The poster was easily visible despite the thick mist of drizzle that had persisted into the dusk. A crudely drawn pink figure faced a ladder with missing rungs. Next to her was a blue figure, but his ladder was not similarly lacking. Beneath, the phrase “someone has to work harder” clamored in red and blue sharpie marker. As Kathryn Flaschner read the words, she knew that this moment would be her favorite of the whole day.
The image reminded Flaschner, a student at the Simon School of Business, of her first year in the MBA program, when she was introduced to the hindrances of being a woman in the male-dominated business world. It began when she was elected to represent the first-year students in a prominent business organization. The other three first-year representatives were all men.
At first the instances seemed minor. She was called “Ms. Flaschner” while the others were addressed by their first names. Over time, she grew more uneasy. It was occasionally suggested that she be the one responsible for taking notes during a meeting. And then, things peaked.
“I asked the president of the organization if he would support a leadership panel I had been asked to speak on,” Flaschner said. “He begrudgingly agreed, but not before he told me that he thought ‘there were better choices to represent the group.’”
In that moment she knew she would yield no longer to what she saw as their condescension.
“I needed to switch from trying to please everyone to advocating for myself and knowing my own value,” she said.
The sting of patriarchy was not always familiar to Flaschner. A Buffalo native, she grew up surrounded by many examples of strong women, from coaches on her high school field hockey team to a seemingly boundless number of successful female family members. She prospered with these role models, and graduated high school with good grades, athletic prowess, and a sense of self-assurance that can be rare in girls her age.
Success remained a theme for Flaschner as an undergraduate at the University. She was awarded the prestigious Merle Spurrier Award for outstanding athletic achievement and took on leadership roles in organizations such as the Meridian Society, the Keidaean Honor Society, and the Student Alumni Ambassadors.
After graduation, she began completing her pre-MBA at Tufts University in Boston. It was here that she first got a glimpse at the inequity she would discover once she returned to the Rochester campus. The Tufts’ field hockey team, for which she assistant-coached, had recently won two national championships, and yet the program seemed to never be considered or treated equivalently to the university’s male football, hockey, and lacrosse teams. She learned from coaches and bosses of the athletic industry’s sizeable wage gap. She learned from them how hard it can be to be embraced as a professional woman. But she also learned from them the best way to take a stand.
“They were always such great mentors for their players. I witnessed the power in taking a breath, not getting defensive, and instead making a plan to prove the ignorant people wrong,” Flaschner said.
As she looked upon the president of the Simon organization’s indignant face, she remembered the power of her coaches, and knew it was time to explore that power. She took a deep breath and made a plan. If he didn’t think she was an adequate representative, she would become the representative of an even bigger group of Simon students.
Flaschner soon became the voice for Simon’s female minority as the president of Simon Women in Business. She began holding bi-weekly meetings with all the female students so that she may be an accessible resource for them, offering information, guidance, and support.
Now that Flaschner had become an advocate for herself, she could become an advocate for others. In her meetings, she encouraged the Simon women to be aware of the value of their contributions. One undergraduate student, Martissa Williams, uses Flaschner’s advice while building her growing apparel business, Rebel (v.).
These meetings quickly became a sanctuary for students feeling anxious or overlooked. Despite cautionary comments, Flaschner scheduled a meeting to provide Simon students the opportunity to discuss their feelings following the election of President Donald Trump.
“Getting too political is looked down upon in the business world,” Flascher said. “But so many students were affected and scared and just needed to talk about it. As a leader, I think it’s important to be emotional and vulnerable sometimes, even if some people don’t like it.”
Flaschner faced similar judgments of being “too political” when she decided to attend the Women’s March held in Washington D.C. the day after Trump’s inauguration. Nevertheless, she marched among the thousands beside her younger sister Alyssa, a Rochester undergrad also studying business. She held a hand-made sign featuring the female reproductive system, the end of one fallopian tube twisted to imitate the fist of a human hand, its middle finger raised.
Once the march was over, the sisters watched coverage of protests being held around the world as they waited at a Whole Foods for the crowds to dissipate. They made their way back to the White House in the evening. Hundreds of abandoned signs lay in rows on the green, and handfuls of Trump protesters and Trump supporters roamed the aisles, reading their messages.
Flaschner lingered in front of the sign that read “someone has to work harder.” She studied the pink stick figure in front of her incomplete ladder, and thought about her impending graduation from Simon. Her great success as a student and leader meant she had many job offers. She was going to be a consultant, and the choice was hers whether to join an already gender diverse company, or to trail blaze as a rare female leader in a predominantly male-led company.
“All these women around, but can anyone make a sandwich?” a voice called out behind her. She turned to locate the source. He was tall and broad, his face obscured by a red cap. She turned to her sister. Alyssa did not speak, but her face said enough.
Flaschner took a deep breath. And she made a plan.