By Dr Ann Olivarius

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The idea behind the Rhodes Project was planted during my first snow-bound cocktail party with fellow candidates for the Rhodes Scholarship in 1977, when women had become eligible for the first time. I found myself wondering about the paths that had brought all of us to this place, and what might happen to us afterwards.  After I had left Oxford and started working, it was always interesting to compare notes with other Rhodes alumni about how our lives were going.  A common theme of our conversations was our gratitude for the opportunity the Scholarship provides -- and more broadly, for our luck in being alive when this and other opportunities had finally opened to women.  We often talked about the excitement and also the responsibility of being the first generation that might have a shot at “equal opportunity” and “having it all.” 

But as life progressed, and became more complicated, we found ourselves asking: what exactly is the “all” that we are trying to have?  I used to think that I was living the life for which earlier feminists had fought.  My husband and I both have demanding careers, we both support equality, we have a lively household and three energetic children.  But then, some years ago, I met up with Deirdre Saunder, a close friend and Scholar from Zimbabwe, who also leads a very busy life.  She heard out my song of praise to our good fortune of having a shot at “having it all” before gently, but rightly, pointing out the paradox it presents. We can have it all, in the sense of having careers as tough and rewarding as any man's, but we still retain primary responsibility for managing the household and caring for children and the older loved ones in our lives. Deirdre had put her finger on a big question.  Is this really what women of our generation have achieved: a readiness to take on more than our fair share under the attractive euphemism of “having it all?”

I began to think about the women Rhodes Scholars I knew, who by conventional measure should have as good a chance as anyone to achieve “success.”  We were clearly able to take advantage of opportunities closed to earlier generations of women, which is real progress.  But are we really free to take advantage of them to the same extent as men?   And if so, do we?  The accepted lore among Rhodes Scholars and commentators has been that female Scholars have not shone as brightly in their professional paths as their male peers.  But is this true?  Certainly I know of Rhodes women who have achieved high positions in traditionally male settings, e.g., business, law, science.  But are these exceptions to the rule?  And is the “rule” anyway misleading because it fails to take into account the disparity in absolute numbers (many fewer women have passed through the Scholarship program than men) and the fact that even the oldest have probably just begun to reach the pinnacles of their careers?

I began to think that these questions were worthy of systematic investigation.  If Rhodes women are in fact achieving as much as men, it would be sensible to lay out the evidence before the oft-repeated impression of women Scholars’ under-achievement becomes self-fulfilling.  If they are not, then how are they leading their lives? And is the definition of “achievement” appropriate?  It seemed that a comprehensive survey of the first generation of women Rhodes Scholars’ life choices, occupations, values and beliefs might yield surprising results.  When I aired this idea, I was struck by the positive reaction from family and friends, who seem to view this cohort of women, rightly or wrongly, as a marker of the progress of women and the women’s movement over the last 30 years.

As an economist, trained in statistical analysis, I had the formal tools to oversee such research.  I also thought I might be able to access the network of women Rhodes Scholars to add color and substance to the bare numbers.  When I canvassed them, I was met by real enthusiasm I had not anticipated.  This provided me with the final encouragement to believe that the questions that were occupying me and my circle might also interest a larger group.  And so, in the summer of 2004, I embarked on the Rhodes Project.

It has generated some extraordinary results so far.  I expect that the program of research we are conducting will continue to do so.  My hope is that our findings will be useful not only to academics but to everyone interested in women’s progress and the complex but absorbing problems of achieving real equality.  In that sense, I hope the Rhodes Project will attract new people and new ideas to an important and continuing conversation.