The heart of a women’s conference — more than the collective number of women who attend — is the direct communication between one woman and another.
Last Saturday, I attended the seventh annual Yale Women in Leadership conference hosted by the Women’s Leadership Institute. The theme of the conference was “Women Empower Women,” which could have become a huge cliché given the acronym “W.E. Women.” But I came away from the conference feeling a little more hopeful and a little less like a face in the crowd.
In particular, the words of the panelists in a talk entitled “Switching Your Career: When Life Calls for a U-Turn” resonated with me. The speakers were University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax ’75, writer and Boston University professor Theodora Goss and former marketing officer of The Economist Susan Clark ’76 GRD ’77. The women were united in their broad intellectual and professional experience, but otherwise they had completely different personalities. The moderator of the panel, Catherine Chiles of the Yale School of Medicine, stayed mainly out of the way as the three women told their stories and answered questions.
Wax kicked off the panel in a fiery way. Her message was pragmatic and delivered with force: She urged the approximately 50 women in the audience to eschew trendy majors and easy options in favor of honest, demanding work. Wax described how, after preparing for a profession in the medical sciences, she decided to pursue a legal career, a better fit for her temperament. There’s no way to find career success and fulfillment, Wax suggested, except by examining one’s own inclinations and following them unabashedly.
Her voice reached me not only because it had been cultivated through public speaking, but also because I have been grappling with some of the same themes in my own life. She identified a difference between what is worth studying in college versus what is worth doing for a lifetime. The two need not be the same. For her, the purely academic diversion was medical school; the real deal was engagement with law. I’ve also been trying to sift through my intellectual interests to find the thing I want to pursue.
As I reflected on how I have been searching for my own professional path, the second panelist, Goss, said something that echoed with me. Goss said that the passions of an entire life often begin in childhood. Those things that inspired us to see or listen in our youth can turn into the objects of meaningful pursuit in later years, untainted by societal or familial pressures. Goss, the lawyer-turned-writer, mentioned being the quiet girl who loved books; I was the same when I was young. But I also loved other things, like looking in the backyard for animals or doodling whimsical figures in my notebooks. How do I choose just one as my passion?
Doing so would require some sort of sacrifice. A few days ago, my roommate asked me what the biggest sacrifice in my life has been so far, and I honestly could not think of an answer. But I do see a big sacrifice coming up in the future — the decision to pursue one of my interests instead of the others, the bitter letting-go of certain possibilities for the sweetness of a single one.
Goss said, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Deciding on a career takes an unflinching commitment. Now, as I vacillate between the departments of ecology, environmental studies and philosophy, I realize that I cannot stay in limbo forever. I recognize I’m a freshman and it seems like I have all the time in the world. But time flies, and this dilemma will catch up with me and everyone else at Yale. We will do all the thinking we need about the relative benefits and drawbacks of our options — no one should ever sacrifice good prospects based on uninformed beliefs — but in the end we must commit.
But we shouldn’t be putting ourselves in a position where we could never switch careers. After all, the three women on the panel changed their paths. It’s okay to slog through pre-med and even med school before taking the LSATs. But hopefully, if we examine our options right the first time, we’ll find what the three panelists called a “true home.” My career would offer me the simultaneous feelings of satisfaction, comfort and pride, and I wouldn’t mind doing the dirty work once in a while.
To understand what I want to get out of my career, I’ll always return to a lasting piece of advice from Clark. “Don’t think that you work from nine to five so that you can live from five to nine,” she said. As a woman, a thinker and an individual, I will build my career — and live in it too.
Amanda Mei is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.