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 US. 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.”
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.
Having women live in the dorms was not a universally popular idea. “I remember a knock on my door one Saturday morning that first autumn on campus. A man and his college aged son stood outside. Taken aback when a woman answered the door, the man said that this had been his dorm room when he had been at HBS and that he wanted to show his son his old room. Indignantly he asked to speak to the man who currently lived there. Smiling I explained it was my room but I was happy to have them step inside and look around if they wanted to. He left immediately with his amused son in tow exclaiming that HBS had lost its moral footing and that he would never give the School another penny!”
Then there was the bathroom situation. A member of the class of 1970 recalls that “there were no bathrooms for women in our first year in Aldrich. We had to take a hike to the basement of Baker where there was a ladies’ room. It was there because of the young women WAC readers. In our second year they made a restroom at the end on the second floor of Aldrich that was thrown together quickly. In fact, that restroom is still there and has been improved over the years. Amazing what one remembers and what we forget.”
Some employers had purchased ads in the Prospectus to lure future hires from the class. An ad from Allied Stores, a then huge retail store conglomerate, proclaimed that they needed “superior men for (our) management teams.” On the other hand, a progressive Mobil Oil ad sent quite a different message. “We don’t care what color, age, religion or sex you are,” their ad read, “if you’re qualified for the job … we want to talk with you.” At the time, the latter seemed more unusual.
Recruiting practices presented special challenges for women in those days. “When companies came on campus to recruit, MBAs were only allowed to sign up for 2-3 companies, a policy which was ‘policed’ by the School. There were many companies coming on campus that had no intention of even considering women MBAs (and sometimes said so when you showed up for the interview). As I recall several of the MBA women in our class got all the women together and suggested that, under the circumstances, women should not have the same 2-3 company restriction. We all agreed and went to the administration and got the restriction lifted.” Up until that time, it didn’t appear that there was any need to have a women’s group, such as the WSA, but this was the first time that it seemed there might be a reason for the women to get together.
There were some interesting interview experiences – often beginning with the double take of the interviewer upon seeing a ‘member of the fair sex.’ One woman recalled that “it was especially enjoyable two years later to be at HBS interviewing current students for positions at Citibank. The double take was still there, but we were proof that a turn had occurred.” Sometimes the recruiting process could be demoralizing. “Our starting salaries were often less than male hires doing the same work.”
Out in the real world times were changing quickly. The Vietnam War was raging and the class included men just back from combat as well as those who were vocal opponents of the conflict. There were anti-war riots in Harvard Square and protests on Wall Street. A group of MBA students marched across the bridge to Cambridge bearing an HBS banner and peace signs, to the cheers of our Harvard colleagues on the other side. In May, 1970 about 1,400 people from the HBS community gathered in front of Baker to protest government policies and student killings at Kent State. African American students organized a major strike at the School to remember the similar slaying of students at Jackson State. The overall cultural environment in the United States was going through significant change. At HBS things were changing as well – fueled in part by the women in the MBA program.
Contributors: Ellen Marram, Kazie Metzger and Roslyn Payne from the class of 1970; Sara Goldman, Susan Luick Good, Nancy Havens-Hasty and Beverly Benz Treuille from the class of 1971.
For more insight on women at HBS check out Harbus Reflections from 1959
Susan Luick Good is a founding partner of Newbridge Management Advisors and a senior advisor to the Aviador Group. She has more than 35 years of experience in consulting and management. Her consulting career has focused on strategy development and implementation for multinational organizations. Ms. Good serves on a number of not-for-profit boards. She is the Chair of the Harvard Business School Women’s Student Association Alumnae Advisory Board.