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A Conversation with the Martian's Daughter

2/22/2013 --

Professor Marina Whitman discusses her memoir, which chronicles her family legacy and life's work.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Professor Marina Whitman's life has been full of firsts. First woman on the president's Council of Economic Advisers. First woman to be chief economist and a group vice president at General Motors Co. As a pioneer for women in business and academia, Whitman also carried a family legacy that both opened doors and cast a shadow over her own career. She writes about living with this legacy — and provides an insider's view on some of the biggest moments in 20th century history — in her book, The Martian's Daughter: A Memoir. Whitman's father was John von Neumann, one of the Hungarian immigrant mathematicians and physicists known affectionately as “the Martians” for their otherworldly, scientific brilliance. Von Neumann and his colleagues helped cement American scientific superiority in the early to mid-20th century. Whitman's father has been called the greatest mathematician of the 20th century and the greatest scientist after Albert Einstein — not an easy legacy to live up to. But he also showed his daughter that using your gifts will get you far in the world, and being a woman shouldn't be a deterrent. In this Q&A, Whitman talks about her father's influence and her own pioneering work in economics, public policy, and academia.

So why did you write a personal book?

Whitman: A lot of people urged me to write a book because I was the first woman in many things I did. I was first woman on the Council of Economic Advisers, I was the first woman to serve on a number¬ of major corporate boards, and I was the first woman to be a Group Vice President at General Motors. I was the highest-ranking woman in the auto industry at the time. Since I pioneered these things, people told me I should write about it. Eventually, I decided to give it a try. Part of the motivation also was to figure out, as I got older, what my life added up to. There's this whole question of getting out from under my father's shadow. He was, many people argue, the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. He invented game theory and he was a pioneer in computers. The architecture that underlies all modern computers is called the von Neumann Architecture. He also was part of the Manhattan Project.

These seem to be the two tracks in the book — your pioneering work, but also growing up with this parent who was a legend in his own time.

Whitman: Those are the two themes, my career and the relationship with my father. And my career was heavily influenced by him. Even in the 1950s, I felt I could do these things, and that was probably because of my upbringing and the kind of world I was exposed to. My father made it very clear that, male or female, you had a moral obligation to use whatever brains God gave you. But also a lot of my career was working to get out from under the shadow of this larger-than-life parent. So there was a positive sense and a kind of negative sense in my relationship with my father. My mother also propelled me by her own example. I married very young, just a week out of college, which upset my father terribly. He felt that any girl who married young, and particularly to a penniless young English instructor, was destroying any chance of developing her own intellectual or professional capacities. Statistically, in the 1950s, he was right. It turned out to be wrong in my case, but it wasn't an unreasonable worry.

The sharpness of our disagreement was exacerbated by the fact that he was dying of cancer. It's one thing to defy a parent; it's another thing to defy a dying parent. So all of my life I wanted to tell my father, 'You see, I did what I wanted, but I also did what you wanted. I managed to do both of them.' But, of course, I never got that opportunity.

Do you feel the world has changed for professional women since the time you graduated college, and has it changed enough?

Whitman: My daughter and her friend, right after they graduated from college, asked me that, wondering how much things have really changed. So I told them a story, which is in the book. I had an interview with an IBM recruiter when I was a senior in college for a sales engineer position. This job paid well, it was highly regarded, and the interview was going great. I was at the top of my class at Harvard-Radcliffe and I carried the von Neumann name. But suddenly he looked at my left hand and he said, 'Oh I see you're engaged. I'm sorry, but we don't hire engaged girls.' My daughter and her friend, wide- eyed, asked me what I said. Well, what I did was stand up, apologize for taking his time, and left. My daughter couldn't believe it, but it's hard for someone young to understand that he was completely within his rights at the time. There was no EEOC. I could have screamed and yelled but it wouldn't have made any difference. The broader point is that so much has changed drastically in the space of a lifetime. One of the points in writing this book was to show that the world as we find it now was not decreed by God, and it took a lot of work and a lot of courage on the part of a lot of people to get it where it is. Young people should not take this for granted. It could change and you have to hold up your end and make sure that it doesn't regress.

Based on that progress, would you have thought there would be more women CEOs by now?

Whitman: I haven't really thought in quantitative terms about how many there would be. My impression is they get hired and fired pretty much like male CEOs. There are still relatively few, and you certainly find many more women in the middle ranks. But I don't worry about women like me or the women in this building as much as the great number of women who work not because it's fulfilling, but because they have to. This country is not terribly responsive to the issues and problems confronted by these women. And I think that's a more critical issue than the speed at which women are becoming CEOs.

You were first brought into the Council of Economic Advisers as a staff economist under President Nixon, when the late Ross Professor Paul McCracken was chairman. You later were a member of that council, and you write a lot about McCracken. Could you talk a bit about his influence on your career?

Whitman: I don't know this for a fact, but I believe it was Paul McCracken and George Shultz who put the idea into the president's head. It was also Paul McCracken, who was doing some consulting for General Motors, who later suggested to Roger Smith that I be considered for chief economist. So he was very important as a mentor to me. When I was on staff at the council, there were moments when I really thought I couldn't do it. It was Paul McCracken who kept telling me, 'Oh yes you can,' in his very quiet way. He was enormously supportive and reassuring. He was a remarkable human being.

How was working at the Council, and later being a member, different than being a professor and economist in academia?

Whitman: First, there's the speed in which you have to get things done and turn them in, whether you are ready or not. There's also politics. We were dealing with the discomfort index, the sum of the unemployment and the inflation indexes. It was getting into double digits, and there was concern that this would be politically intolerable. Then there was the famous announcement when President Nixon went off the gold standard and declared wage and price controls against the advice of people like Paul McCracken. Paul left the council after that, and I filled that vacancy. Herb Stein became chairman. I was on the National Price Commission and became kind of the public face of the wage and price control program. I had to defend the damn thing, and we economists knew that sooner or later it was going to blow up, and it did. There's no question that politics and economics get intermingled, and that's always been an issue for the Council of Economic Advisers. It's never been fully resolved. The council is supposed to give the president the best possible economic advice. But it's also seen as defending the administration's policy. So there's some dissonance there and always has been.

You were chief economist at GM when imports were first starting to become a threat. What was the reaction of GM at the time?

Whitman: I did have this Cassandra-like feeling sometimes, that nobody else was worrying about what was happening at GM. But that's oversimplifying. There were people inside GM who understood and others who buried their heads in the sand. Roger Smith, I think, was more perceptive than many. But for a variety of reasons, including his personality, he wasn't able to make the culture change GM needed. Smith brought in a number of people from the outside at the vice president level. A lot of us ended our GM careers frustrated by the fact that we hadn't been able to dent the culture.

What kind of advice would you give to professional women now, especially when it comes to balancing a career and family?

Whitman: I had my children in my 20s and built a career on top of that. Often, when I teach academic women, they say they don't want to have children until they get tenure. Or young lawyers will wait until they become partner. But by that time, they're in their middle to late 30s and the biological clock is really ticking. Each approach has its different tensions. So what advice would I give? One piece came from my husband, Bob. Early on, when I had some sort of job offer or promotion that would mean disrupting the family and moving somewhere, I would agonize and whine. Bob finally said to me, 'Look, the kids and I will adapt one way or another to whatever you want to do. But the one thing we cannot stand is having you spread your guilt all over us.' That was enormously useful advice that I have repeated to a number of women. The 'having it all' debate has been done to death lately. The answer is that having it all doesn't mean you can have it all at the same time. Life is long and we're living longer. There were times when I turned down very attractive job offers because it would have meant a commuting marriage, and I didn't want that. Bob also sacrificed positions. So you can have a lot if you want. You just can't always have it all at the same time.

— Terry Kosdrosky

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For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,