Mostly Blonde

If you look at the pictures of speakers at Harvard’s Gender and Work Conference on this blog, you’ll notice that most of them – 81% (17/21) – were women. That might be expected given the numbers of women and men who study gender and work.

Strikingly, 71% (12/17) of the women who spoke were blonde (this only occurred to me after two people of color pointed it out). The proportion of natural blondes in the U.S. is 18%.

Are blonde women more likely to study gender, or are we more likely to get away with it? As the whitest of white women, are we more likely than other women to get prestigious faculty positions* and invitations to speak? Note that only two of the 21 speakers at the conference were not white, and only 9 did not have blue eyes.

It is painful to admit that one has had an unfair advantage in the game of success. It does not have to mean we did not qualify, but it does mean that similarly qualified others did not get to play, or played on a steeper grade with inferior equipment. We can always find people more fortunate and privileged to compare ourselves to, but if we only look laterally and upward, we limit ourselves to concerns of self-interest and fail to advance general principles of fairness.
Leaders like Nitin Nohria and Sheryl Sandberg are using their perches to encourage equal opportunity for those below. They acknowledge their own privilege and risk backlash to help create safety, hope, and momentum around discourse on women and leadership. The organizers and participants of the Gender and Work Conference have used their podiums and risked marginalization throughout their careers to study gender and racial biases at work.

But trickle-down feminism can only work if it trickles down.

*A follow-up analysis of top business schools suggests that white women are actually the most underrepresented sex-race group among faculty. It appears that a disproportionate number of white women faculty are blonde, however.

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