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Nancy koehn on Women in Business

Recently tenured professor Nancy Koehn is no stranger to the Harvard Business School, or to the role that women have played and continue to play on campus. Professor Koehn, a member of the Entrepreneurial Manager RC Faculty, the Section Chair for NG, and a business historian, began her teaching career at HBS nearly 11 years ago. [Editor’s Note: Recently Business 2.0 named her (along with Clay Christensen, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Michael Porter) as one of 19 leading business gurus in the United States.] After completing her PhD in 1990, Professor Koehn taught in the Economics Department and the Committee on History and Literature at Harvard College.

A year later, Koehn joined the HBS faculty, where she was attracted to the School’s interdisciplinary approach, emphasis on teaching, and tradition of rigorous, influential scholarship. During the last eleven years, Professor Koehn has witnessed the evolution of women’s roles, not only at HBS, but in the work force and society more generally.

Diversity is perhaps the most oft praised cornerstone of the learning model at HBS. The broad-ranging perspectives of students from a variety of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and business sectors, allow students to interact in a classroom reflective of the global economy. The increasing percentage of women in MBA programs has further diversified b-school classrooms across the country, giving them a base for discussion that is greater in both depth and breadth of experience. HBS is no exception.

“The classroom feels different,” Koehn says, reflecting on her eleven years at the School. “Participants in every discussion contribute their own ‘patch’ to the ‘quilt’ of the case-method conversation, adding depth and breadth to the overall pattern and making it more meaningful. The growing diversity of our MBA students helps us continually create relevant discussions- learning experience -in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Koehn also commented that the increased percentage of female students at HBS has enriched classroom discussions by adding yet another layer of perspective. She is quick to recognize the significance of what the evolving role of women on campus means for all HBS students and constituencies-recruiters, alumni, partners, potential applicants and faculty.

This, of course, begs the question: why aren’t there more women at HBS?

In responding to this question, Koehn points to several factors, including the number of women applying to business school “upstream” and “downstream” demand from employers. There just aren’t as many female students in the applicant pool-yet. Koehn also described a similar phenomenon in many PhD programs across the country (has anyone else noticed there just aren’t that many female professors here at HBS?).

Koehn is enthusiastic about the growth in the number of female students (and faculty) at HBS over the last decade and noted that it is part of a much larger social shift that began more than three decades ago-a shift that is occurring in many other countries as well and that has broad-ranging consequences for individuals and organizations.

And this is no small change, according to Koehn. She observed that the expansion in women’s possibilities during the last three decades has no counterpart in the history of capitalism. “Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, women poured into the paid work force in unprecedented numbers. This change, which began as an economic transition, has had ramifications that stretched way beyond labor markets and challenged a host of longstanding assumptions and practices about both women and men’s roles.”

“Widespread social change of this magnitude rarely happens instantaneously,” Koehn says. Individuals and institutions, particularly powerful organizations, whether business schools, corporations or governments, do not adjust overnight to new changes in how people work or think about themselves.” Large-scale institutional change-the kind that encompasses the flood of women entering the workforce over the last 30 years -is not revolutionary. Institutional change is, by nature, a slow and evolutionary process.

Although b-schools may be stuck between the societal changes that influence the number of females in the applicant pool and the corporations that influence the jobs women have upon graduating from business school (and thus, in part, influence the perceived opportunity cost of pursuing an MBA), HBS and its counterparts play an important role in facilitating the institutional change needed to strengthen the role of women in business.

Business schools have the unique opportunity to educate both the up- and down-stream portions of the b-school pipeline. Upstream, HBS has started several initiatives to increase the number of women in the applicant pool by educating women about the value of getting an MBA. Equally important, Koehn observes, is the role that HBS can play in influencing employers “downstream” about what graduates are looking for in a job.

To that end, Koehn says that she is struck by the integrity of MBA students’ priorities, by their interest in “recalibrating” their objectives to reflect a broad conception of success. The overwhelming refrain from MBA students- male and female-Koehn observes, is balance. MBAs today want to lead a “full life” that richly integrates work and family and that allows them to lead rewarding personal and professional lives. Many students, she comments, are looking for flexibility in their careers that will allow them to find the particular balance that works for them.

Men (and women) at HBS certainly thought about the work/life balance long before women stormed toward the glass ceiling. However, the need for flexibility to balance familial and career obligations has long been (at least perceived as) a priority for women in determining their career path.

Perhaps the “recalibration” of life/career priorities at HBS was influenced in part by female students who highlighted this dilemma in their class and campus discussions.

Whatever the cause, the recalibration of HBS students’ focus on balance is probably broadly representative of the workforce today, and those in business have a significant opportunity to influence the responsiveness of corporations to these new priorities, particularly as HBS graduates and others with similar concerns move into positions of power.

HBS is educating leaders who will truly shape the world in which they and future generations of businesspeople will work, thus it too has a part to play. Koehn explains, “Leadership has many forms and faces… and business schools must be conscious of the need for flexibility [and]… provide outlets for creativity in a professional context.”

April 29, 2002
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