01 Dec 2012
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The Accidental Pioneers

The School's early female graduates never intended to be trailblazers.
by Julia Hanna
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BEFORE SHE ARRIVED AT HBS IN the fall of 1963, Lynne Sherwood (MBA 1965) recalls having "no preconceptions of what it would be like, except that it would be mostly men and a few women." She was right. Sherwood was one of eight women out of a class of 668 to be admitted for the first time to the two-year MBA Program, a fact that didn't sink in until the women saw one another amid a sea of jackets and ties at registration.

"It was intimidating," Sherwood says by phone from her office in Grand Haven, Michigan, where she serves as vice chairman of JSJ Corporation, a family-owned entity comprising six manufacturing companies. "I had come right out of college, and many of the men had business experience." Often, professors expected women to be the resident experts when case discussions focused on household goods such as laundry detergent. "Maybe without intending to do so, they were making it evident that we were different," she observes. "I didn't want to be singled out. I just wanted to be another person in the classroom, getting an education."

While Sherwood and her seven classmates were rightfully recognized as pioneers, they were not the first women to sit in an Aldrich classroom. From 1960 to 1965, several dozen women earned an MBA after completing a first year of coursework through the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration (HRPBA).

One of those women was Sara ("Sally") Wilkinson (HRPBA 1959, MBA 1960), who is the earliest living MBA alumna. Wilkinson had two female classmates, Diana Greer and Roberta Lasley (both now deceased), but neither was in any of her classes. "That didn't present a problem for me," she recalls by phone from Houston, Texas. "I was also the only girl in my high-school physics class."

The phenomenon of women in the classroom required some adjustment for older faculty who had taught only in a single-sex classroom. "One senior professor was always hesitant to call on me until I spoke to him about it," says Wilkinson. "We got that settled." It was a new experience for many of the male students, too, in a time when a number of Ivy League and other schools accepted only men. "One of the men used a mild bit of profanity, then looked at me and said, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' The professor very wisely said, 'Mrs. Wilkinson has worked at IBM. She's heard all those words before.' "

Wilkinson thought she might like to go into accounting after graduation, and interviewed with several firms. But she encountered a politely impenetrable wall that was common at the time: "They all said that they had no women partners and didn't anticipate ever having any," she reports. "We'd see that change later on, of course, but I ended up going back to IBM, and that worked out fine."

Wilkinson certainly was not alone in her job-hunting difficulties. Lynne Sherwood came to HBS with the aim of being a securities analyst on Wall Street, but she graduated without a job offer. "I guess I picked the stodgiest firms to interview with, and Wall Street wasn't very open to women at the time," she says. A family friend in investment banking helped Sherwood make contacts that led to a position at Goldman Sachs, where she worked for 35 years before assuming a leadership role at JSJ Corporation. The first female HBS MBA hired by Goldman, she was preceded by Margaret Gilliam (HRPBA 1961), who worked alongside Sherwood as a securities analyst.

"I didn't experience any discrimination at Goldman," Sherwood comments. "Because Lynne could also be a man's name, the corporate executives we called on didn't always know I was a woman. Sometimes they were astounded. But as long as I could show I knew what I was talking about, everything was fine."

AFTER RECEIVING HER MBA, Judith Gibson (HRPBA 1959, MBA 1965) worked for a year as a research associate to faculty member James Healy; she also acted as an unofficial "dean" for female students and crisscrossed the country to interview and recruit women (only six enrolled in the MBA Class of 1966). "I would say I was a missionary," Gibson recalls. "Graduate work in business was a relatively new alternative. One young woman asked, 'Will I have to learn to type?' "

Typing, of course, was the least of an HBS student's worries. "We were all in it together, really—just one more victim of the first-year torture," laughs Caryl Brackenridge (MBA 1965). "During case discussions, people disputed your conclusions, and you had to defend your thinking. That was very good practice for the future." For Brackenridge, that future included work as a marketing analyst for DuPont and—as she raised a family with HBS sectionmate Jim Brackenridge—leadership positions in youth soccer, as well as a land trust and a historic preservation commission in her western New Jersey community.

"I gather there had been some internal controversy about accepting women, from little comments I heard here and there," Brackenridge says. "But as a credit to the School and to the professors, I never felt that any of them didn't want us there. Looking back, I've always thought I was treated very fairly."

Janey Lack (HRPBA 1963, MBA 1964) concentrated her second-year coursework at HBS in finance. As the only woman in class, she initially found herself sitting alone with a ring of empty seats above, below, and to either side of her own. "It was a lesson in the emotional and intellectual challenges of being a true minority," Lack says. "One of the wonderful things is that isolation lasted such a short period of time. It was tangible. It was real. But it was broken down when my classmates began to talk to me and offered their friendship."

Lack sees the actions of her classmates as a form of mentorship. "It opened doors," she says simply. "It seems innocuous, but their talking to me made it easier for me to participate and earn the respect of my professors."

Mentorship has been an ongoing theme and concern for Lack, whether in the business or nonprofit sector. After graduation, she worked at McKinsey in its New York and Washington, DC, offices for four years. She left while pregnant with the first of three children and turned her energies to raising them with Melvin Lack (MBA 1965); their son David (MBA 1995) is the first offspring of two HBSers to graduate from the School.

"At McKinsey, Arch Patton [MBA 1931] opened doors for me that I could not open on my own," Lack says, recalling that Patton gave her credit as a coauthor on a published paper for which she'd done research. George Kozmetsky [MBA 6/1947, DCS 1957], cofounder of Teledyne, was another advocate. "He believed that women needed mentors to help get them onto the playing field," remarks Lack, who served on a board with Kozmetsky.

"I came to realize that men and women are equally talented and smart; their solutions to problems will be different, but can be equally effective. George always made sure that there was room for women's views at the table."

In addition to continuing to work as vice president of marketing and advertising at Lack's Stores, Lack has served on various education commissions and boards throughout the state of Texas and is chair-elect of the University of Michigan Alumni Association.

"I've always tried to make my volunteer contribution at levels where my MBA and experience at McKinsey were most valuable," she says. "I'm so glad I did the degree. Although we were across the river that first year, in a separate environment, we were taught by HBS professors and churned out those cases just like any other B-School student. We got an equal education and were able to compete when we were on campus the second year."

IN DECEMBER 1962, THE HBS FACULTY voted to admit women for the two-year degree. The physical campus still had some catching up to do, however, with very few bathrooms for women and none in Aldrich until late 1970.

Women were not allowed to live on campus until the fall of 1969; an experimental group of four (Colleen Burke, Dana Holzinger, Peggy Jones, and Robin Wigger, all MBA 1970) moved into a suite in McCulloch in January 1969 for a test run. "Walking across that bridge at 7:30 every morning is just too damn cold," one of the unnamed four told the Harbus. "The guys in my study group are pleased also. Now they don't have to drive me back to the Graduate Center at midnight."

As a French-born student, Michelle Turnovsky (MBA 1965) made the best of living at Radcliffe's Cronkhite Graduate Center: "It allowed me to meet women from everywhere across Harvard, not just the Business School," notes Turnovsky, who would go on to earn a PhD in economics. Now a full-time faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle, she remembers a relatively warm welcome from students and faculty that first year of women's full integration. "Many of the students were very forward-minded," Turnovsky says. "They wanted to have a woman's perspective for their study group; I was asked to join several of them."

Not everyone was overjoyed to have women on campus, of course. "The reaction of the professors toward women ranged from making it clear they weren't wanted to not being sure what to do with them," says Judith Gibson. "Others were warm, welcoming, and supportive."

In a student viewpoint piece for the HBS Bulletin (November–December 1963) that offers her early impressions of the MBA experience, Cecilia (Bessell) Rauch (MBA 1965) wrote that "despite the few minor grumblings occasionally heard, a majority of the men have accepted the girls." And in an early affirmation of what we now know as work-life balance: "I feel the traits that Western society has traditionally attributed to women can be combined with a challenging vocation rather than dominated by it."

"I was so impressed by these women's motivations, their value systems, and their courage in dealing with a variety of challenges," remarks Gibson, who interviewed 29 alumnae for her dissertation, Bridging the Charles: The First Women Graduates of the Harvard Business School, 1960–1965 (Drew University, 2009). "They had no recourse but their own ability."

As an HRPBA student, Gibson recalls how she and her classmates were occasionally invited across the river to offer their point of view on a case if it had a particularly "feminine" slant: "One time, the case under discussion was, 'Should Company X try to sell hats in the supermarket?' A number of us resented being asked our opinion only in such instances. But in those days, you just accepted it and kept your mouth shut."

Given the variety of personal experience, each of the early women graduates of HBS no doubt has her own story to tell. Even so, Gibson sums up one commonality that could also apply to the School's male graduates: "Certainly it was a life-changing experience," she says. "It opened doors, but then you had to take it from there."

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