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 today will no doubt add their own to this list of impressive alumnae. The women of ’03 and ’04S 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.
Story Source: Harbus

Nancy Koehn on Women in Business
By: Sarah Riggs (OF) Contributing Writer

Recently tenured professor Nancy Koehn is no stranger to the Harvard Business School, or to the role that women have played and continue to play on campus. Professor Koehn, a member of the Entrepreneurial Manager RC Faculty, the Section Chair for NG, and a business historian, began her teaching career at HBS nearly 11 years ago. [Editor’s Note: Recently Business 2.0 named her (along with Clay Christensen, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Michael Porter) as one of 19 leading business gurus in the United States.] After completing her PhD in 1990, Professor Koehn taught in the Economics Department and the Committee on History and Literature at Harvard College.

A year later, Koehn joined the HBS faculty, where she was attracted to the School’s interdisciplinary approach, emphasis on teaching, and tradition of rigorous, influential scholarship. During the last eleven years, Professor Koehn has witnessed the evolution of women’s roles, not only at HBS, but in the work force and society more generally.

Diversity is perhaps the most oft praised cornerstone of the learning model at HBS. The broad-ranging perspectives of students from a variety of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and business sectors, allow students to interact in a classroom reflective of the global economy. The increasing percentage of women in MBA programs has further diversified b-school classrooms across the country, giving them a base for discussion that is greater in both depth and breadth of experience. HBS is no exception.

“The classroom feels different,” Koehn says, reflecting on her eleven years at the School. “Participants in every discussion contribute their own ‘patch’ to the ‘quilt’ of the case-method conversation, adding depth and breadth to the overall pattern and making it more meaningful. The growing diversity of our MBA students helps us continually create relevant discussions- learning experience -in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Koehn also commented that the increased percentage of female students at HBS has enriched classroom discussions by adding yet another layer of perspective. She is quick to recognize the significance of what the evolving role of women on campus means for all HBS students and constituencies-recruiters, alumni, partners, potential applicants and faculty.

This, of course, begs the question: why aren’t there more women at HBS?

In responding to this question, Koehn points to several factors, including the number of women applying to business school “upstream” and “downstream” demand from employers. There just aren’t as many female students in the applicant pool-yet. Koehn also described a similar phenomenon in many PhD programs across the country (has anyone else noticed there just aren’t that many female professors here at HBS?).

Koehn is enthusiastic about the growth in the number of female students (and faculty) at HBS over the last decade and noted that it is part of a much larger social shift that began more than three decades ago-a shift that is occurring in many other countries as well and that has broad-ranging consequences for individuals and organizations.

And this is no small change, according to Koehn. She observed that the expansion in women’s possibilities during the last three decades has no counterpart in the history of capitalism. “Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, women poured into the paid work force in unprecedented numbers. This change, which began as an economic transition, has had ramifications that stretched way beyond labor markets and challenged a host of longstanding assumptions and practices about both women and men’s roles.”

“Widespread social change of this magnitude rarely happens instantaneously,” Koehn says. Individuals and institutions, particularly powerful organizations, whether business schools, corporations or governments, do not adjust overnight to new changes in how people work or think
about themselves.” Large-scale institutional change-the kind that encompasses the flood of women entering the workforce over the last 30 years -is not revolutionary. Institutional change is, by nature, a slow and evolutionary process.

Although b-schools may be stuck between the societal changes that influence the number of females in the applicant pool and the corporations that influence the jobs women have upon graduating from business school (and thus, in part, influence the perceived opportunity cost of pursuing an MBA), HBS and its counterparts play an important role in facilitating the institutional change needed to strengthen the role of women in business.

Business schools have the unique opportunity to educate both the up- and down-stream portions of the b-school pipeline. Upstream, HBS has started several initiatives to increase the number of women in the applicant pool by educating women about the value of getting an MBA. Equally important, Koehn observes, is the role that HBS can play in influencing employers “downstream” about what graduates are looking for in a job.

To that end, Koehn says that she is struck by the integrity of MBA students’ priorities, by their interest in “recalibrating” their objectives to reflect a broad conception of success. The overwhelming refrain from MBA students- male and female-Koehn observes, is balance. MBAs today want to lead a “full life” that richly integrates work and family and that allows them to lead rewarding personal and professional lives. Many students, she comments, are looking for flexibility in their careers that will allow them to find the particular balance that works for them.

Men (and women) at HBS certainly thought about the work/life balance long before women stormed toward the glass ceiling. However, the need for flexibility to balance familial and career obligations has long been (at least perceived as) a priority for women in determining their career path.

Perhaps the “recalibration” of life/career priorities at HBS was influenced in part by female students who highlighted this dilemma in their class and campus discussions.

Whatever the cause, the recalibration of HBS students’ focus on balance is probably broadly representative of the workforce today, and those in business have a significant opportunity to influence the responsiveness of corporations to these new priorities, particularly as HBS graduates and others with similar concerns move into positions of power.

HBS is educating leaders who will truly shape the world in which they and future generations of businesspeople will work, thus it too has a part to play. Koehn explains, “Leadership has many forms and faces… and business schools must be conscious of the need for flexibility [and]… provide outlets for creativity in a professional context.”

Story Source: Harbus