Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Remarks of First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie at the 2012 Women Excel in Bloomington W.E.B. Awards Luncheon"

Women Excel in Bloomington Lunch Series

It’s really an honor to be asked to speak at this luncheon, which I’ve attended in the past and very much enjoyed. It’s an important and timely event for women in Bloomington, and therefore for the whole community. There’s a Chinese saying that “women hold up half the sky”, so this is one way in which we are ensuring that collectively we hold up our half. It’s important even beyond what it does for each of us as individual businesswomen, civic leaders, academics, and professionals of all kinds. Women’s involvement in Bloomington is part and parcel of the character of the city and its surroundings.

We’re coming to the end of women’s history month, and it’s a good time to reflect on the many ways in which women have contributed to the development of the community as well as to Indiana University. One example, written up in the Herald-Times just last week, is Maud Showers, who as the widow of one of the Showers brothers, retained his one-third share of the company along with James and William and for 25 years served as an equal partner in the business. By the 1920s, the Showers Furniture company produced 60% of all the furniture made in the United States, and was, of course, critically important to Bloomington. Maud was also a suffragist, drawing up a petition to the Indiana legislature demanding votes for women. She helped obtain a Carnegie Library for Bloomington, and she was an early organizer of Bloomington Hospital (which I assume means she was part of the Local Council of Women).

Another example is one of my favorites, Frances Morgan Swain, who was IU’s first lady from 1893 to 1902. Frances Swain led IU’s first capital campaign to raise the funds to build the Student Building (the one with the clock tower just inside the Sample Gates). Many of you have probably heard the story and possibly from me, so you know that what’s less well known is that she started out to raise money for a Woman’s Building, because of how desperately a young Indiana University needed to provide better accommodations for its growing population of women students. And you may not know that one of the very first gifts was $1,000 (about $.75M in today’s money) from the Local Council of Women in Bloomington, who no doubt also saw the need to improve conditions for women at a time when the university provided no housing for students. The rest of the story is that it became the Student Building courtesy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who matched the $50,000 raised by IU on condition that the building be constructed for all students, not unreasonably—this was before the Indiana Memorial Union was built. But for much of its early years, women made very extensive use of the space.

My connection to this story is probably obvious—like Frances Swain, I have made a point of being involved in philanthropy and in the relationship between the city and the university. But I want to talk a bit more today about why I find the history of women’s community involvement, whether directed at town or at gown or both, so important, and how it fits into what I see as crucial for the future.

The other day, I got a letter at home from the current head of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Michigan, inviting me to participate in a program in Ann Arbor this coming April. She reached out because she had heard that I was one of the students involved in the program’s beginnings, which in fact, I was. I started college at Michigan in the fall of 1972, and it was sometime in 1973 that through a wonderful history professor I discovered the pull of looking back in time at women’s lives to better understand how things worked then, how they changed, and why. I was a history major, not women’s studies, but this early exposure to another way of looking at historical events was a deep and lasting influence on me.

Last year I enrolled as a master’s degree student in Philanthropic Studies at IUPUI, and I discovered that I’m still fascinated by the question of how women’s lives have changed and what it means, not just for me as a woman, but for all of society. And it has thrown into pretty stark perspective my views of women’s lives and roles 40 years ago and how I view those same things today—even though those 40 years seem like they went in a flash. I want to talk a bit about my journey today.

When I graduated in the late ‘70s, one of the hallmarks of a liberated woman was an independent paycheck. Not that women didn’t work—in fact, I should qualify things to say that the idea of women being out of the house and in the workforce as equating to liberation was very much a white woman’s thing—black women, by and large, had always worked, although rarely in the kind of careers imagined by early feminists. But the big idea then was a career, independence, keeping your own name, being equal in the workplace and being in the workplace in equal numbers. That’s what feminism looked like then to many of us, and it was largely a numbers game. There were too few women in every sphere, even in the ranks of college undergraduates, hard to imagine now when the majority of undergraduates are women, at IU and across the country (and still rising).

I was deeply influenced by all of this, of course, but it was also how I had been brought up. My mother worked before she and my father were married and resumed working when he died unexpectedly in 1965, becoming a single working mother of four children. There was no question in my mind that I would have a career and earn a salary, to the same extent that there was no question in my mind that I would get married and have children without having to give up my work, whatever that was going to be. And in fact, that’s what happened, to me and to millions of other women who transformed the workplace, the professions, higher education, the political arena, and so many other areas in the last decades of the 20th century. Most of you were, I think, born during that time—how many of you had a mother who worked?

So all this boiled down to economic independence and economic equality, a goal that concerned all women. There was a downside, though—this focus on paid work did cause many of us, including me, to downgrade traditional female roles, and the community volunteer was one of those. In fact, volunteerism, along with activities outside of the public, paid sphere themselves were seen as traps, a way to exploit women and maintain their dependence. When I was a junior I went abroad for a semester, and during a stay in London I learned about a movement called Wages for Housework, a proposal for the government to pay women who were housewives, on the principle that the only way women’s work would be valued was for it to be paid. Pretty radical even then, and of course it didn’t go anywhere, but it rested on a pretty fundamental notion of what it meant to be valued in our society.

I mentioned earlier that I am currently enrolled in a master’s degree program in Philanthropic Studies at IU, which lines up with so much of what I am doing today and also satisfies a long-held interest in the nonprofit sector and a more recently acquired interest in philanthropy, in terms of what it really means to be philanthropic and how deeply intertwined philanthropic practices are to what it means to be an American—it’s part of our national DNA. It has also given me a golden opportunity to return to my undergraduate interest in history—in fact, my first career goal was to become an historian and a college professor—and specifically in women’s history.

It’s been a very short step to understanding how essential women have been to the development of the nonprofit sector in this country, women like Maud Showers and Frances Morgan Swain. Women have always been engaged in movements for progress, as leaders, advocates, workers, and heroic in their persistence and unwillingness to give up until the change they knew was important had occurred. To me, this work is at the heart of what it means to be philanthropic. Philanthropy is inherently about change, about making the world a better place for future generations, about righting injustices, about creating access and support, about being a citizen. And women, particularly in the late 19th century and at many points since, have been at the heart of all of this.

Women’s history in this country is inseparably intertwined with the history of community associations, social welfare and reform movements, educational and health organizations, institutions dedicated to alleviating poverty and its effects, and efforts to relieve injury and suffering. From Colonial times forward, women have found an outlet for their otherwise untapped intellectual and organizational capacities in charitable work. Well into the 20th century, cut off from the worlds of business and politics, women used voluntary associations to exercise public influence and to shape American concepts of community responsibility. As one historian has said, “Female philanthropy has served. . . as the means through which American women. . . have made a lasting imprint on social and institutional reforms, professionalization, legislation, and even the Constitution itself.”

This is a pretty big idea, at least it struck me that way, particularly as someone who grew up in a time where economic independence, earning a paycheck, having a career, were the touchstones. It’s always been important to me that women’s efforts be valued, regardless of how each may choose to involve herself in the public sphere, but I certainly never appreciated how fundamentally transformative women’s volunteer efforts have been to the vitality of communities and organizations of all kinds, in Indiana and across the country. And this is a big part of what inspires and motivates me every day.

It’s also a bit easier to think about all this now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was so much to be done that required a certain amount of single-mindedness. We have made so much progress, and while we know there are still barriers to topple—for example, we have yet to elect a woman president, but it’s more conceivable now than it ever has been—I think we, by and large, feel as though the problems have shifted from the numbers game to more nuanced and even personal matters—how we achieve balance between our home lives and our work lives, and how we maintain our more traditional roles alongside those that are less well marked for us by previous generations. I think we also are thinking about how all this affects men, both at home and at work – many of the workplace reforms, like parental leave, have had benefits for men as well as women even through men take much less advantage of them. Men feel the stress of trying to balance too.

This brings me to another important interest of mine, one that connects my career in the IT sector to my interests in women’s lives and in reducing barriers to equality. As I said, we’ve really moved away from thinking about women’s equality in terms of numbers, in part because, well, we’ve pretty much gotten there in many areas. Virtually half of medical school students today are women, and the medical profession as a whole is much more gender balanced, even 15-20 years out from when those students finished med school (women are staying). We’re in increasingly good shape in business—while board rooms and corner offices are still predominantly male and white, if you look at mid-management, staff ranks, and business school graduation rates, we see a much more balanced pipeline. But one area that has seen virtually no change since the 1980s and 1990s is in technology, and STEM fields more generally. There, it is still a numbers game, and the numbers are not encouraging.

Looking back over the last 10 years or so, there have been actual declines in the numbers of women in computing and information sciences. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in 1984, 37% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science and computer engineering went to women. Other reports show that in 2000, that number had declined to 19%, and in 2004 it went down still further, to 17%. Today, we’re at about 20%, which is better but still nowhere near where it should or could be, especially given that there are more women undergraduates than men. It’s not much better for faculty in the sciences—those numbers have barely been creeping up. A recent article in Science cited a study showing that only 27% of new hires in science and engineering are women, up from about 25% a few years ago. At this rate, it will take 100 years to achieve parity in science and engineering faculties. Given the importance of role models, this is a depressing forecast.

Why is this so important, especially in a time where women have more freedom to choose what they want to do? I think you’re probably all aware of at least part of the answer, which is that we are a much more information and technology-dependent society now more than ever before, and this figures in the nature of jobs today and in the kinds of products and services we create. The forecasts showing the tremendous need for a technically literate workforce alongside the shortages in the available pools of employees haven’t changed much.

And it’s a particularly local issue, as we look at what’s going on in Indiana and other states in our region. Agriculture and manufacturing have been major components of Indiana’s economy but they are declining. At the same time, life sciences industries are fairly booming along a stretch that includes Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. In 2006, the Battelle Institute ranked Indiana in the top three states nationwide for life sciences industries. In fact, more than 578,000 Indiana jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the health industry (Deloitte & Touche 2005). These are jobs that require at the very minimum basic scientific and mathematical literacy, and some require more than that. We can’t fill all of the demand for a technically literate workforce with white males, let alone those who are born in the U.S. We need to keep working on the barriers that keep women, and minorities, from seeing themselves as technologists, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.

Another reason this is so important is that as companies produce more technology-based products and services, we need a diverse workforce to ensure that those products and services are tuned to what consumers need, especially for such critical non-discretionary things like medical records, educational tools, and so forth.

I’m happy to say that IU’s own School of Informatics and Computing is doing as much, if not more, than many other such schools across the country to address the diversity issues in technical fields. Dean Bobby Schnabel has in fact made diversity one of his major priorities, and that has helped us attract an increasingly diverse student body as well as a representative number of women faculty. But there’s more to do, and I want to end by talking about a project I’m involved with in the school that ties all of this together—my interest in women’s issues, my interest in the community and IU’s relationship to it, my interest in the nonprofit and voluntary sector and along with that, my interest in philanthropy.

Through my role as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Informatics and Computing, I have started a clinic called “ServeIT”. The clinic provides hands-on, service learning experiences for students through offering information technology development and support services to Bloomington area nonprofits. Nonprofits typically have not been able to invest much in their IT infrastructure and so have not benefitted from the kinds of transformations IT has made possible in business and in other sectors. The Clinic offers services for free to do things like strategic planning, database development, website development and upgrades, and a variety of other projects that improve the ability of each nonprofit to fulfill its mission. And the students get an experience that connects them to the real world, and in a way that they might not otherwise have access to.

We know from all the studies that have been done on women and minorities in technical fields that the standard stereotype of the techno-geek—you know, the lone programmer who loves to code for hours on end, bent over the screen at 3:00am, with the can of Jolt and earphones firmly in place—is not appealing to a lot of women and not to many minority students either. They want to understand the impact of technology, not just technology for its own sake. They want to solve problems. Most graduates go off into the business world, and whether anyone pursues a career in the nonprofit sector or not after graduation, they will have seen an aspect of the community that will enrich their lives. So far, the student teams have exceeded the diversity profile in the school, in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, and so we think we’re really on to something. And it sits squarely in my sweet spot!

I am so glad you invited me here today, and I so appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to talk about what’s important to me and to the university and the community that I love.

Thank you.