Conversations with HBS Student Mothers

An investment in women is an investment in the world.

Christianne McKinnon, Contributor

Tears welled in my eyes when I first noticed the multitude of female students at Harvard Business School. It is a world I could not have imagined growing up and one where people do not automatically assume I am the partner. Historically, women have not received graduate degrees at the same rate as men and even once allowed, were actively discouraged from studying at the graduate level. The dean at Harvard Law School famously chastised Ruth Bader Ginsberg for taking a spot from a man (1). It took until December 1962 for Harvard to vote in favor of women attending HBS and admitted eight the following year (2). MBA programs still fall below 50% female enrollment. Additionally, in the workplace mothers are often not given allowances to be both a mom and an employee. Women often lose bargaining power and face discrimination upon notifying employers of pregnancy. 

In 1995 there were zero female Fortune 500 CEOs. It’s now risen to a measly 7.4% CEOs and 27% female board members for F500 companies (3). Women are 30% less likely, and mothers are 23.5% less likely to be hired than their male counterparts with the same qualifications and family life (3, 4). A Rockefeller Foundation poll stated “Having female leaders in positions of influence…  is not only critical to the career advancement of women, but …impacts… pay equity, changing workplace policies in ways that benefit both men and women, and attracting a more diverse workforce.” It continues, “when women hold more executive leadership positions… companies… in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform the national average.” (5). Peace agreements are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years, female leadership in their families’ land and income decisions results in greater access to healthcare and education for their families (6). RBG famously said, “Women belong in all places decisions are being made.”                                                          

While Harvard has made great strides and is more progressive than many institutions, there is still room for improvement. Currently, only 18 women, RC and EC years combined, belong to MomBA, the HBS mom group. Student mothers Christy Talisse, Zoe Ofer, Rachel Li, Susie Siyu Wang, Sofia Radley-Searle, Michelle Call, and Alex Smith were generous enough to let me interview them for this article. I loved hearing their passion and unique stories: some are veterans, some have a partner working in another state, some are in graduate school alongside their partner, and some have a partner who is a stay-at-home parent. They aligned on many views, and on others their views were as different as their backgrounds. 

What has your experience at HBS been like?

  • “Last year was really hard… I was super overwhelmed a lot of the time. Knowing the right infrastructure and asking for it, having the humility to say I can’t do all this by myself is a big deal and having a really supportive partner…  it… was obviously well worth it. I would do it all over again.”- Christy 
  • “The program is very rigorous [along with academics, social aspect, and recruiting]… so being a mom at the same time… is very challenging. No matter how efficient you are, you just have 24 hours a day… You have to prioritize, meaning sometimes… giv[ing] up some events…[for]… more important things…, but all my classmates are friendly… and understand the challenges I am facing and are pretty supportive emotionally.” – Susie 
  • “I try not to focus on the hurdles…but more on working hard and succeeding even though there are a lot of obstacles.” – Zoe
  •  “Very different from the traditional HBS experience… a lot of the things… that people most think of with the typical HBS experience don’t apply to me. There are ways in which it can feel like I’m only getting part of the experience, but there’s a wonderful community here… [and] I’ve found other ways to make it… a good experience- it’s just that my good experience is very different from everyone else’s good experience…This program is not designed for parents and it’s especially not designed for working moms.” – Michelle

What have Harvard, professors, students (student reps, classmates, etc.) done right?

  • The moms have gratitude for a family rep., lactation rooms, hospital grade pumps, accommodating section mates who also adore their children, and a supportive community. Everyone also raved about their wonderfully supportive professors who included them in conversation when virtual, strongly supported needed accommodations including when they had sick kids, doctor appointments, etc., (some even emailing them to say they were thinking of them).
  •  While dealing with maternity policy issues, Alex Smith said her professors reached out to her directly “to offer support and [make] it clear that if I need accommodation, they would work with me.”
  •  “I was really nervous going into RC year. I really wanted to keep breastfeeding my son, so that meant a lot of pumping time and… I was I afraid the 20 minutes in between classes wouldn’t be enough…so I [talked] to my professors about coming in late or leaving early and … every single one was so supportive and really positive and ‘absolutely, do whatever you need to do’.”- Christy 
  • “Right before the midterm …I looked at [a] photo the daycare sent… and the professor saw that photo, so we had a very short chat… right before the exam, he showed me he really understood my situation and he had been through this…They understand how hard it is. They show empathy.”- Susie
  • Aldo, from accommodations, helped Michelle, who gets Hyperemesis Gravidarum (severe pregnancy sickness), to get the needed accommodations to still succeed as a pregnant student. “They did a lot, my professors were super empathetic…[and] my section was really understanding.” Her community showed up with treats, dinner, pjs, saltines,  babysitting offers, notes from missed classes, help with questions, and continual invites to everything. They even threw her a shower once she was well enough to attend. “They were just really sweet…[and] lovely. I’m grateful I had such a supportive section. And they were just great start to finish.”- Michelle 
  • “I’ve appreciated that people feel like, ‘wow, there’s this extra thing you’re doing that’s really big and really important and worthwhile’… and I recognize that and I appreciate that people recognize that it’s a big deal.” – Rachel

Where is there room for improvement?

  • The maternity policy is two weeks of leave with no option of Zoom. Alex, who had her first child seven weeks ago, explained that she and another pregnant RC had approached HBS to request four weeks remote following the leave “to allow us to heal, establish a milk supply, and most importantly, be present with our new children. This amount of time would barely meet the minimum Federal requirements for employers … and we have the hybrid learning infrastructure in place… we were still planning to fully participate in class during this time, [but] at home.” 
  • At the same time Alex was appealing, Zoe and Marisa were also working tirelessly with SAS to institutionally change the maternity policy for students to two weeks of leave with four weeks of Zoom. They are awaiting final approval for future years but it will most likely happen. For up to six weeks after childbirth, women are generally bleeding, unable to walk long distances, lift heavy things, and often unable to even sit comfortably. While HBS is incredibly accommodating if a mother would prefer to defer a semester after childbirth, it is often not feasible due to factors like recruiting and the added financial toll of Boston cost of living without an income (or less income for those whose partners work out of the home). These instances of student advocacy are just some of the phenomenal examples of women using their voices and perspectives to make improvements for everyone. 
  • “HBS should be public leaders in the effort to support student mothers to help close the gender gap at the top. This means establishing a fair maternity leave policy and clearly articulating it so there is no confusion during an already very hectic time for women. It also means sharing this policy publicly so that future students know what to expect if they should choose to have a child while getting an MBA here and to serve as an example for other academic institutions who are trying to establish new rules in a post Covid era.” -Alex
  • Although many feel supported at HBS, many do not. Susie commented that HBS touts a family and child friendly atmosphere but doesn’t “feel that welcoming or inclusive environment anymore, just because people don’t have that kind of situation…I was a little disappointed because [of] the contrast from the initial impression.” – Susie
  • The difficulty of getting a spot in daycare combined with the prohibitive costs (40 times more than in Spain, Sofia’s home country), leaves moms in an extremely difficult position. Susie said they lack “tangible support from the school. They say you will be fine, you will do great, don’t worry. But… if your child doesn’t have daycare…how can you be fine? I am not fine. I have to find a solution…the feeling from the school is…figure it out yourself.”
  • Christy applied early to three of the six daycares Harvard runs and was told there was no availability and a two-year waiting list. Other moms faced similar hurdles. Students are second to last on the priority list for daycares. 
  • “HBS keeps saying we want to be this really inclusive environment and advocate for gender equity, [but] if you don’t come up with benefits or support along the way, there will never be gender equity. Inclusion . . . is about a lot of stuff all coming together and so far I don’t feel that inclusiveness.” – Susie
  • The change in the Zoom policy for parents caring for a sick child and aspects of FIELD Immersion including the required social event on Mother’s Day were mentioned. 
  • Some mentioned it would be helpful to have more lactation rooms and/or pumps in all the rooms. Michelle said, “It’s hard to be a nursing mom and a student. Right now there’s only two of us in the whole school.” There are five pumping rooms across two buildings. There are also faculty members that are nursing moms, so there have been times she has been locked out in the short break between classes with no other options.

What led you to get an MBA?

  • Everyone said it was the best next step in their career and most mentioned wanting to be an example for their children. Zoe said, “If you think about it, historically, the 30s are critical years in men’s lives where they try to climb up the corporate ladder, start companies, do critical things in their careers while sometimes women were giving birth, raising kids and kind of forced to pause their careers… so it was important to me to try to do both . . . [It] is very important to try to prove to myself time and time again that nothing can stop me from reaching my own goals and I think that that has a lot of power.” 

Did being a mom deter or motivate you, or was it a non factor?

  • Some mentioned that it influenced the timing of their family planning. For some motherhood was a motivator, some wanted to check if it was even possible, to some it was a non-factor, and some emphasized the extra careful planning that had to go into it.
  • “Though having a baby while attending HBS has been challenging, it is the best decision I have ever made. My daughter is happy and healthy, and because of my amazing support system at home, I am still able to do what I came here to do—broaden my perspective by meeting amazing new people, learn as much as I can, and progress my career. The biggest difference now is I am not just doing this for myself, I am also setting an example and building a future for my daughter.” – Alex
  • “I would argue it would… fill me with energy to really push to get into the MBA… to make the most of it… I wanted…to make sure that I was…proof like many other women are, that it is possible to thrive academically and professionally and still have a rich family life…and I refuse to believe that just because it’s harder, we should put our lives on standby if we want to have kids, so that’s one of the things that really gave me energy and courage to try harder and… that if we believe in true diversity and inclusion, mothers…need to have a voice and a space in every institution…. The fact there are [so few of us] each year…says a lot about… inclusivity … towards moms and how hard it is psychologically but also physically for moms to make it here even if they have the drive, the academic, professional and intellectual capacity to make it here…, so I would say I’m very driven by the fact that I’m a mom and every day I’m working hard and trying to make the most of this experience…and ensuring the world knows it’s possible and we shouldn’t stop our lives just because we want to be moms.” – Sofia 
  • Zoe Ofer emphasized that it is hard but doable. She feels passionately about making sure moms know they can do it. 

Moms do not need to prove they deserve the basic right of equal opportunity, but the world is definitely made better by moms and that very special something they bring to the table. The nature of being a parent means it may require some accommodations, but the world desperately needs women. Most women I spoke with said Harvard is so focused on diversity and inclusion, yet student moms don’t seem to be a category of focus. They don’t expect perfection, but do want the basic things that make attending more feasible: a reasonable maternity policy, accessible childcare, etc. Making any accommodations necessary for a parent is a moral obligation, but also an incredible investment. When we invest in women, we invest in the world.

Anyone who attends HBS is fortunate to do so. Christy said, “there’s no better place to be a student mom.” It’s incredible, beautiful, diverse, welcoming, and full of learning and gives all who attend an incredible privilege in life. That doesn’t mean they can’t do better. We can have love and gratitude for Harvard and see room for improvement. We should expect the very best (in reasonable ways) from companies and institutions and they will rise to the occasion or eventually dissipate and Harvard is the caliber that has consistently risen. 

Chatting with these moms was a privilege and I will always be blown away by women, like these, who know what they want and climb mountains to achieve it.

Christianne McKinnon is an MBA EC partner. She has a degree in American Studies and currently runs a health blog. She enjoys reading, researching, writing, baking, and being with her family.