Harvard Business School gets in touch with its first women students who enrolled in the MBA programme 50 years ago

The first batch of 8 women to enroll for the MBA program at HBS

Fifty years ago, the Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty voted to admit women into the two-year MBA Program. Since then, about 12,000 women have graduated from its MBA, Doctoral, and Executive Education programmes. And today, women make up 40% of the first-year MBA class of some 900 students.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of women’s admission to the two-year programme, the HBS undertook an extensive survey to study their alumni, their aspirations, their journeys over the last five decades. Prof Robin Ely (female), the School’s Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration and its Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community was assigned the job of heading this all-embracing investigation.

While the findings of this survey will be officially made public sometime later in the year, PaGaLGuY touched based with Prof Ely for a foretaste of the findings.

Prof Robin Ely

Below are the some of the answers.

What is this survey about?

The Life and Leadership After HBS survey aimed to open a dialogue with our 79,000 alumni worldwide (including MBA, Doctoral, and long-program Executive Education graduates) about the views they hold, the challenges and opportunities they have encountered, and the choices they have made. We hope the preview of our findings will spark conversations that will extend and deepen interest as we delve more deeply into the data and develop a comprehensive report to be released later this year.

One challenge for our research team was to balance dual goals—better understanding the complexities of our alumni population as a whole, while also closely examining gendered dimensions of life and career that we believe are crucial to advancing women leaders. This preview highlights key findings around gender, but the full report will include further results that are broader in nature.

The student demographics?

The survey was launched in late 2012. Researchers from HBS collaborated with Abt SRBI, a research firm, to conduct the study, which included a cen­sus of the 12,000 women and a stratified random sample of about 14,000 men (25,810 women and men were invited to take the sur­vey). Of those alumni contacted, 6,458 completed the survey and shared their life experiences and perspectives with us, a response rate of 25% (3,786 women; 2,655 men; and 17 who did not speci­fy their gender). The data about our alumni population have been properly weighted using standard methods; and in accordance with standard reporting procedures, all percent­ages reported here are weighted.

The alumni who completed the survey attended the MBA or a Doctoral Program, a Comprehensive Leadership Program in Executive Education, or early offerings such as the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, a one-year, non-degree program taught by HBS professors that predated the admission of women into the School’s two-year MBA program beginning in the fall of 1963.

The key take-away of the survey

A few.

*Contrary to media reports and cultural stereotypes, nearly three-quarters of alumnae ages 31-47 (Generation X) and the majority (57%) of alumnae ages 48-66 (Baby Boom generation) are working full time (compared to 95% and 72%, respectively, of men in those generations). Our figures indicate that a far larger percentage of our alumnae are working full-time than the media (and common beliefs) would lead one to believe.

*About two-thirds of women caring for children full-time (and nearly two-thirds of those working part-time) report regular commitment to or significant leadership responsibilities in pro bono and volunteer work, such as community or professional associations, educational causes, cultural institutions, or other non-profit places. These women have higher levels of community engagement than alumni overall. We take this as an indication that even women who are not in the full-time paid workforce are using their business and leadership skills to make significant contributions to society.

*Nearly all alumni (men and women) (98%) rate “quality of personal and family relationships” either “very important” or “extremely important,” and 78% gave it the highest rating (“extremely important”) among the nine aspects of the personal and professional lives we asked them to rate in importance and about which we asked them to rate their satisfaction. This latter figure (78%) is especially striking—no other item was rated “extremely important” by greater than 40% of respondents.

*Among career-age alumni (under age 67), we found no gender differences in the importance placed on “meaningful and satisfying work,” “professional accomplishments,” and “opportunities for career growth and development”; however, women rate their satisfaction with these aspects of their lives lower than men by about 10 percentage points. (The ranges are about 40-50% for women and about 50-60% for men, so satisfaction isn’t terribly high for either group.)

*Women (about three-quarters) are much more likely than men (about half) to agree that structural factors, such as “exclusion from informal networks,” “lack of influential mentors and sponsors,” “lack of a supportive work environment,” and an “inhospitable organisational culture,” are barriers to women’s advancement into leadership roles.

Any startling finding?

Contrary to many media reports and cultural stereotypes about elite-educated women, only about 10% of HBS alumnae (women) ages 31-66 (Generation X and Baby Boom generation) are at home full-time caring for children.

Did you find full-time fathers in your survey?

We came across very few men who are at home full-time caring for children.


Any sense of disillusionment with women post marriage/kids wanting to work again?

There is a good deal of disillusionment due to the belief that large numbers of women have given up their professional dream for home and children, but our data suggest that the disillusionment may be ill-founded, in that the vast majority of our women alums are in the paid workforce and the small minority who are not are nonetheless engaged in unpaid work outside the home. In addition, of those who are at home full-time caring for children , only 11% indicate that they do not plan to return to the paid workforce; 11% are unsure; and 86% plan to return to the paid workforce at some point in the future. All this said, responses to open-ended questions indicate that the workplace is a difficult place for both men and women, who are equally invested in maintaining high-quality personal and family relationships.

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