Two Voices, Forty Years, Same Problem

As the founding and current Deans of the School of Management at Simmons College, we have both been asked many times why the only MBA program designed for women in the US (and we suspect, the world) was at all important.  Don't women have to work with men in organizations? Doesn't it make sense for men and women to learn management skills together?

Our faculty, our students, our alumnae, and some enlightened corporations understand what makes the SOM programs so important, but it is usually more difficult to translate that understanding to people who believe that women's success at work is just a matter of working harder.

So when we read the New York Times on a recent Sunday we realized that the author of "Harvard Case Study: Gender Equity" had effectively made our case. If Harvard Business School, with all of its incredible resources and its very talented students has such a hard time creating an atmosphere that will bring out the best in its students, particularly its women students, then what can be expected to change in the everyday business environment into which these students graduate?

Appreciation for the challenges faced by women at HBS was one of the reasons that the Simmons School of Management was founded in 1973 by Anne Jardim and Margaret Hennig. This was a time when women were not particularly welcome at many business schools. The idea of a school that would allow women to master critical management skills while simultaneously learning how to navigate difficult organizational waters was not just new: it was to become a continuing challenge.

Anne Jardim:

The idea of a women's graduate school of management occurred to Margaret Hennig and me a little over forty years ago.  She and I were two of the first four women formally admitted in 1964 to the Harvard Business School's Doctoral Program and we had both returned to teach there in the 1972-73 academic year.  I was teaching a course on the psychology of leadership and Margaret was on sabbatical leave from Simmons College to teach a seminar on women in management.  We became a magnetic north of sorts for HBS women students, of whom there were sixty or seventy at the time.

Women had been trickling in to HBS from the mid-sixties and they were starting to make some simple requests: bathrooms closer to the classrooms so they didn't lose five times more time than men during exams; changes in the depiction of women in the teaching cases used throughout the curriculum so that women did not appear to be always part of the problem; perhaps one new case showing a woman actually succeeding at what she was doing? We raised these issues with the Dean and met with enormous resistance.  We were just as unsuccessful in trying to deal with the behavioral difficulties the HBS women faced: the painful, often sexualized, put-downs in the classroom; having their contribution to a discussion ignored only to hear it repeated later by a male student and built on by his friends; being left out of discussion groups outside class, having been told the wrong time or place.  To women trying to make sense of a difficult curriculum with grades dependent on group work, this experience was doubly bitter.

In our frustration we began talking about developing an MBA program for women with a small group of other HBS faculty. One of them, Professor C. Roland Christensen, had been a member of my thesis committee and he provided irreplaceable help to us in developing the MBA curriculum. Then, we went to see the Simmons College President. But for funding we found him very interested.

We set out to raise the money and over the next few years MS Magazine, the Business and Professional Women's Association, the CBS Foundation, the Donner Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and individual women gave us $500,000 - in mid-seventies dollars. Our salaries, to provide perspective, were $18,000 a year!

From the beginning, we wanted an MBA that would give women the functional knowledge and skill to get out of dead-end jobs and into middle management, where their 1970's numbers were under 5%.  We wanted a behavioral curriculum that would give women the ability to compete equally in a corporate culture that is masculine but has never been taught as masculine. And we wanted classrooms in which women wouldn't have to compete against a slew of obvious and obscure agendas in order to be heard.  We wanted women to learn rather than simply survive.

We used our own research in corporations to identify the mind-set differences that men and women brought with them to organizations. For example, more than 3,000 women and over 1,000 men in management jobs had completed a questionnaire we developed that asked them to give first, immediate responses to its questions without pausing for thought.  A key question: what was the job they wanted to hold in five years and what would be important in getting it.

Men's answers singled out superiors, the competition they would face, subordinates who would back them up, the boss in the new job and sometimes even his boss. Women's answers directly emphasized critical personal factors: self-confidence, experience and ability, determination, education, acquiring specific skills.  We used cases to show how these differences - which no one had ever had any reason to think through - played out in reality. 

To give just one example, a case of a woman in her thirties who was recruited from a fast-paced Wall Street firm to become investment relations director in a very traditional, old line publishing company.  Her appointment was a company first.  She reported to the finance vice president who told her that he was relying on her to define the job.  She went all out, worked day and night, talked to everybody she could, called divisional presidents to ask for staff co-operation, turned out brochures, gave speeches. She read hints from her colleagues as timidity and her boss's diminishing enthusiasm as something her results would ultimately change. Within a year she was fired.  She had dealt directly with the problems she saw in front of her. But she had given little time to considering her relationship to her boss and what she owed him as his subordinate, even less to his relationship with his own peers and superiors: how he wanted and needed to be seen by them and why it mattered.

It doesn't take much time for intelligent women to think these issues through. On the other hand, to be able to respond to them immediately and automatically, with no need for thought in the day to day course of organizational life, takes continuing insight and awareness. Our goal was to make the Simmons MBA experience include more than business administration, we wanted women to learn how to anticipate, recognize, second-guess and act effectively in the organizations men build.

Cathy Minehan

Over the years, the combination of the SOM's innovative curriculum and faculty, and the research done at the School's Center for Gender and Organization have shaped thinking about how pervasive the inherent bias against women is in the workplace, and how difficult it is to address.  We have a track record of turning out graduates who believe that the experience at Simmons has been literally transformational-but clearly what we have done is not enough in engaging the corporate world in the issues we know are real. The numbers of women in senior management in corporate America are proof of that.

Certainly, most businesses would not go to the lengths that HBS, to its credit, has to create a better learning environment, yet the problems in many workplaces are just as pervasive and insidious as those at HBS. Our students tell us this, as do the women in our successful executive education programs in women's leadership. Talented women who have been recruited with great signing bonuses fill the pipelines of many companies, but far too few make it beyond middle management and almost none to top management.  It is not lifestyle decisions alone that prevent their progress; the attitudes so well documented in the Times article, whether conscious or unconscious, create an environment that is demeaning, demoralizing and ultimately defeating.  

In our view, this is a problem in the business world that needs to be addressed now more than ever if this country is to continue to be the competitive innovator that it has been.   The United States needs a workforce that uses every ounce of its brainpower, and wastes none. This is the only way to effectively address the fiscal, demographic and global challenges facing us and threatening this country's position in the world.