Record-Breaking Women Class Presidents: Is the World Ready for This Change?

Poorvi Vijay, Technology & Social Impact Editor
Anoothi, Contributor

Women make up 80% of RC Section Presidents; Poorvi Vijay (MBA ’21) and Anoothi (MBA ’21) discuss the importance of having women in leadership positions.

Before many of us could even figure out the blistering pace of RC year, someone posted on Slack, “8/10 section presidents are women this year,” and suddenly everything from ❤️ to ? filled the “#womenathbs” Slack channel. This makes 2019 a historic year for Harvard Business School since for the first time in our institution’s 111-year-old history, we have seen such an overwhelming majority of women in section presidency. We want to take this moment to congratulate all the women who stepped up for this responsibility and to all the male allies and sectionmates who supported their leadership. 

Over the two decades of making gender equality a priority and driving many initiatives (such as the Women’s Student Association, the Gender Initiative, and Manbassadors) to provide women a voice at the school, HBS has come a long way. Let us take this moment to understand what this means for our institution, our class, and the future of global business at large. 

In 1962, HBS faculty voted to directly admit women into the MBA program for the first time. The school started “The Women Initiative” in 1997 to identify how HBS can be a top business school for women and launched an effort to increase the number of women case protagonists. As Professor Tatiana Sandino puts it, “Harvard Business School has made inclusion a strategic priority over the last decade. For instance, the school has strived to raise awareness of potential bias through communication within our community and to provide more transparent information on professors’ calling patterns in class discussions (through participation tracking tools) and on the quality of student participation in our classes (through the use of scribes). One result of these efforts has been the closing of a previously existing gender performance gap.” 

We have come a long way, and there has been an incremental growth of nearly 2% in every 5 years. Do we think it’s changing fast enough? No. But it’s changing, and that’s really important.

However, it is critical to exercise caution here. Historical class presidency data shows great volatility in gender ratio, with the number of female presidents dipping every alternate year. Hence, an important question to ask ourselves is: How can we sustain this success? 

The goal of Harvard Business School is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, and the 403 women in the HBS Class of 2021 aspire to make this vision possible. But will success in school translate into more women leaders in the C-suite or on the Board?

Today, only 22% of the foundation leadership cases in the RC fall semester have female protagonists. On the day of the Jan Carlzon case, a sectionmate came to class and exclaimed, “I was so inspired imagining this protagonist as a female, and then I discovered that he was a male. This broke my heart.” During our Alumni Profiles class, a female sectionmate bravely raised her hand and said, “It’s scary that every female protagonist in our profiles has had to step down from her ambitious career path when she started a family.” These voices represent fault lines that cannot be ignored.

Women in our class are seeking more female role models, and this leads to a catch-22 situation: the more women you show in leadership positions, the more they will be able to inspire younger women to become leaders themselves. But it’s important to understand that the scarcity of female role models today stems from the limited opportunities given to women a decade or two back. With the needle on gender inclusion moving in the right direction, we are hopeful that the Class of 2031 will have many more female case protagonists and real-life examples to learn from and look up to. Memoirs written by the Class of 2021, as part of their Leadership and Organizational Behavior course, were an encouraging testament of how our women sectionmates see career success as a huge part of their identity and are determined to pursue it.

We were also curious to understand how we achieved such a high number of female class presidents this year. A short survey of students from the class of 2021 reflected three primary criteria for choosing section presidents: “amount of work done in section initiatives prior to elections,” “robustness of vision and plan of action,” and “prioritization of inclusion in section experiences.” It was interesting to note that each of these three criteria was gender neutral and had more to do with the individual’s fit for the role of president, rather than his or her gender.

As Professor Laura Huang puts it, “I think you can look at this upward trend in female section leadership at HBS on two levels. The first is that the people at HBS are encouraging these types of changes. The other is that you also have individual female students stepping up to these leadership roles, putting themselves out there and taking on these responsibilities. It’s a dance between these two factors—one feeds the other, the other fuels the former, and it goes on in a positive feedback cycle.”

The fact that eight of our 10 section presidents are women this year does not reflect the status quo of the business world that exists today. However, it likely indicates that our women today are willing to step up to take additional responsibilities, opt for stretch opportunities, and fuel their ambition with leadership roles.

Section C President Iani Alecsiu (MBA ’21) elaborates: “During the first few weeks of class, I absolutely fell in love with the section. I thought we had an incredible group of students and partners, and I wanted to make sure we foster an inclusive community.”

Section D President Adriana Garcia Ceja (MBA ’21) says: “I knew I was going to be someone wanting to be very involved in the section. I also wanted to show that I could be a voice for women and minorities and make my family proud.” It is this very spirit, if kept alive, that will create a chain reaction of success for women in their long-term career.

This reminds us of the great “flywheel concept” put forth by author Jim Collins: “No matter how dramatic the end result is, good-to-great transformations never happen in one fell swoop … [To build anything remarkable,] there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break and no miracle moment. Rather, the process resembles the action of relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.”

So, the million dollar question is: What can HBS and its students do to keep this flywheel of women leadership moving and gain more momentum in the real world?

Poorvi Vijay (MBA ’21) is originally from India. Prior to HBS, she worked at Alexa Speech Organization at Amazon in the United Kingdom as well as Amazon Retail in India. Her background is in UX design and customer experience, and she loves to talk about all things creative.

Anoothi (MBA ’21) is originally from India. Prior to HBS, she worked as Chief of Staff to the CEO of Abbott India and as a management consultant with A.T. Kearney’s India and South Africa office. Her background is in business strategy and large-scale transformations, and she is passionate about storytelling.