What It’s Like To Be A Woman At Harvard
It has been less than two years since The New York Times skewered the culture of the Harvard Business School for how it supposedly treated women. The Times contended that men often commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students, openly ruminating on whom they would “kill, sleep with or marry” (in cruder terms). Bottom line: The story portrayed the school as an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to be a woman.
The Times fueled a firestorm of commentary about gender inequality in MBA cultures, though the controversy now seems little more than a vague memory. When Refinery29 profiled four women who graduated past week with Harvard MBAs, the issues it raised barely came up, with the exception of a Muslim student who obviously didn’t participate in either the dating or party scene during her two years at HBS. From breaking boundaries to defining themselves, here are their stories.
Oneica Greaves (’15)
Harvard Business School is a natural draw for many with Oneica Greaves’ ambitions. Growing up, she wanted to be wealthy, successful, and powerful, her objective vacillating between being a CEO or lawyer. But Greaves hardly fits the stereotype. For one, she is the daughter of a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Guyana. For another, she admits to struggling with speaking up, a reservation that plagues many women.
“Especially in my first year,” she tells Refinery29, I’d find myself sitting in class thinking I had this perfect comment, and you go through all the internal dialogue, trying to frame it perfectly. Then you look across and see your male colleague speaking up and think, wait, I had that comment, too, why didn’t I raise my hand?…Women tend to think through our thoughts before we say them — we might have more internal monologue than men do, or men just know how to ignore it.”
However, Greaves adds that Harvard’s atmosphere eventually “pushes you to speak up.” Her advice: Take a risk and let the results speak for themselves. “Even when you don’t have a perfectly well thought-out comment. Speak up, voice your opinion, be able to defend it.”
Kiran Gandhi (’15)
Most business students travel to far off lands to learn (and lounge). But how many have gone on tour – while in school – to play drums for M.I.A., no less?
That was Gandhi’s big claim to fame. “Right before Harvard started,” she tells Refinery29, “they got back to me with an offer to tour…I had school. And if you miss two classes, you get put in the bottom 10%, and if you’re in the bottom 10% in several classes, they pretty much kick you out. But, I decided to just do it. I accepted the tour and traveled while in school. I’d leave Friday then come back Monday morning. I’d be in Poland or Mexico for a single day. I slept a little on flights and napped in between sound check and going on stage. It was wild.”
Yes, Gandhi moves to the beat of a different drum (pun intended). In doing so, she believes her example can make life easier for those who follow. “Perhaps what I can contribute to my peers is this idea that it is okay to be the outlier. Sometimes, if you have someone who is a super outlier, like me, then the next person over doesn’t seem so crazy. I think this is what I can offer them. I can be their buffer.”
Farah Ahmed (’15)
A practicing Muslim, Farah Ahmed is comfortable working in unfamiliar surroundings. Her parents migrated from Oman to the United States to give their children better opportunities. After college, she moved to West Texas to work for BP, where people assumed she was from overseas. Now, she finds herself a graduate of Harvard Business School, a married woman who doesn’t drink during a time when Section X excesses grabbed headlines.
It hasn’t been easy, she tells Refinery29. “I’m a practicing Muslim, so I was in a completely different mindset from many of my peers who see these years as prime time for dating and partying.” However, religion has, in many ways, been a bridge instead of an impediment in her experience. “In the South, there are lots of people who follow a faith of some kind. They talk openly about going to church, so it’s totally normal to bring up religion, and I can relate to people in a way that is impossible in some secular environments, like HBS. In some ways, people there are more willing to listen to you and be open-minded when you talk about your faith, even if it is different from theirs.”
And this reaching out – and the risk that it entails – has been one secret behind Ahmed’s success. “Take the tough roles that other people don’t necessarily gravitate towards – It shows you’re not afraid of taking risks. I took an assignment on an oil field in rural Texas and it brought me so much credibility.”
Gina Pak (’15)
Not everyone comes to business school with a plan. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose. “I’d love to say I came here with more of a plan than I did,” Gina Pak tells Refinery29, “but I’ve used it as a second phase of college — a time to be exploratory and reflective.”
That may sound like a slacker’s excuse, but there is a solid method behind it. Channeling leadership guru Jim Collins, she urges others to find what they’re good at and passionate about and work from there. “Never chase the money, but chase the interesting opportunities – it will give you the chance to meet the most interesting people, do the most interesting work, and the money will follow.”
Her advice to students? Look at the big picture. “One is that things can seem very important in the moment, but any single decision can be undone. If a given job doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world — I can quit. It’s okay to have made decisions that might look like I’ve failed. But it’s been important for me to have the conviction that I have the ability to say “no” as much as I have the ability to say “yes.”
To read their full stories, click on the Refinery29 link below.