When Women Were 4% Of An HBS Class

Only six years earlier in 1963, these eight women were the first fully matriculated MBA students at Harvard Business School

In September of 1969, the Prospectus face book of th­­e Harvard Business School class of 1971 (a hard copy precursor to the current on-line MBA Classcards) began with a welcome letter from Dean Baker proclaiming that the class was about to experience “the MBA program as a member of one of the most diverse groups of men and women ever admitted to the School.”   That “most diverse” class of about 675 included 27 women (4% of the class).  All but two of the women were from the U.S.  Pictures of the first year faculty were also in the Prospectus – all were men.

Of those women, about half came from all women colleges and roughly the same number came directly from college to the School.  “In addition to being women and therefore a minority, we were on average younger and had less experience than our classmates, primarily due to the difficulty for young women in finding relevant jobs without an MBA.  I was 21 but the average age of the class was about 26.”

The class was divided into ten sections, and each included either two or three women.  The atmosphere in the sections varied.   In many cases sectionmates became close and supportive friends – and remain so to this day.   One woman said she felt that the atmosphere in the classroom was very supportive, and that the friendships developed there were enduring.  “How many women our age can honestly say that they have so many good male friends?  I count at least 20 from my section alone.”

Originally published in The Harbus, the MBA student newspaper of Harvard Business School

But that was not always the case.  “One of the things that I found most remarkable was the difficulty many of our fellow male students had just dealing with having women taking part in serious discussions especially initially.  Many had gone to single sex schools and had not had a person of the opposite sex in their classes since elementary school.  (It should be noted that many schools were all male at the time: Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Amherst, Wesleyan, Williams, Georgetown, Notre Dame, etc.)  Having gone to coed schools all my life, I was very surprised to experience for the first time subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) discrimination from people my own age. While most of our male classmates were happy to listen to us when we were talking about marketing detergent, they were especially unhappy when the professor supported one of us in a business strategy or finance class. There was one fellow in my section who didn’t speak to me for two days after a discussion in which the professor supported my point of view.”

While hard to verify, it seems that many of the women applied only to HBS (not all business schools were open to women at the time).  “If we were to put in the time and effort, we might as well aim for a Harvard degree that would give us stature and credibility.  I think the women in our class had a certain adventurous spirit and were willing to go where few women had gone before.  And certainly, that paid off.”

A number of women mentioned that there also always seemed to be a subtle undertone of “You’re taking the place of a male who will be in the workforce full time when you undoubtedly will leave as soon as you get pregnant.“  While this improved second year, it was still there.   And one woman added, “It definitely helped to have a sense of humor!”

The class of 1970 was the first to be allowed to live in the dorms on the HBS campus – before that many of the women lived in the Radcliffe dormitories.  A few brave women­­ blazed the way with a successful experimental half year living in the HBS dorms.  The next year women were allowed to live on campus for the full year.  Women were housed in what were colorfully termed “can groups” – a set of four suites for eight women (each suite had a living room and bed room with two twin beds) that were connected to a group bathroom facility (aka “can”) exclusively accessible only to those suites.

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