Kristin Forbes talks about life at the top

Kristin Forbes has experience at the top of two professions: academia and policy. She is a tenured professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and used to serve as a member of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, where she was the youngest person to ever hold that position. The mother of three has also recently been honoured as a “Young Global Leader” as part of the World Economic Forum at Davos.

I spoke with her recently about her dual career and whether the fact that she is a woman has helped or hindered her along the way. It depends on the circumstances, she said.

“In my early days of teaching, being a young woman was a disadvantage. When I first started, I taught some of the same classes as Lester Thurow [a former dean of Sloan]. I would put up the same graph Thurow used, but while no one would question him, I’d get 10 questions on the data behind it.

“Then there were other times when [being a woman] has probably opened doors. Companies and institutions sometimes make concerted efforts to include a female at the table, and so, at times, I’ve wondered if this has allowed me to be considered for things that I might not have otherwise been considered for.”

How has motherhood changed her professional outlook?

“When you have a baby, there is no getting around taking some time off. I don’t begrudge it in any way – but it’s hard for women who are used to being at the top of their professions not to be able to focus so intensely on their careers as they had been. I write fewer papers than I used to. And I’ve had to turn down some fantastic job offers in other cities. But I don’t regret the trade off – being a professor gives me control over my schedule.”

What is her best advice to her young female students who aspire to top jobs in academia and policy?

“By far the most important thing to learn is how to say no. In my profession, there are a lot of soft things, such as helping advise students, or doing committee work. Everyone has to help out with some of these activities, but my advice to women is: don’t get too drawn into things that you don’t enjoy and don’t have an obvious reward for your career.

“A lot of young women at MIT ask me: how do you juggle everything? My answer is that everything may look smooth, but my life is chaotic and things often don’t go as planned. Don’t hold yourself to an ideal, because – at least in my case – the ideal doesn’t exist.”

And for her peers?

“My advice for [more senior] women is to help young women in their early careers. Even small gestures or invitations can matter. When I was in the White House, Condi Rice [the former Secretary of State] provided a wonderful example of this. When she heard I received tenure, she took me out to a private lunch out of the blue. She had been a professor, and so she knew what tenure meant.”

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