“In my 40 years, I have just seen one roadblock after another for women disappear.”
– Regina Herzlinger, Nancy R. McPherson Professor of Business Administration and the first woman to be tenured and chaired at HBS
December 1962: HBS faculty vote to admit women into the two-year MBA program. Eight women are admitted to first class. Fifty years later, women comprise almost 40% of the student body and 25% of the faculty.
“There used to be a perception in the 1980s that women could not be CEOs,” says Professor Regina Herzlinger, the first woman to be tenured and chaired at HBS. However, Herzlinger explains that this perception was wrong because it took no account of history: to be a CEO in the 1980s, women would have had to begun pursuing the business track in the 1950s, when it was nearly impossible to do so. The repositioning of the HBS mission statement to focus on developing leaders rather than just general managers has therefore been critical for women, according to Professor Sandra Sucher, who leads and teaches Leadership and Corporate Accountability. Women can now explore their self-identities and their expectations of future possibilities in ways that previously were not available.
It is significant that Youngme Moon, Senior Associate Dean and Chair of the MBA Program, and Frances Frei, Chair of the MBA required curriculum, are women. “This is a place where women learn about how to be powerful, and encounter real life examples on a daily basis,” says Sucher. Every day, women are standing out intellectually on the faculty, conducting substantial research and assuming important roles in administration. Professor Herzlinger was named best teacher of the year in her very first year as an HBS professor.
“The women have always been fabulous here, but the current administration has been increasingly supportive in a way that has allowed great strides to be made,” acknowledge Tiffany Niver and Soraya Gheissari, co-presidents of the Women’s Student Association. A 2010 study shocked the HBS community when it reported a marked historical difference between men and women’s academic performance. One year after receiving the results, the number of women receiving first year honors increased by seven percent, an achievement due in large part to the willingness of the administration to raise awareness and address the issues at hand.
Professor Kathleen McGinn, Niver, and two other students are continuing the Women’s Academic Achievement study this year using Professor Robin Ely’s data analysis. One area of focus has been creating a cross-MBA coalition of women’s groups to provide information, support, and sharing around the issues of gender and business. The first ever meeting of the heads of these groups (from 12 business schools) will take place on Sunday, February 26th, 2012, the day after the WSA conference.
On the WSA side, Gheissari and Niver have instituted a number of initiatives to move the perception of the group away from a “victim’s club.” They have highlighted amazing women at HBS in the weekly newsletter, facilitated significant interaction with women faculty and alumni, and established a variety of regular events to foster consistently high engagement among the HBS female community.
The results speak for themselves. When asked about the future of women at this school, professors and students alike are only positive. Women are engaging more in entrepreneurship and other rising academic areas, assuming leadership roles across the institution, and pursuing every career track imaginable. “Female business students have uniquely redefined the world of work,” declares Herzlinger.
Niver and Gheissari hope that the 50th anniversary of women will inspire even more female students at HBS to engage with the school and “pay it forward.”
Aashna Kircher is a member of the Class of 2013 (Section C) and is a marketing director for the WSA conference.