Women and Business

Next month I’ll be doing an executive education course in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. We’ll be looking at how women in senior positions develop effective leadership and advance to positions of influence. I’m really looking forward to talking with a lot of dynamic women leaders about their experiences and leadership strategies. But I also spend a lot of time thinking about how women — particularly young women — take their initial steps up the ladder toward leadership in the first place.

I see that the Harvard Business School just set up a new recruiting program targeting students from women’s colleges. The program, aimed at recent graduates and students in their last two years of college, will bring together a group of 70 to 80 young women for a weekend of presentations and discussions. It’s intended to familiarize them with Harvard and the M.B.A. program “at a time when they’re making discussions about next steps,” according to the Business School’s head of admissions and financial aid.

Now why do you suppose Harvard is doing this? Part of the reason is that business schools have lagged behind the rest of the university in terms of women’s representation. Women still make up less than half the graduating class at HBS, and in 2009 only 14% of women received top honors compared to 36% of the men. One study found that women students were less likely to speak up in class and that even women professors, who make up only about a quarter of the faculty, sometimes felt intimidated and hassled by male students. In 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, hired a new dean to change the culture of the business school, adjust its educational model to be more collaborative than competitive, and make the school more receptive to women.

But business in general still tilts against women. Finance — a sector that attracts a lot of Harvard graduates — is a particularly difficult sector for women in everything from hiring to family leave policies. It’s not unheard of for the male-female ratio to be 50 to 1 on trading floors and investment banks. So part of what Harvard is seeking to do with its new recruitment program is to show women that an M.B.A., like a law degree, can open up a broad range of career options; it doesn’t have to lead straight to Wall Street.

I applaud Harvard’s initiative because I have seen how women can rise to leadership in many business fields. Many of the women in Congress, in fact, come from business backgrounds. I hope that more young women will consider business as a field in which they can find job satisfaction, happiness, and leadership.