Upon becoming the first female editor-in-chief of The Argus in 1976, Jane Eisner ’77 inherited a large funding deficit: it would be necessary to raise more money to keep the paper going. She explained the situation to an all-male fund-granting boardroom, and minutes later one member offered up what he thought was the perfect solution: Eisner should run a bake sale. When Eisner told that story nearly 40 years later, as the keynote speaker for the Women of Wesleyan lecture series on Friday, April 11, her audience burst out in dismayed laughter.
Eisner, currently the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, was the featured speaker of “Female Frontiers: Pushing Boundaries in the Workplace,” an event that also included a panel of professional alumnae and a screening of “Tricked,” a documentary about human trafficking produced by Nadia Zilkha ’79. The event was presented by Women of Wesleyan, a year-long programming initiative, and was held in the Allbritton Center and the Powell Family Cinema.
University Relations Director of Networks and Affinities Meg Zocco expressed her enthusiasm about the event’s potential for cross-generational exchange about issues that plague working women.
“None of the events should be a one-time deal,” she said. “The plan is that it continues, with more programming under this umbrella, gains momentum, and facilitates connections. We want to create our own network: figure out how to meet people and connect with them.”
In her talk, Eisner, a member of one of the first classes to include women after decades of exclusion, credited the University with empowering her.
“Wesleyan went co-ed fabulously,” Eisner said. “From the beginning, I never felt held back.”
After graduating, Eisner explained, she worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer as a foreign correspondent in London (she was the second woman and the first mother the Inquirer sent abroad), then as the leader of the features section, and finally as the editor of the editorial page. In quickly ascending in her career, however, Eisner often felt overwhelmed by her duties at work coupled with growing obligations at home.
“I would be in an interview with a congressman and remember that I forgot to leave a check for the piano teacher,” she said.
She added that asserting herself at work was challenging.
“I was called the Queen of Nice,” she said. “I was proud of that, but I didn’t always want to be nice to people. I got pushed around by a lot of aggressive politicians.”
After five and a half years as the editorial page editor, Eisner, feeling burned-out, stepped back into the role of columnist, a position that allowed her to work at home, teach a few classes at the University of Pennsylvania, and write a book, “Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Democracy.”
In 2008, Eisner became the first female editor-in-chief of The Forward. Yet from her first day, something was missing.
“I thought, ‘Where are all the women?’” she said.
Eisner’s question eventually led her to begin a study that would become a mainstay of The Forward: she looked at the 75 largest Jewish organizations in the country and examined who was in charge and what they earned. Eisner ran the list in the paper. Soon after, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania approached Eisner at a bat mitzvah, and the two collaborated on analyzing the list, eventually determining what salary should be average, which leaders were underpaid, and which were overpaid. Of the five overpaid, all were men; of the five underpaid, two were women. These findings confirmed what Eisner had already suspected, but publishing the results has been surprisingly empowering.
“It’s known now,” Eisner said. “I heard a story about a woman using [the data] when she was negotiating her salary. She said, ‘I don’t want my kids to read in The Forward that I’m underpaid.’”
Gwendolyn Rosen ’15 enjoyed Eisner’s talk and appreciated that the topics she discussed were relatable.
“Jane Eisner…did a really great job of talking not only about her career but also about how her whole life has come together, including the family issues that come up a lot when we talk about women in the workplace, but not assuming that the women in the audience were looking to have the same path as her,” Rosen said. “She did a great job of making it accessible to all the women in the room. ”
After Eisner’s talk, the group broke out into two panels, one addressing women in the arenas of education, not-for-profit, and arts, and one addressing women in law, medicine, finance, and science.
The former panel was led by Tracey Gardner ’96, a member of the Board of Trustees and the Chief of Staff at New York University’s Robert Wagner School of Public Service, and Zilkha, who is the board chair for 3 Generation Films and the Co-Owner and Vice President of Laetitia Vineyard and Winery.
The latter panel first discussed challenges that the women faced in the workplace, prompting Vanessa Burgess ’77, Managing Director at Canajoharie Capital, to remember being passed over for the chance to travel abroad for work. Her then-employer had a limited budget; all the men traveled together because they could share a hotel room. Burgess wanted to travel, and so she assured her boss that she could stay in a room with the men.
“It was fine, because I was used to it,” Burgess said, laughing. “Wesleyan had co-ed dorms.”
When speaking about the day-long conference, Zocco explained that the University has a remarkably strong base of alumnae, a claim that she links to its history of coeducation.
“Historically, [women] were here, and then they were booted out, but they would not be deterred,” she said. “Proof is that [women] came back in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Now those first alumnae are at the peaks of their careers, in influential positions, doing important work, but that spirit remains from when they were first-year students. There is still that energy behind our coeducation.”
Moreover, Zocco has found that University alumnae are unusual in their commitment to activism.
“Wesleyan attracts strong, smart (of course), independent-thinking, initiative-oriented women,” she said. “‘Make change’ kind of people. It’s the launch pad for the rest of time.”