Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TEDTalk, speaks her now famous words: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.”
This quote truly resonates with me. If I had a dollar for every time somebody has asked me if I had a boyfriend or how many kids I want, I would be richer than Oprah.
This is part of the reason why Women’s Empowerment Day at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business, which took place earlier this month, was such an important event for me. Fighting for gender equality is something that I am passionate about. And as an undergrad about to head off to a summer internship in a different state where I have no mentors (yet!), I have a lot to learn. So I soaked up the day’s presentations — from the stories about bad bosses to not speaking up for ourselves to being afraid of failure.
BANK OF THE WEST PARTNERS WITH BERKELEY-HAAS FOR EVENT
Women’s Empowerment Day (WED) is an annual event hosted by the Haas School of Business, which brings undergraduate women nominated by faculty together to participate in discussions surrounding gender equity in the workforce. Haas partnered with Bank of the West for this year’s event. Men were also invited to join the conversation, which added to the impact. Patrick Ford, a recent MBA graduate, facilitated a discussion for the men on how changing gender norms affects them as well.
The conference is also an opportunity to meet other Haas students who are passionate about issues surrounding gender equity in the workforce. Fellow classmate Miranda Chen, said the women leaders at the conference gave her really useful advice, including: “Ask questions because there is more than one path for you to take.”
“I really enjoyed speaking with the mentors and hearing about the different experiences and the challenges they didn’t realize they face,” she told me.
BREAKING FAMILY GENDER ROLES
The challenges resonated within my own life. Haas is a diverse and progressive campus, but many people outside of the campus still view women in a traditional sense. Growing up with traditional household expectations for women, my parents expected me to be the one who cooks, cleans, and takes care of everyone. Going home for the holidays can be terrifying for me. At the family parties, the guys are asked about school, career choices, and job opportunities. Meanwhile, I get questions about boyfriends or future husbands. And then people tell me the reason I don’t have a boyfriend is because I’m too aggressive, bossy, and career-focused. It’s hard to not think that there is something wrong with me.
Because there was so much emphasis on this, I had to watch my weight, clothes, and hair. Since high school, I’ve straightened my hair everyday because I wasn’t comfortable with my normal hair.
But there’s nothing wrong with me. I worked hard to get where I am at Haas. I’ve taken some amazing and challenging classes here, especially with Krystal Thomas, a continuing lecturer at Haas. She has inspired me to be confident and eloquent. At Women’s Empowerment Day, I knew I would meet more women like her who have gone through the same experiences and learn how they overcame these external and internal struggles.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OWNING YOUR CHOICES
And I did, taking away two crucial lessons from the conference.
First, own your choices. Beth Hale, the keynote speaker-and an executive vice president at Bank of the West, talked about all the different choices she had to make throughout her career, and the fact that she owned them all — including her decision to move to Buffalo, New York early in her career, when she really wasn’t sure if she wanted to.
I have questioned many times why I chose to come to Berkeley. I have also questioned many times if I deserve to be here. I often compare my experience living in Berkeley to that of living in Orange County, California, where I am from. It would’ve been easy to stay at home, near family and friends, but I’ve come to realize that my education and career opportunities would not have been the same.
Orange County isn’t necessarily better, it’s just different.
At times, I think all the time and energy spent comparing prevented me from enjoying all that Berkeley has to offer. I’ve talked myself out of doing a lot of things because I felt like I didn’t belong here.
Now, I am realizing that coming to Berkeley is a conscious choice I made and I have to own it. I have one more year here and I am thinking that I am going to enjoy being a senior and take part in all that Haas has to offer. I’ll start this summer, when I’ll be interning at Target Corp in Minneapolis. I’ve never lived in the Midwest and I know that it will be extremely different from California. I’m excited to own this choice and lean in to this new experience.
ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT
The second lesson I took from Women’s Empowerment Day is to always ask for what you want. Beth Hale shared another personal story about a time that she was in line to get promoted to a position she coveted, but that promotion went to the CEO’s friend’s son instead — only because the CEO’s friend’s son needed a job. The CEO then asked Hale to put her career on hold to mentor him.
I related to her story. It’s very easy for me to internalize my frustrations, which is neither healthy nor productive. It is easier said than done, but I think it would have been better if Hale had asked for a meeting with her manager to learn about other opportunities the company had to offer. People can’t fix things if they don’t know what needs to be fixed. It didn’t occur to me until I was thinking about her situation that I can just ask people to just stop asking me about getting a boyfriend. All I have to do is ask, and (maybe) my family can start changing its behavior. Incremental change is still important change.
I can’t wait for the day when gender equality is finally achieved. There is still work to be done, and I know that Haas is playing its part in being a part of the culture shift.