Charting careers of Harvard businesswomen

Women Like Us, by Liz Roman Gallese. New York: William Morrow & Co. 288 pp. $15.95. Women in business. The books in this category have not been impressive in recent years. They seem to either treat women as a monolithic group and then pour forth sweeping statements about career advancement, or they tell only one woman's story -- usually too dramatically.

It's embarrassingly easy to pinpoint the flaw in such books: No two women, or men for that matter, are alike. So why treat them that way? Why look at them en masse, or hold up only one as an example?

``Women Like Us,'' by former Wall Street Journal reporter Liz Roman Gallese, has broken free from this pack of mediocre books.

It looks, as a whole, at the women who make up the Harvard Business School's class of '75. Six ``profile'' chapters -- each focusing on a graduate, her reasons for going to HBS, her life style, her job -- form the bulk of the book. Ms. Gallese is wise to research a small, somewhat homogeneous group about which she can draw some valid conclusions. Yet she doesn't sacrifice the close-up-and-personal view to get a bigger picture -- rather, she gives readers many different lives to observe.

Six years after the women's graduation, Gallese interviewed 82 of the 88 women who had enrolled in the class of '75. Then she went back to some of the women for lengthy interviews to select the profiles. (By this time, Gallese and her husband were expecting their first baby, and she was facing critical career decisions herself.)

There is no formula for success, she finds. ``Successful women in business were just as likely to be married and have children as they were to be single, divorced, or married and childless. Nor was there a correlation between success in a career and one's background, be it socioeconomic or religious,'' she writes.

Along the way she discovered something quite curious. Here she was, sitting down with women who were supposedly the most ambitious in the country, who had gone to Harvard because it is considered the ticket to success, and only one of them wanted the top job as chief executive officer of a Fortune 100 company.

Gallese found this more interesting than the sometimes agonizing decisions women face on the career-family issue, that is, how to have it all. (She does profile one woman, who, with three children and an equally ambitious and supportive husband, can gracefully do it.)

One professor at the business school told her, however, that not all Harvard men aim for the top, either. And then he went on to say that a lot of men are perfectly happy to settle for ``vice-president in charge of a division, running something big.'' Gallese was shocked; only a few of the Harvard women were even aiming that high.

In these pages the Harvard women come across as real people who experience hardships and joys that many will be able to relate to. They are people to learn from. What is terribly frustrating, however, is the fact that the details of their stories have been extensively changed to protect their identities, although the author promises the substance is still the same. It's distracting to wonder whether what you're reading about is true or not.

The profiles, though, are not composites and I trusted them as fairly representative of career-minded women from different backgrounds. By the end, Gallese had given me a fuller understanding of the rewards and challenges such women face -- an understanding that job-seekers and hirers (and not just the Harvard crowd) should seek to develop.

Francine Kiefer, assistant national news editor, was formerly a financial reporter for the Monitor.

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