Dean Nohria Reflects on 50 Years of Women at HBS
Today, Dr. Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and a Goldman Sachs board member, will kick off a yearlong speaker series exploring the future of women in business. In conjunction with the Women’s Student Association (WSA), HBS will host a number of events this year to commemorate the 50th year of women at HBS. As HBS prepares to celebrate this important milestone, The Harbus sat down with Dean Nitin Nohria to discuss the progress made on women’s rights at HBS and in the workplace, and the work that remains to be done.
Harbus: What does 50 years of women at HBS mean to you? What does 50 years of women at HBS say about this institution?
Dean Nohria: The first thing it says is something that always surprises me, which is, wow, we’re 100 years old as an institution and we’re still only 50 years of women. On the one hand that makes me say, “What were we thinking before that?” But then I’m struck, as I always am having been an immigrant to this country, how that feels like the beauty of America in so many ways. Many things go on for a long period of time here but when it changes it can change so suddenly and dramatically.
There’s a piece of me that feels so proud about how much distance Harvard Business School has moved in 50 years – as much as I also puzzle about why did we start so late. But from that start to say, OK, 50 years ago we had to vote on having 8 women join the MBA class to today where 40% of our class is women – if you just think in numerical terms that’s great progress. In the 1960s or 70s, there were no women’s bathrooms in the faculty club; to go from that point to where we are today where about one third of our faculty are women each year is another important step.
So in every dimension, these years have marked remarkable progress by this institution and by society more broadly, but I also feel there’s so much more to be done. We still have wage gaps and achievement gaps. The structure of jobs still seems to reflect a world in which largely men worked – we still haven’t made it easy for people to take time off, for example.
There are so many issues, and I don’t know what the right organizational innovations are that address all these things, but part of what I hope this year will do is, yes, allow us to celebrate the distance we’ve come, but also say, there’s a lot of work to be done and how do we set an agenda for the work that lays ahead?
Harbus: You joined the HBS faculty in 1988 – tell us about how the role of women at HBS has evolved since you entered the community?
Nohria: By the time I came to this school we were at 24-25% [female students] on the student side, so already you didn’t feel like it was a distinct minority. It’s one thing to be 8 students in 500, it’s another to get to 25%, so I came into a school where women were very much a part of the experience.
On the faculty side there were many, many fewer women; the progress on that side feels a lot more dramatic to me. If you look at the leadership team of the school right now we have many more women on the leadership team. If you look at the leadership of the student body, that’s another place where I have seen change over time – it is much more likely now that you’ll see women in leadership roles. When I came here, frankly, that was less likely to be true. So you see that progress has occurred.
Harbus: In a video message from you on the HBS website, you say that HBS is committed to making the world a place where both men and women can thrive. What do you see as the critical barriers to realizing that world?
Nohria: I still feel like we’re living in a world where the vision of careers is still largely a linear progression. And that suits some women, but it may not suit all women, and I think increasingly it will not suit all men, because we’re beginning to see a big shift occurring in the proportions of how much men and women now do work at home.
I look at my own example – I don’t think my father ever once changed a diaper, while I have two children and I think I changed all the diapers [laughs]. My wife is also an MBA. She’s a working professional who has worked every year of her life and so we’ve had to have real balance at home in order for each of us to have careers. So the need for flexibility is going to be as true for men over time as it has been historically for women.
And we’re beginning to catch up to that but I’m not sure we’ve yet developed meaningful visions of careers and I’m not sure organizations have come up with creative ways of continuing to use human capital if they can’t use them fully with full-time face presence and those sorts of things. That innovation lies ahead, and it’s an innovation in our imagination of careers and in how organizations design better on- and off-ramps for how people do things, or in how we think of work as an assembly of projects rather than an assembly of jobs.
So the combination of men demanding that too, because they’ll be increasingly involved in doing work at home in addition to work at work, that I think will drive the changes. If you look at the development of human capital – in the United States, in another 10 years, more than 60% of college graduates we expect will be women, and so that right there is going to create pressures in terms of how we think about what’s going to happen to this human capital that we don’t use as well… Necessity drives invention, and once we have that necessity, I expect jobs and careers to change, and that change lies ahead.
Harbus: Looking to the present, how do you assess the position of women here at HBS, both students and faculty? What work is left to accomplish, if any?
Nohria: Some of our colleagues in partnership with the Women’s Student Association have studied this question, and there had been a persistent and troubling gap in the numbers of female students making first year honors and Baker Scholars. We became aware of that about five years ago and have been working hard to ask ourselves the question, “Why should that be?” We put no thumb on the scale when it comes to admission; we are completely committed to being a meritocracy when it comes to admission. So why should women not perform as well?
And I think we’ve learned that small, subtle things can change the dynamics of a class – professors asking students what they think of Jane’s comment as regularly as they ask what they think of John’s comment, for instance. As we learned from [Facbeook COO and Class of 2012 Commencement Speaker] Sheryl Sandberg (HBS ’95) and others, women, too, need to take some responsibility to lean forward and make sure they’re going to be active participants in the case study discussions. Having a conversation on both sides – that is, asking what can women do to take fuller advantage of our particular learning environment, and what we could do, as faculty, to be more conscious – has already closed the gap considerably. We’ve found that in three years there’s now literally no statistical difference in performance for first-year honors and it’s been reduced for second year honors as well.
Harbus: A female friend mentioned that one barrier she confronts is from people who ask, Why do we need a WSA, or why do we need a women’s representative in section leadership? How do you respond to those questions?
Nohria: I pray for the day that we won’t need those [positions]! Maybe we’ll come to a day when no one feels there’s a need to represent this voice and stand up for it because the world will have become a place where nobody will think there’s any reason.
But today, we do have issues that require people raising questions – if it wasn’t for the WSA, we wouldn’t have closed the achievement gap we were talking about a moment ago. So having a group that asks you hard questions is not a bad thing – groups disappear when there are no hard questions left to ask.
I don’t think we can walk away from the fact that we still have issues to address, and therefore, we need people who will bring those issues to our attention and demand that we work towards finding solutions. And I find that kind of advocacy is always a good thing.
Harbus: How do you assess the position of women in the business world at large?
Nohria: I think we’re doing better than the world outside in general, both in terms of representation in proportional terms, and representation in leadership roles [laughs]. The proportions are, on average, worse in the vast majority of other elite organizations in the world. I think in that sense, when I look back at 50 years, I feel good – we’ve made more progress.
But I continue to believe that even in the outside world, change can happen and it can happen very quickly. I’m an optimist in this regard. I wrote a book called “Paths to Power” in which I looked at 1,000 great business leaders in America in the 20th century. Sometimes with historical perspective you realize that there are barriers today that you don’t even imagine exist, but are really serious.
Until about the 1930s, to be a CEO of a major company in the Northeast, you needed to be born in the Northeast – there were literally regional barriers to success. There was a religious barrier – you could not find a Catholic CEO in this country. Until the 1930s you could not find a CEO who was of international origin. These are all barriers that have come down.
And what you usually see is that a few people break through, and then education attainment becomes a big engine that drives success. And you begin to see the impact of education 20-30 years later because it’s a generational thing. This year, 40% of the people here who graduate will be women and they’ll find jobs and have success. Even based upon my own research I’m optimistic that the sheer mass of highly educated, highly qualified women entering the labor force in a wide variety of fields will produce successful outcomes, and that that process is happening for women quite rapidly.
Harbus: Beyond the education it provides, is there a role for HBS to play in terms of accelerating the process – similar to the role it’s playing in the US Competitiveness Initiative?
Nohria: I think part of how we accelerate the process is we create a culture here that gives people an imagination of what’s possible. So people can feel that we can be an organization that’s a living role model of how everybody can be successful and how everybody can thrive, and be a true meritocracy in which barriers to success are not created because of demography.
Then maybe we’ll have more leaders who, just as they are inspired by other things they learn here, are inspired by their experience of this place and can go out and build organizations like that in the world. And that is one way in which we accelerate this process. We’re very fortunate in that some of our students will go on and become leaders of very influential companies that then become companies that are examples for others.
Harbus: As HBS celebrates the role of women in our community, what do you hope students and faculty will pay particular attention to or be mindful of?
Nohria: This is a bit personal, but I have two daughters. I want them to grow up in a world where they feel they can do whatever they want and be as likely to be successful as I wanted to feel. I’m very much wishful of a world where that would be true for them – and I can’t imagine a world that isn’t.
And I hope that everyone that’s a part of Harvard Business School thinks about the world that way, which is that we should be a world that celebrates opportunity. And we know that opportunity is available to anybody as long as they have the ability to do it and the will and desire to pursue it.
I’m not sure I can always say that that’s true today. If we all look in our souls and ask is that really true today, I don’t think we can say that it is, and I think we should try to create a future where that is true.
Harbus: What do you want members of the HBS community to take away from the events that are planned for the year ahead?
Nohria: I want people to know that while we’re going to have a series of events this year and those will all be quite remarkable, we don’t want this year to be “we did it, we celebrated, we’re done.” My hope is that this year we’ll build momentum for an agenda that continues to have legs.
That’s the real hope. Will these events and markers create impetus to do more? If you think of us being in an arc that’s doing pretty good [on women’s issues], can we raise the arc even more? Will we be able to look back and say that what we did this year changed the arc, changed the momentum? To me, that’s the real measure of success.