Women advancing in the workplace

Jan Garrison

Men can be the 'equalizers'


October 13, 2021

Two Culver Girls Academy alumnae working in health-related fields spoke to the combined Wellness Department classes during a special International Day of the Girl presentation Monday afternoon. Sarah Cochran Harran ’84 and Joan Akalaonu ’00 talked to students about discrimination and gender bias during the session which also tied into CGA's 50th anniversary.

Harran received her bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford and her masters and doctorate in neuroscience from Florida State. She also did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington. After leaving academia, she has primarily been working as a grant writer, editor, and consultant in the medical field.

Akalaonu received her bachelor’s degree from Yale, majoring in psychology. She received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Chicago. After working in social services, she received her juris doctorate from Loyola Law School and currently works as a business litigator. She also sits on the board of CAASE, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.


Joan Akalaonu '00 (left) and Sarah Cochran Harran '84


Harran said one personal example of past gender discrimination was when she was doing her internship. She found that she was being paid $3,000 less than her male counterpart because he "had a family." But starting a family could be used against women, she added, saying one professor used a derogatory term to describe women of child-bearing age.

Years later, that work-life balance is still a problem for many women. Harran said doing lab research can be “very labor intensive” and unpredictable. Writing grants and editing articles can also require periods of long hours as deadlines need to be met. Thankfully for her, Harran added, her husband is very involved.

And higher education is not immune from gender bias. Akalaonu said one study showed that university law students evaluated professors differently, saying the male professors “knew the material” while the female professors were “nice.”

But both women added the workplace is changing. Men’s attitudes are “100 percent” better than a few years ago, especially when it comes to supporting the “work-life balance” for women. More companies are also paying attention to their policies like family leave.

Still, there is still room for improvement. And some of that can be attributed to women themselves. Akalaonu said one practical thing women can do is learn to negotiate their salaries, suggesting a class be conducted for students.

“Learn how to do that,” she said, explaining that it is generally accepted that women leave as much as “$10,000 on the table” because they don’t negotiate. Learning to do that could be part of the overall financial literacy class.

Harran said women also need to learn how to handle critical feedback. Peer-reviewed criticisms are part of basic research, she explained, but women often take it too personally. It is a part of the scientific process, and everyone should look at it as beneficial. Harran said she puts the criticism aside and then comes back to it for another read.

“Go for a run,” she suggested, “then take a look at it a second time.”

They also told the students, especially the girls, to take time for self-care. “If you don’t take care of yourself, nothing is happening,” Akalaonu said, adding that girls should work on “finding and maintaining your voice.” Find and cultivate your interests, implement a plan around them, and be ready to “step away and take care of yourself” when you need to.

Between the “Me Too” movement and the pandemic showing that many jobs can be done remotely, the labor market is going through a cultural shift. There are still unconscious biases built into the system, Harran said, at the same time women are saying “I ask for more.”

Boys can help as they move on to college and careers, she added, by being mindful of their behavior. Stand up for women having representation or being under-represented. “Having a token female on a panel is worse than not having one at all,” she said. Work for equal representation on panels or committees and support the women who serve on them.

Akalaonu added, “We have moved the needle, but we are not going to move it farther without men.” Men can no longer be the “innocent bystander” when cultural toxicity comes to the surface. Those who speak up against it will be the “equalizers in the workforce.”

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