Women at the Business School

Is Harvard Living Up to Its Word?

The white pillars of Baker Library, which dominate the Harvard Business School campus, symbolize the conservatism and stability the institution has long represented. Among the red brick buildings, long hair, and women seem to be interlopers, destroying time-honored traditions. The school's administration recognizes the need for increasing the number of women in top-level corporate positions--a goal which cannot be accomplished without increasing the number of women with MBA degrees. "We are 100% dedicated to equal opportunity employment and affirmative action; to anticipating and influencing the future" one professor said, and similar statements dominate any discussion of integrating more women into the MBA program. But after a look at the record one cannot help but wonder how sincere the administration is in its commitment to women? How willing are they to make this a high priority issue?

It has been only 17 years since the first women entered the two-year MBA program. Since then, the number of women among the 775 students admitted each year has increased steadily--going from 32 in 1970 to 178 in 1980. Still, the present ratio of nearly five men to every woman attending the school means that women continue to be an oddity within the ivy-covered walls. Business school officials say that until recently a shortage of qualified applicants limited the number of women who could be admitted. But this shortage was itself a result of discrimination. The qualifications looked for by admissions officials--including a prestigious undergraduate degree and corporate work experience--have traditionally been denied to the vast majority of women. Indeed school officials deemed the preparation of the first women admitted so inadequate that the school instituted a policy of deferred matriculation to give them time to gain the skills they needed to succeed in the program.

The gradual expansion of opportunities available to women in both undergraduate education and business has helped bridge the gap. James Foley, associate director of MBA admissions, says that the women now applying "come with backgrounds including work experience very like their male counterparts, which was not true in 1970." Lynda A. Schubert, assistant professor of Marketing, expresses similar confidence in the qualifications of the B-school's female student body: "The profile of women is now more accurately mirroring the profile of the Harvard Business School population. But despite substantial improvement in women's qualifications, women continue to apply in fewer numbers than men. To equalize the 5 to 1 ratio would require a concerted recruiting effort--one it is not clear the Business School is willing to make.

The feeling of minority status among female business students is intensified by the even smaller proportion of female faculty members. Regina E. Herzlinger, who was tenured only last May, is the sole woman among nearly 80 Business School professors. Even among the 50 non-tenured faculty members, women number a mere eight--hardly a sign of a "firm commitment to equal opportunity and affirmative action."

The administration's lack of success also reflects difficulties facing the Business Achool's Affirmative Action Committee. The qualifications required of a Business School professor, including a Doctorate in Business Administration or a Ph.D., require over six years of post-graduate training. Ten years ago few women sought the type of degree that would prepare them for faculty positions -only 29 women have graduated from the Harvard DBA program in the 13 years it has been open to them. A similar situation exists at other schools, providing the Business School with a very limited pool of future faculty members.


Despite these limitations, some feel Harvard could do more. Schubert says that one of Harvard's great advantages is that it has the resources to seek out and recruit the women available in fields such as organizational behavior and marketing which are not traditionally taught at the Business School.

Because of the limited pool of qualified applicants, the administration now feels a responsibility to train women for faculty positions. The success of this strategy, which demands active recruitment of women at the lower levels, clearly depends upon a sincere and long-term commitment. The increasing number and quality of female applicants to the DBA program over the past five years demonstrates the talent potentially available to the administration. This year seven of the 14 students registering in the DBA program were women. Karen E. Gell, the program's assistant director, attributed the dramatic increase in qualified female applicants to an increasing number of women MBAs. "The DBA program is fed by the MBA program," Schubert says. One can only hope the administration will be equally successful in using qualified DBA to "feed" their faculty.

Women also maintain that the Business School curriculum and case system of instruction sometimes perpetuates negative female stereotypes. Despite Schubert's assurance that "there is a conscious effort to develop cases where women are not excluded," the vast majority of them still either ignore female participation completely or present women in roles of limited authority. Women students see an unquestionable need for more frequent references to top-level women so "that when you see the word manager you don't automatically think of the pronoun he."

Often what is involved is simply a matter of changing a series of pronouns or of eliminating inexcusably sexist language such as calling female employees "the girls." The Women's Student Association has just created a case revision committee aimed at improving the image of women portrayed in the cases. Susan Carash, the committee's chairwoman, described efforts towards improvement, as "still in the embroynic stages." Unfortunately these badly needed revisions are hampered by the "historical significance" attributed to all case references and by regulations requiring the author's consent to any revisions. Even in a case published this year a female production manager's decision whether to change jobs was described as complicated by "the need to spend time with her new baby boy, her two grade school boys and her husband who had recently opened medical practice. "Such statements do little to dispel the idea that rapid turnover of women often makes their training an unproductive investment. It is this ambiguity in the administration's policies that casts doubts upon their claim to be a "progressive" institution. Despite their efforts, women remain a minority at the Business School. They continue to concentrate in marketing and consulting courses which will prepare them to enter service and finance industries while perpetuating the male dominance evident in high technology fields. One is forced to ask whether the B-School is indeed "achieving its goal."

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