Sheila Wellington was the first woman to become secretary of Yale University in the 1980s, a prestigious role that ranks just below the Yale provost and president. After completing her stint at Yale, she ran Catalyst for 10 years, a nonprofit group that works to improve opportunities for women in business.
Since 2003, Wellington has served as a clinical professor of management and organisations at New York University’s Stern School of Business. There she developed and taught a class named “Women in Business Leadership”, which aims to help women plan their long-term careers. In January, Wellington will become an Executive in Residence at the school, while continuing to teach her perpetually over-subscribed course.
I spoke to her recently about what’s on the minds of her students, most of whom are women in their mid to late 20s.
“What they are really thinking about is how they will balance work and family … There is a myth that there are shifts going on [in terms of the changing role of men and women in the workplace and at home] but I think there are minimal changes in how we are sharing work and household work once kids are in the picture.”
For students who plan to temporarily step out of the workplace to raise children, Wellington – the author of Be Your Own Mentor, a successful book focusing on women’s advancement – has words of caution.
“Will you catch up in salary? Will you be promoted? Will you get that global experience, which is becoming increasingly important? I don’t think you ever quite recapture the pace. There’s another pack coming up behind you. And there are all those years of meeting people and networking that you miss. Those are important years.”
She also worries about assumptions that company managers make that women who have children aren’t as committed to their careers.
“There will be an assumption that a woman can’t accept that promotion or can’t move because she’s got kids in school. So [the company] offers the job to Jim instead of Jane. I really worry about this. Particularly now because we need all the brains we can get. People say: what about Hillary Clinton? What about Irene Rosenfeld? [chief executive of Kraft.] But for every Irene Rosenfeld, there are five women who could have been, or should have been, but didn’t. That’s too bad. It’s a pathetic loss of brain power and a pathetic loss of talent.”
Her goal, she says, is for her students to think about where they want to be, and to fully understand “the chairs they need to sit in” in order to get there. This year she is going to try out a new assignment on her students: “They are going to pick a woman, and then look at her path. They will see the jobs she’s held, the places she’s worked, and the trade-offs she’s made. They’ll see whether she’s married, or single, and whether she has children or not.”
Wellington is married with two grown sons. Her best advice?
“My advice is that if you’re going to have a spouse or partner, either be lucky or choose wisely. It sounds silly but it’s not.”