50 Years of Women Changing Business

Earlier this month, the Women’s Student Association held its 30th annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference. 2021 also marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the WSA.

Professor Boris Groysberg
Director Colleen Ammerman

Almost a decade ago, we started to research the history of women at HBS as part of the School’s W50 commemoration. As we interviewed alumni, faculty, and staff and explored the archives (including Harbus articles from the 1960s to the 2010s), it quickly became clear that women had profoundly reshaped HBS and changed how the business community saw women’s leadership. In our forthcoming book, Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, we delve into this story and the School’s journey toward greater inclusion and equity. A few themes stand out, especially perseverance (on the part of female students who sometimes had to fight to have their voices heard) and partnership (between the WSA and the administration, especially as the School turned more attention to gender equity). 

Women were first admitted to the two-year MBA program in 1963–there were just eight women in that first cohort. In those early days, women weren’t permitted to eat in the dining hall or live on campus, and there were even some professors who wouldn’t let them into their classes. Some male classmates were outright hostile and questioned their presence. But they persisted. One 1960s alumna told us about a snappy comeback that she started using on unwelcoming male peers: “I’m here because I want to be the CFO of General Motors, and if you’re nice to me I might get you a job.” 

By the early 1970s, women students knew they wanted more than just to be accepted on campus; they wanted to see more women aspiring to leadership and for business careers to be accessible. They started out by forming “Harvard Business Women” in 1971, which became the Women’s Student Association (WSA). They also started precursors to today’s conference, hosting Career Days and bringing female speakers to campus. In 1971, the WSA brought Gloria Steinem, already a feminist icon, to speak as well as listen to the concerns of female students. The following year, it hosted Muriel Siebert, the first woman to hold a seat on the NYSE. Siebert urged women to consider careers on Wall Street. 

By the 1980s, views about women’s place in the world had really changed. Harvard Business Review started to write about problems like sexual harassment and gender bias. There were landmark legal decisions on equal pay and new anti-discrimination laws were being put in place around the country. Kimberlé Crenshaw and other scholars were pointing out ways that women of color were being doubly marginalized in the workplace, shedding light on discrimination that had hardly been acknowledged by companies and courts. Here at HBS, the WSA was challenging the way that women were talked about in the curriculum, pointing out stereotypes and biases and helping faculty revise and write cases to change the narrative about women in leadership. 

The 1990s saw more progress: business education, and not just at HBS, became more focused on bringing women in and setting them up for high-impact careers. In many ways, the decade was a tipping point. Sexual misconduct that had once been the norm in many workplaces was now being vocally criticized, and working mothers challenged being left out of the leadership pipeline. People started talking about the more subtle barriers that got in the way of women’s careers—laws and policies had changed, but attitudes still made it hard to achieve their full potential. Here are HBS, the WSA banded together to address incidents of sexual harassment and help the School establish the Community Values we still adhere to today. 

No wonder, then, that the 21st century brought a desire to accelerate progress. Women are no longer seen as marginal to the workplace and the economy, yet gender parity remains elusive.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a recognition that we need to transform systems and structure to reach parity. We need more men to engage as allies and recognize we all have a stake in gender equity. The Allies program here at HBS has been one such effort—almost 90 percent of men in the class of  2019 signed the Allies pledge to “take meaningful action against gender bias and discrimination.” For our book, we surveyed past presidents of the WSA, and we saw how the efforts of each generation made things better for the next: In the 1970s, a majority of these women said that HBS did not feel inclusive, but by the 2000s a majority said it was very much so. 

Despite the challenges that remain, we’re hopeful. One reason we wrote Glass Half-Broken was to create a roadmap to help leaders at all levels work toward gender equity. We need managers to enact inclusive practices, not just pay lip service to them. We need companies to put in place the kinds of systemic changes that take bias out of hiring, promotion, and compensation. But we also need change agents like MBA students to continue pursuing leadership, lifting up the people around you, and speaking out. Even though the WSA is a student club, in many ways it has functioned like a women’s network or affinity group at a company—giving voice to issues that diminish women’s experiences, creating innovative programs to make things better, fostering community, and championing equality as a business imperative. Post-HBS, you have the power to continue that important work, wherever you land. 

The WSA has spent 50 years making room for women in business. Today, the women­—and men—of HBS have the potential to use the next 50 to continue that legacy and make the playing field truly level for everyone.

Colleen Ammerman is director of the HBS Gender Initiative, which catalyzes and translates cutting-edge research to transform practice, enable leaders to drive change, and eradicate gender, race, and other forms of inequality in business and society.

Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration in the organizational behavior unit and a faculty affiliate at the HBS Gender Initiative. He teaches the EC course “How Star Women Succeed.”