Wash. U. alum helps women make it in business

| Scene Reporter

With the winding down of the school year, the job hunt is on. Whether the search is for full-time employment or a meaningful summer experience, Washington University students of all ages are looking to confirm their plans for the future. Although each Wash. U. student boasts a top-rate education and many shared values, a student’s employment opportunities and experiences may depend greatly on gender.

The gap in employment standards and practices between women and men is the topic of “Survival Guide for Women in Business,” written by 2006 graduate and former Student Life editor Sarah Baicker. As Baicker notes in the book’s introduction, the U.S. Department of Labor statistics shows that in 2006, women made 81 cents for every dollar earned by a male counterpart. Disparities like these are common in the U.S. workplace, a world still characterized by a male majority.

“When you’re in college you feel like there are women everywhere. When I was at Wash. U., the president of Student Union was female, club leaders were female and the editor in chief of Student Life was female,” Baicker said. “When you’re in college you think women become leaders just as much as men do. Then you get out into the real world and you look around and [notice that] not many women make it to the top. For me it was really interesting to be presented with that [situation], something I had no idea existed.”

In her book, Baicker seeks to help women understand the nature of the job market and how they can use their strengths to their advantage. The book covers advice for the job search as well as strategies for a woman once she is actually on the job. Topics range from tips for job interviews to profiles of female CEOs.

Interestingly, Baicker had very little interaction with the business world prior to writing the book. As an undergraduate student at Wash. U., Baicker studied creative writing. She then went on to get a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Upon finishing her master’s program in the winter of 2007, Baicker returned to her native Philadelphia and started working for Universum, a communications firm that works as a liaison between employers and job seekers.

Universum’s many services include consulting for companies interested in hiring new talent and Web sites with career advice. While at Universum, Baicker helped edit and update the company’s WetFeet career series. She also served as managing editor for a free magazine distributed to business school campuses around the country.

The offer to write “Survival Guide for Women in Business” provided Baicker with a unique opportunity. Although WetFeet produces a wide array of career-oriented Web sites and literature, the company did not previously have a lot of materials targeted directly to women. Baicker’s final work is the result of a partnership between WetFeet and Forté Foundation, an organization of schools and corporations that provides support and networking opportunities to women in business.

“They came to me because they wanted me to get involved in a long-term project,” Baicker said. “I was thrilled. I didn’t know a lot about business…But I believe that if you are a good reporter, you can ask the right questions and learn what you need to know to write a story.”

Thanks to Forté Foundation, Baicker was able to interview women who work in many different areas of business. She spoke to these women about their experiences in a male-oriented work climate and gathered tips to help other women succeed in their own careers. As she continued her research, she discovered that it is impossible to pinpoint one factor as the cause for workplace inequality.

“The big reason, I believe, that women don’t rise to the top probably has to do with family,” Baicker said. “I think a lot of women plan to have a baby, then go back… [and then] it’s really hard to get back in.”

Luckily, many businesses and universities are working to help combat the gap between men and women in the workforce. The book mentions several companies that have special initiatives that provide support systems for women. Baicker also spoke of reeducation programs offered by upper-level business schools to women who have been out of the workforce for a while.

Further good news is that the number of women in business school has gone up overall—Baicker cites that women currently occupy about 30 percent of the seats in MBA programs, compared to less than 5 percent in the 1970s.

Baicker stressed that some of the differences between men and women in the workplace come from everyday habits that don’t translate well to professional situations. She noted, for example, that women often refrain from raising their voices in meetings or from stating their opinions because such behaviors might be perceived as rude. These sorts of socialized behaviors can be challenging for women to overcome, but Baicker notes that an important first step is for women to anticipate the obstacles that await them in the workforce.

“College sets you up to see the world in a different way—women have high GPAs, there are women in leadership roles everywhere, etc…Once you get out into the real world, there’s sexism, there’s sexual harassment, there’s maternity leave. Being able to deal with those things is the biggest thing readers can take from this book,” she said.

Baicker herself took some personal lessons from the book. One of her favorite experiences during the research phase was a lecture given by Linda Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and coauthor of “Women Don’t Ask and Ask For It.”

After her talk, Babcock spoke to Baicker about the power of negotiation. Babcock explained that men negotiate four times more than women, be it about salaries for a first job or a raise later down the road.

“I learned so much from just a 15-minute conversation with [Babcock],” Baicker said. “It was life changing for me…Apparently, women don’t ask for things…I learned a lot [about] what to negotiate for, how to negotiate, etc. So I made a promise to myself that I was going to just try asking for things.”

Baicker’s new philosophy proved successful. Within the month following her interview with Babcock, Baicker successfully lowered her rent, lowered her cable bill—and negotiated for her personal byline to appear on the cover of her book. WetFeet guides are typically compiled by external writers, and the authors don’t usually get credited individually.

Baicker’s adaptation of the book’s lessons to her own life proves the broad appeal of her book. Although the cover of the book says “survival in business,” Baicker stresses that the guide can help change any woman’s perspective.

“There is stuff in there about consulting and marketing…but I’m a journalist, and it has helped me in my professional life,” Baicker said. “It changed my perspective on being female and having a job.”

After working at Universum, Baicker served as a Web writer and Web editor for the Philadelphia NBC affiliate. She now works as a Web writer and Web editor for Comcast SportsNet. Although her office culture is very different from those she discusses in the book, she believes the lessons she learned while writing her book will continue to help her develop her own career, and she hopes that other women reap similar benefits from the book.

“I’m a firm believer that the cream rises to the top, but it’s scary [to apply for jobs],” Baicker said. “The only way to address uncertainty is to be as armed as possible. With a book like this, you will go into it knowing the best way to succeed. When the future is a big question mark, [being informed] is the only way you can feel as confident as possible.”

Baicker’s book is available on Amazon.com and at select Barnes & Noble and Border’s locations.