Women’s Equality Fight Long, and It’s Not Over

Published in UT San Diego, April 16, 2013

In 1974, I was one of 107 women (15 percent of the class) entering the two-year MBA program at Harvard Business School 11 years after the first eight were enrolled alongside 676 men. Times do change.

A few weeks ago, 800 alumnae gathered at the W50 Summit to celebrate the past 50 years of women at HBS that was established in 1908. They came to share their experiences and challenges both at the school and during their careers, and most importantly, to engage in a dialogue on how the school can move forward in ensuring gender equality at the school and in the workplace.

But this is not just a Harvard story. The school’s journey mirrors the journey of all women in the workplace over the last half century.

Harvard’s retrospection on women is occurring at the same time that an intense conversation is taking place over Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and HBS 1995, spoke to us about the themes of her book — that women are often held back because of their own insecurities (“keep your hand up because the world won’t notice when you take it down”), our society’s view of an ambitious woman as “distasteful,” and the guilt that women often feel in trying to balance work and family.

Sandberg urged banning the words “having it all” from the English dictionary and noted that they are never applied to men. We need more women leaders, she said, because “Men still run the world, and I’m not sure it’s going all that well.”

HBS did a study on the history of women at the school and wrote a case (their preferred method of teaching), and it finds that over the last 50 years, sexism to various degrees has existed at the school. What a surprise.

As a student between 1974 and 1976, I felt awkward in a place that seemed to be focused on turning out investment bankers and consultants while I wanted to become a journalist or work on the business side of a publication.

While most of my classmates were never overtly hostile, a few male colleagues told me that I was only there to get a husband and that I was taking the place of a qualified man. During that period, women in other professional schools heard the same demeaning and derogatory comments.

At the same time, the school allowed me to create a class called Business and the Media. In this male-dominated environment, I was forced to learn important skills that have helped me through the many chapters of my life — to raise my hand, to be resilient after my divorce, to believe that I could succeed as an entrepreneur when I was in my 40s, and most importantly, to graduate determined to make it better for the next generation of women. That is why I started Athena San Diego, a professional and personal support network for women in the technology and life sciences community, and Run Women Run, an organization focused on electing more women to political office in San Diego.

HBS is in the business of educating future leaders, and how they tackle and solve these issues around women is important, because the school can help shape best practices and programs for women and men in all fields in our country.

After Sandberg spoke, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria concluded the summit by apologizing for the disenfranchisement that many of the women MBA students have felt over the years, and he pledged, “This is a long fight, and I’m in it for the long fight.” With tears in our eyes, 800 of us stood to applaud his commitment.

Warren Buffett has said he “was privileged to work during a period when it was only necessary to compete against half of the population.” That era has passed. Welcome to the other 50 percent.

Rule No. 176

Gender equality is here to stay— in business, in the military, in politics. A woman may not necessarily “lean in” but it’s for sure she is going to hang in. And we will all be richer.

Barbara Bry is a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies. She take turns writing this weekly column about entrepreneurship in San Diego with Neil Senturia. Please email ideas to Barbara at bbry@blackbirdv.com

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