Harvard Women Freed From Urinal 50 Years After First Female MBA

At Harvard Business School 15 years ago, Nancy Koehn remembers waiting in line to use the “women’s restroom,” which still contained urinals and a dearth of toilet stalls for female students and faculty.

“The changes here have been hard won,” said Koehn, now a tenured professor at HBS. “The urinals were still there in our main classroom building in 1998 because it took a while to renovate what had been a men’s bathroom.”

As HBS celebrates the 50th anniversary of admitting women MBA students, the gender gap at the elite business school has narrowed significantly. Forty percent of the class of 2014 is female, up from 25 percent in 1985. Yet, students still spend most of their time studying how men manage businesses, with just 8 percent of the school’s case studies focused on women leaders.

More than 800 female graduates returned to the Boston-based campus today for a two-day gathering that includes panels on “Sleeping With Your Cell Phone?” and “Dare to be Bad.” Their work and life experiences underscore why women still fill only 16 percent of senior executive jobs at companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and 3 percent of chief executive officer jobs.

While more than 90 percent of female and male alumni in their 20s are employed, just 74 percent of women ages 31 to 41 work full-time -- compared with 95 percent of men -- largely because they’re caring for children, according to a “Lives and Leadership After HBS” survey, released today by the school.

Career Satisfaction

In addition, women are less satisfied with their careers, according to the survey, which is based on responses from 6,458 alumni. Fifty percent of women said they’re doing work that is meaningful and satisfying, versus 62 percent of men; and only 42 percent of women said they’re satisfied with opportunities for career growth, compared with 52 percent of men. One reason: Seventy-seven percent of women said they were “impeded in their advancement” by exclusion from informal networks, compared with 49 percent of men.

“Even women from Harvard often don’t get the hot jobs or the experience that will give them the leverage to qualify to advance,” said Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, a New York-based research and advocacy group for executive women, who earned a Harvard MBA in 1973. “How successful a woman becomes depends a lot on who she marries -- and how much he supports her career,” she said.

Female ‘Trailblazers’

Lang, who arrived at HBS in 1971 straight from the women’s liberation movement and antiwar marches, was one of 33 women in her class. She worked in the then-emerging information technology industry after graduation, moving between startups and more established companies including software maker Lotus, while raising three children.

“We were the trailblazers who knew if we dropped the ball, we’d lose it for the women behind us,” Lang said.

HBS has produced a sizable list of female corporate stars, including Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. and former CEO of EBay Inc.; Abigail Johnson, president of Fidelity Investments; Mary Erdoes, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Asset Management division; and Susan Decker, former president of Yahoo! Inc. and now a director at Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

There’s also Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., a 1995 Harvard MBA who told last year’s graduating class, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat, just get on.”

Less Traditional

Sandberg, who advises women in her new book “Lean In” not to squelch their ambitions, thinks her alma mater in recent years has been pushing to close the gender gap.

Faculty and administrators “have been talking very openly about making sure women students are there and have the chance to become leaders,” Sandberg said in a telephone interview.

Many other women have forged less-traditional careers outside of Wall Street and companies in the S&P 500 Index. They’ve made their mark at smaller businesses, started their own, or have led and run nonprofit organizations. They include Donella Rapier, chief financial officer of Partners in Health, which provides medical care to the poor in developing nations; and Victoria Ransom, who sold her social-networking startup Wildfire to Google Inc. last year.

“The alumni I’m in touch with aspire not to be famous but to do work that’s important and changes the world in some way,” said Myra Hart, a retired HBS professor who is leading a panel at the anniversary gathering called “My Brilliant But Unusual Career.”

Flex Schedule

Dune Thorne, a 2003 Harvard MBA and now a partner at Brown Advisory in Boston, sought out people she admired to work for rather than particular companies as she built her career in wealth management. That specialty allows her to blend her work and family, said Thorne, who is married and has three young children.

“I probably work more hours than most men, but I have a lot of flexibility over my schedule,” Thorne said. “I can say to a client, ‘I have to go to my daughter’s school play, let’s meet at another time.’”

At HBS, women students receive plenty of training in how to navigate male power. Most of their professors are men. Women made up 22 percent of the faculty in 2011 and most were concentrated in junior ranks. Just 19 percent of full professors are female.

The school has been actively trying to recruit and promote women faculty, Professor Koehn said.

Speaking Freely

One initiative under way is to make sure female students get called on to speak as much as their male colleagues, especially since class contribution counts for 50 percent of grades. The school has coached faculty to make sure they call on a woman if she raises her hand even tentatively and to give women, who tend to speak with more brevity than men, the credit they deserve.

As women approach almost equal numbers as men, dynamics in the classroom are changing, Professor Koehn said.

“Women feel freer to speak more often and at greater length, and men feel freer to talk more emotionally,” she said. When Koehn taught a case study about Oprah Winfrey, one man in the class said Oprah had been a guide to his mother through her divorce. “Ten or 15 years ago, I didn’t hear comments like that,” Koehn said.

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