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Marina Whitman

Economist & Professor

Ann Arbor, MI

My husband has a succinct description of how I’ve leaned in and leaned against strong winds throughout my career: 'You use sharp elbows to propel yourself forward, but always with a smile on your face.'

A major obstacle to my education and career has repeatedly been the absence of ladies’ rooms in strategic places. When I graduated from Radcliffe (now Harvard) in the mid-1950s, I moved to Princeton with my new husband who was an instructor in English at the university. I was enthusiastically welcomed by the faculty of the Economics Department when I expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD there, but they told me that because Princeton did not admit women to either undergraduate or graduate study, I would have to persuade the president to make an exception in my case.

That interview did not go well. President Dodds expressed his regret at being unable to accept a student of my caliber (I had graduated first in my class), but said there was no housing for female students. No problem, I assured him; I was already living with my husband in the left-over World War II barracks Princeton used to house its most junior faculty. Repeating his regret, the president said that, unfortunately, there were not sufficient facilities for women on campus.

Only briefly daunted, I managed to get that PhD via a daily two-hour commute to Columbia University. Years later, when I took a leave from my professorship at the University of Pittsburgh to serve as the first woman on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, I was invited, along with the Council’s chairman and the other member, to monthly luncheon meetings with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. When I asked where the ladies’ room was, I was told I’d have to go to the nurse’s office; there had never been a need for such a facility on the floor with the Board’s dining room.

My riskiest career move came when I left the comfortable familiarity of the academic world to become a vice-president and chief economist of General Motors. Within a few years, a promotion made me the most senior woman in the U.S. auto industry. By then I had learned to speak up in the endless meetings that occupied most of the executives’ days, and managed to persuade the company that it needed to broaden its economic horizon beyond the United States to encompass the now-global scope of the automobile industry.

But I rapidly became the company’s resident Cassandra, unable to persuade top management of the fate that awaited the company if it didn’t pull its collective head out of the sand, only to see my most dire predictions come true, and some of my most out-of-the-box suggestions finally implemented years after I had left the company.

In my memoir, I recount these experiences, and many more like them, along with the most valuable piece of advice my husband of more than 50 years ever gave me: “The kids and I can adapt to whatever decision you make about your career, but what we can’t handle is when you spread your guilt all over us.” He also has a succinct description of how I’ve leaned in and leaned against strong winds throughout my career: “You use sharp elbows to propel yourself forward, but always with a smile on your face. “

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