Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why The Oscars Are Not An Effective MBA Study Strategy

Is Natalie Portman a role model for young women who want to climb the corporate ladder? That's what Sylvia Ann Hewlett will have you believe in her newest blog for Harvard Business Review. In "Does Female Ambition Require Sacrifice?," Hewlett argues that aspiring female business execs can have their cake and eat it too. Hewlett cites Portman's Harvard degree, Oscar nomination, and baby bump as evidence that "there's no penalty for those who aim for the lead, seize the stage, and strut their stuff — their femininity as well as their professional fervor."

As someone who is in the process of applying to the Boys-Club-Known-As-Business-School (current admissions statistics from BusinessWeek’s top 30 business schools show that women account for only 30 percent of admissions), and possibly later entering into the bigger Boys-Club-Known-As-The-Corporate-World, Hewlett's article seems both misleading and harmful.

The article is misleading because it uses an A-list actress as an example of a woman able to balance life/work without sacrifice, when having a fiance and pregnant belly is hardly evidence of anything other than a lack of successful contraception. The hard part isn't getting inseminated: it's everything that comes after that. We hadly know anything about Portman's private life, so it is impossible to judge her relationships and happiness in aspects other than her career. However, even if we were able, how useful would it really be to compare a Hollywood starlet to a female executive gunning for a C-suite position?

Hewlett's article is harmful because it obscures the real issues that women face in a corporate environment. There is a real penalty that these women (and men too) face: logging long hours on the job inevitably means that you're going to miss out on extracurricular, family and social engagements. At some point, there is necessarily going to be a trade-off where workers have to evaluate their priorities and recalibrate their ambitions as necessary. You can't have it all.

As Hewlett points out, companies including Time Warner, Deutsche Bank, Novartis and Intel should be lauded for the steps they have taken to implement programs that address gender imbalances and help to provide a hand up to women with high potential for senior-level leadership. Studies have shown that senior-level male executives already provide this type of mentorship in an informal way for their male underlings, so these formalized programs are a good way to level the playing field.

However, to deny the very real and tangible penalties that women face due to their career ambitions is in effect to belittle the sacrifices and trade-offs that are fundamental to many leadership-level positions.

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