they know plague the vast majority of their staff.

This demonstrates how the bias against balance can be a self-perpetuating cycle: if the vast majority of those who make it to the top are able to do so only using costly, tailored solutions, then our leaders will not necessarily be the best suited to understand and accommodate the needs of less economically empowered workers. Despite the fact that it affects any person with a job and a life, balance will remain relegated to the domain of the privileged.

A recent New York Times article on rising poverty levels amongst young families brings the economic impact of a labor market that does not want to accommodate parents starkly into view. The article cites several possible reasons for this rise, including the obvious effects of the economic downturn and a shift in government aid spending to the elderly, but discrimination against parents was also part of the mix. One interviewee described how she had attempted to hide her family from potential employers to escape this bias, while another summed up bluntly: "It's just a hard time to be a parent."

At the Rhodes Project, our target study group exemplifies a certain brand of second wave feminist thinking: if the barriers to educational and professional opportunities are removed, then, after a certain adjustment period, women should rise according to their merits just as quickly as men. These women were chosen for the Scholarship because they showed the potential to be leaders - we wondered whether they would lead in reforms that would make this balance possible, as well as in the structures of power where their male counterparts have often been found.

Bill Clinton is often held up as the apotheosis of the kind of leader the Rhodes Scholarship is supposed to produce; of course when he received his, women couldn't apply. There is bound to be some disparity in cumulative attainments when men have been Rhodes Scholars for 109 years and women for 34. Still, there are fewer women Rhodes Scholars in the public eye than men. But although the majority of these women might be "invisible" when the blazing stars amongst Rhodes recipients are counted, many are privately powerful, savoring the spoils of traditional Success with a markedly reduced interest in attendant attention. They are also tend to be markedly successful in a personal dimension - they have topped off their substantial professional accomplishments with the equally impressive feats of having relationships with partners, children, friends, and community animated by the same thoughtful ambition that characterizes their careers.

We have found that many Rhodes women may appear to "forsake" a traditional position of importance to create their own paths and careers, script their own lives. And in this track, they also advocate for all families to find balance in the workplace.

To provide a concrete example of this phenomenon, I'll turn to the Rhodes woman I know best: the CEO and founder of the Rhodes Project, Dr. Ann Olivarius, who also started the law firm that currently supports our work, McAllister Olivarius. After hitting all of the stops on what one of our participants termed "the smart kid hamster wheel" - picking up degrees from Yale's Law School and School of Management, a prestigious judicial clerkship, a position running the corporate division of a top law firm, Shearman & Sterling, Dr. Olivarius proved handily that the "male" world of success was wide open to her. But rather than compromise on her own values, both in terms of personal working style and emphasis on quality family time with her husband and three children, Dr. Olivarius set out to create a business that proved the two could be fused. Today, McAllister Olivarius' executive committee includes parents who use flexible scheduling and smart phones to spend the most time with their families while still working full time, life-long learners who use the firm's accommodating policies to sharpen their professional abilities, and places for children and elderly family members to visit the firm when other arrangements fall through. This makes the atmosphere in the office extremely pleasant, as employees thank their management for this flexibility by working cheerfully and hard.

Dr. Olivarius' law firm is a fabulous financial success; the business model works, both in terms of its professional victories and its ability to retain strong talent - some of its people have worked with Dr. Olivarius for decades, and of course, her husband, now a managing partner in the firm, has been by her side for the better part of a lifetime.

Dr. Olivarius is not alone among Rhodes women in undertaking this kind of approach. Dr. Nanette Fondas spent years at the top of the academy, teaching at Duke, Harvard's Radcliffe College, and the University of California, before stepping off of that track to dedicate herself to work and family advocacy as the Executive Editor of the major online movement, MomsRising.com. She then used her experience to co-author a book that translated a desire for flexible solutions into actionable plans for employers and employees at every economic level. Dr. Jasmine Nahhas di Florio balanced a passion for social justice with a successful career in corporate law - she worked at the major law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, served as an attorney-advisor at the U.S. Department of Treasury, and consulted at the United Nations on private-public sector partnerships. She was equipped for a high-flying career in politics or the law, but chose to move into the non-profit sector, where she now serves as the Vice President of Strategy and Partnerships at Education for Employment, a network of non-profits working in the Middle East and North Africa to provide jobless youths with the skills to find solid employment. Her work attacks the other side of the balance question, ensuring the ability to have a career to balance one's life against.

This list goes on. The Rhodes women we have studied have deliberately changed their paths to make space for their own lives, and to try to make space for the free choices of others. Although they aren't standing in every spotlight, they and others who share their concerns are paving the way for women and men at every level of society to have work lives that can accommodate children, elder-care concerns, friends, passions and adventures; and I hope they are setting an example for a future where our leaders, those who make the decisions that affect millions of families, will be able base those decisions on the rich experience of enjoying exceptional accomplishment as well as whole lives.