Women at HBS: Making History

Few HBS students today would fail to recognize names like Meg Whitman (MBA 1979) and Donna Dubinsky (MBA 1981). For many students, these women are members of a group of pioneering women from all sectors of the economy and all corners of the globe who have helped to shatter the “glass ceiling” and, in the process, changed the course of business history.

For other students, Whitman and Dubinsky are just darn good at what they do–they are smart business-people. Women in business have become such a dynamic force that Fortune magazine devotes a yearly cover to the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business.” And yet, few Harvard Business School students today know the history of women on their campus.

When were women admitted to HBS? How have women contributed to the HBS culture? How has the role of women on campus evolved, what strides have been made and what goals remain unattained for women at HBS?

The story of women at HBS is a rich, if brief, history reflective not only of the changing role of women in business, but also of the evolution of the Business School itself. Over the next few weeks, the Harbus will run a series of articles in an attempt to provide a brief history of women on the HBS campus.

If there’s one thing Harvard is not short on, it’s history. The college, founded in 1636, was started less than two decades after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World. Even the Business School has a long history relative to its peers. HBS became an official Harvard graduate-level professional program in 1909–at a time when other universities were still teaching business administration as an undergraduate course of study. The first HBS case appeared in 1912, the joint PhD in business economics was established in 1916, and by 1926 the Allston campus had opened.

Those of you with oodles of spare time (or those of you who actually read the Harbus Handbook) may already be experts on HBS history, but you may not realize that women were not admitted to HBS as first-year MBA students until 1963. Yes, the history of women at HBS is a short story when compared to that of the university as a whole (or the b-school, for that matter).

Nevertheless, HBS was progressive and early in its acceptance of female MBA candidates. In 1959, women graduates of the Harvard-Radcliffe program in business administration were permitted to take second year courses at the business school. The same year, the first female student was admitted to the DBA program. In 1962 the Advanced Management Program opened its doors to women, and in 1963, the MBA program followed suit.

HBS alumnae today have enjoyed tremendous success in a variety careers: Elaine Chao (MBA 1979) was President of the United Way and the Peace Corps before being appointed to President George W. Bush’s cabinet as the Secretary of Labor. Orit Gadiesh (MBA 1977) has served as the Chairman of Bain & Company since 1993. Candice Carpenter (MBA 1983), who has appeared at the WSA’s “Dynamic Women in Business Conference,” is the Founder and Co-Chair of iVillage.com. And who could forget all of the female case protagonists from the RC curriculum this year–Taran Swan (MBA 1991), Meg Whitman, Donna Dubinsky, and Ruth Owades (Founder, Calyx & Corolla, MBA 1975)?

The MBA classes of 2002 and 2003 will no doubt add their own to this list of impressive alumnae. The women of ’02 and ’03 have already accomplished a great deal, having been successful in starting their own businesses, establishing non-profits, and funding some of the biggest dot-com era companies (not to mention running some of the biggest dot-com era companies!). In addition, these women are wives, mothers, athletes, artists and champions for a number of social causes.

I hope that in the next few weeks, by providing an in-depth look at the women of HBS, and the alumnae who preceded them, our community can learn more about the history that makes HBS a unique and “transformational” experience for MBA candidates.