On Campus, Top Story

Bridging BC’s Gender Gap: Sophomore Lily Peng’s Unlikely Path To Women’s Activism

Lily Peng, A&S ’17, remembers her hometown of West Hartford, Conn. as a bubble. Before arriving at Boston College, she had given little thought to women’s issues. Her father—a scientist who Peng remembers little of growing up—died of cancer when she was 10. Peng’s mother worked under her father in the same laboratory, and after his death, was left to find another job. As Peng entered West Hartford’s Hall High School, her mother enrolled in an MBA program, beginning work toward a degree that would take six years to earn attending night classes after work. (She would receive her diploma at age 50, the same year her daughter enrolled at BC.)

As Peng continued her schooling, her mother would frequently remind her that, as immigrants from China, she and her father arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York with only 50 United States dollars to their names. That it was important to not stress herself out and enjoy her education. And that the problems Peng faced were relatively small when compared with the issues women of her mother’s generation were forced to confront.

Peng spent her high school years heavily involved in volunteer work, founding a club for it in her high school and then serving as co-president. She never particularly noticed in West Hartford barriers that might limit the accomplishments of female students. Coming to Chestnut Hill, Mass., she was particularly surprised to hear a 2012 statistic that the average woman at BC would see her self-esteem significantly diminished as an undergraduate—while the average man would leave with an increased sense of confidence (all while maintaining a lower GPA than his female classmates).

The fall of her freshman year, Peng was quick to notice male students dominating classroom discussions. She would find herself silently sitting with answers to questions the professors would ask. Men in the classroom would respond quickly (and ofttimes incorrectly) while Peng’s thoughts frequently went unshared.

At the 2013 University involvement fair, Peng signed up for BC’s Women in Business. Later that fall, she would attend the Intercollegiate Business Convention in Boston, hosted by the Harvard chapter of the club. There, she recalls being “blown away” by the accomplishments of the female leaders present at the Hynes Convention Center event. She met with CEOs and founders of nonprofits, and perhaps most significantly, she introduced to the work of Sheryl Sandberg in a podcast sent to the event.

Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, co-authored her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, earlier that year. The book’s titular phrase “lean in” originated in Sandberg’s 2010 TED Talk titled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” in which she noted how the women in her family would “lean back” in the workplace to make time for their children.

The Facebook executive expanded “Lean In” to a global effort, forming a non-profit that would quickly establish chapters in cities and universities in all parts of the world. These local chapters offered “circles” for women to discuss professional issues or concerns they might have. Younger women would meet with older, professional mentors in these circles, covering topics like the use of body language in communications and ways women might ask for a raise.

Sandberg’s movement was not without criticism. Perhaps most notably, humanist author Susan Faludi questioned Lean In’s large corporate sponsorship, which included several companies with weak female representation on an executive level and legal histories of gender discrimination. In “Facebook Feminism: Like It Or Not,” Faludi also notes Lean In’s failure to address the struggles of women in poverty.

Proponents of Sandberg’s Palo Alto nonprofit—now numbering a little over half a million on Lean In’s Facebook page—argue the organization provides a vital professional network to women in the corporate world, citing the strong practical applications of the business lessons learned in these circles and lauding the openness of the nonprofit to all sorts of women.

After hearing from Sandberg at the Intercollegiate Business Convention, Peng personally decided to co-found a Lean In chapter at BC, bringing the nonprofit to the University last semester. She has since taken up an increased interest in women’s issues on campus. Lean In now operates six circles at BC, and Peng is particularly proud that several men have become involved with the organization recently.

“It’s tough, but you have to advertise it as a group that talks about leadership to men and a group that talks about gender equality to women,” she said. “It’s sad that you have to make that distinction—even though it’s both things—but that’s how you rope them in.”

Peng notes several factors that she believes are diminishing the confidence of women at BC, among them, the hook-up culture, the strong stereotypes existing for women, and the unrealistic body expectations resulting from those stereotypes. (“You have to eat a salad, and ‘Plex,’ and then eat another salad after you ‘Plex,’” she comments.)

The success of Lean In, according to Peng, comes very much from the small tasks these circles set out for members on a weekly basis. Participants are encouraged to pledge an action each time they meet with their circle. These tend to be relatively simple changes to the week, such as contributing in every class.

Last semester, Peng was asked to join Advance, a group of female leaders on campus formed through the Women’s Center. It was through that program that Peng first heard of “Own It,” a women’s summit held at Georgetown University in 2014. In November, Caela McCann, president of Women in Business and A&S ’15, and Alexis Teixeira, director of female and gender affairs for BC’s Undergraduate Government and CSOM ’17, approached Peng with the idea of hosting the summit at BC. They were interested in bringing Peng’s perspective from Lean In into the leadership for the summit, and asked that she join Teixeira as a co-chair.

McCann would serve as executive director to the event.

The concept behind Own It is to encourage women to “own their successes, own their opinions, and own their differences.” When comparing the event with Women in Business’ Intercollegiate Business Convention, Peng notes how the Own It summit aspired to be more accessible to women who are not specifically interested in business.

This year, Own It has expanded to several universities around the country, including George Washington University and Notre Dame. The leadership for Own It hopes that, like Lean It, the phrase will grow into an international brand. Its history is unique from Lean In in that, while Sandberg’s organization was born out of the corporate world, Own It came from college students.


Scheduled for March 28, the BC Own It summit builds on last year’s BC Women’s Summit, which was hosted by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College. Influential female figures, many of whom are BC alumni, will appear at the spring conference. The organizers of the event hope to make the summit also accessible to men. Tickets will be available to all students on Monday for five dollars through Robsham.

A little over 20 organizations have opted to collaborate in the creation of the BC Own It summit, and as Peng says, offer their “time, money, and listservs.” The full student leadership for the event was selected through an application process in December. Joining the student board as faculty advisors, Katie Dalton, director of the Women’s Center; Karl Bell, assistant director of Student Organizations; and Regine Jean-Charles, assistant professor of romance languages, are aiding in the organization of the conference.

The keynotes for the event are expected to be given by Carrie Rich, CEO and founder of the Global Good Fund, and Katie White, former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Peng’s mother—who has been slightly skeptical of her daughter extensive involvement in women’s issues on campus (she has emphasized to Peng that she should should set aside some time at college for “playdates” with friends)—is planning to attend the March summit. Peng smiles when she talks about her mother being there.

“If I’m starting where I am, and she’s come that far, if I extend that much on top of where I already started, we’re unstoppable,” she said.

Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Editor

February 23, 2015