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November 27, 2000

O'Connor urges women to seek
business degrees

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor didn’t come to Emory to speak about the law, the courts or women in law. Rather, she urged women to pursue careers in the business world.

“I believe that one of the best ways to obtain equality in our society is to pursue a successful career in business—and that one of the best ways for businesses to succeed in our economy is to pursue women,” said O’Connor, during a Nov. 13 speech in Glenn Auditorium.

“Going Where Few Women Have Gone Before” was the 2000 Rosalynn Carter Distinguished Lecture in Public Policy. O’Connor was slated to deliver the lecture last January but was unable to fly to Atlanta due to inclement weather.

“The fact is, big business needs women for obvious reasons,” she said, noting that women executives give businesses a chance to tap into the mind of the female consumer, and women have long proven their strengths as managers. “Women may bring more to big business than an understanding of consumer preferences.”

They bring flexibility and sensitivity to the stresses fellow businesswomen may face, she said. By serving as role models, every successful businesswoman encourages other women to enter the business world.

But, O’Connor asked, why are there so few women in the upper echelons of the business world? Why aren’t more women going to business schools?

“The seeds of the problem are probably planted long before a woman is choosing her career,” O’Connor said. “To many girls and young women, business evokes images of factory lines, industrial accidents and worker unrest. Given such images, it’s no wonder girls express so little interest in going into business.

“We as a society need to teach girls that business is about making deals, solving problems, working with people and keeping the economy going.”

O’Connor proposed that companies sponsor internship programs for high school students, and for schools to bring local businesswomen into the classrooms to show female students just what opportunities exist for them in all areas of the business world.

Business schools also need to recruit more female students and create more flexible courses of study, she added.

“The business schools must continue to get out to women the message that an MBA is the perfect degree for a lot of women, giving their careers self-control and flexibility,” O’Connor said.

“Moreover, society needs to emphasize to women that getting a graduate degree in business will enable them to contribute to society in more meaningful ways and to perhaps lead more meaningful lives themselves,”she said.

Changing the face of business may not be O’Connor's area of expertise, but blazing new trails for women is.

After finishing third in her law class at Stanford University, serving as a deputy county attorney in California and working as a civilian lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps, O’Connor had difficulty finding a private sector job because of her gender.

She started her own practice and was appointed as Arizona’s assistant attorney general in 1965. She was appointed to the Arizona State Senate in 1969 and was elected to two terms, serving as senate majority leader in her last term. In 1975 she was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court and four years later to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

In 1981, O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, making her the first female justice of the nation's highest court.

Following her lecture, O’Connor answered questions submitted from students such as what issues she thinks the Supreme Court will face in the future and how lawyers go about clerking for a justice.

One of the last questions drew laughter from lecture moderator (and former first lady) Rosalynn Carter, O’Connor and the audience.

“How likely is it,” Carter read, “that another woman or person of color will be appointed to the Supreme Court by the president-elect?”

After a moment, O’Connor answered her question very judicially: “Who can say? We don't even know who [the president-elect] will be?”


Back to Emory Report Nov. 27, 2000