Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Anxieties about the cloakroom do not usually trouble today’s MBA students. But for the first women to attend the full-time MBA programme at Harvard Business School in 1963, bathrooms, or a lack of them, were a cause for concern.

“Tack up the Ladies’ sign, please,” Sharon Baum would regularly ask her boyfriend – handing him a cardboard sign before going in. Female business students were such a modern concept at that time that the school had yet to catch up on the facilities front.

The same was also true of HBS’s dormitories and the canteen, both of which were for men only. As a result the women lived off campus on the other side of the Charles river, while their male peers remained on campus with access to the subsidised canteen.

“To save money, I would go to the [canteen] food line with my friend to see if they [the male students] could get us sandwiches” says Ms Baum. “That’s how I met my boyfriend” – and future husband, she adds.

Having grown up in Jefferson, a small town in the southern US, most of Ms Baum’s female friends became engaged as soon as they left college. “But I thought you could do both: career and marriage,” says Ms Baum. “I wanted to go to New York [to work].”

Unable to afford Harvard Law School, her first choice, she took immediate advantage of Harvard Business School’s new focus on women, along with its low-interest rate loans. She believed that gaining an MBA would be her passport to a new life.

She was one of eight female students, with the men outnumbering the women nearly eighty to one. Although Ms Baum did meet her future husband on campus, the couple delayed their marriage for a few years so that, having had the opportunity to go to business school, she could take advantage of her MBA.

Across the Atlantic, Hélène Ploix, in her early twenties, was also serious about pursuing an MBA. Following the advice of the chairman of a consulting firm where she wanted to work she applied to Insead in France in 1967 and became one of its first two female students. “Are you sure they don’t enrol women?” the chairman had asked her in disbelief. Despite having worked as an adviser at Insead for five years, he had been unaware of the school’s previously male-only student intake.

Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in the US opened its doors to female students the following year with the inauguration of its sixth dean, John William Hennessey.

Prof Hennessey made it a stipulation of his appointment that women students would be allowed into the school. And inspired by her summer internship working for a small brokerage company run by three Tuck graduates, Noleen Doyle enrolled at the school in 1974 at the age of 23.

“I wanted to progress. In order to do this I had to do an MBA” she says.

Entering a class comprising 116 men and a total of four women, Ms Doyle remembers her male peers as being fairly comfortable at the thought of having business lessons with women. However, she was less impressed by a professor who once entered class announcing “It’s Ladies’ Day” because he was teaching a case study on Pampers baby products.

Clemenica Restrepo’s decision to enrol on to the two-year MBA programme at Iese Business School in Spain in 1976 was fuelled by the exasperation she experienced watching her male colleagues at the Banco de Bogotá in Colombia achieve promotion while the then 27-year-old remained at the same level, despite having worked at the bank for five years.

“I realised that to have the opportunity to compete with the men, I needed something else,” she says, “Plus I wanted to go to Europe.” Her employers were supportive and with a loan from her bank, she entered an MBA class of 80 men and two women.

More than 30 years later, all four women believe that their MBA degrees have paid dividends.

“The MBA was key to all my career moves,” says Ms Ploix, who on graduation became the first woman at McKinsey Paris and the first woman on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as an executive director. She has also worked as a special adviser to the French prime minister, Laurent Fabius, on economic and financial affairs and worked as special adviser to KPMG Peat Marwick on the issue of European Monetary Union.

“It [the MBA] gave me the whole comprehension of the business world. It taught me the key factors for success and the difficulties,” she says.

After graduating from HBS at the age of 24, Ms Baum travelled the world, working for Pan American World Airlines as head of women’s marketing, trying to discover what would make air travel more attractive to women customers. She eventually became the first female vice-president of Chemical Bank (now JPMorgan Chase). She recalls that initially all the HBS female graduates found it difficult to secure job offers.

“All the men had multiple offers – they seemed to drop into their laps” she remembers, while the eight women did not have a single offer between them and were faced with recruiters who asked: “When do you plan on getting married/having kids?’

Both Ms Doyle and Ms Restrepo realised their ambitions in the banking industry. Ms Doyle held the second highest position at Bankers Trust Company in the US, where she worked for 18 years, before being headhunted to join the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. She now sits on a portfolio of corporate boards, having retired in 2005.

Ms Restrepo moved to the US as general manager of Banco de Bogotá in Miami, became the president and chief executive of Eastern National Bank for seven years and is now vice-chair of Pacific National Bank and chair of the compliance committee.

“The MBA was my best decision,” she says. “To be a general manager/chief executive can be very lonely, you can feel isolated sometimes and you don’t know who to talk to ... That moment when you’re on your own making decisions is the MBA training. You are trained to be careful, assess all risks.”

. . .

Today, female enrolment at all four of the business schools has increased significantly. Of the four schools HBS has the highest intake this year with a record 39 per cent, Insead and Tuck both have 33 per cent and Iese has 22 per cent. Elsewhere schools such as the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania now has 44 per cent female intake and London Business School 31 per cent.

So what advice would these women MBA pioneers give to their female counterparts today?

“Be very disciplined and consistent; focus,” says Ms Restrepo. “The MBA is serious stuff, so don’t go [to Iese] for tapas or to visit Gaudi’s art, for example. Plus, a little paranoia is needed today; be prepared to know the worst-case scenario.”

For Miss Baum, a successful career and marriage has proved possible and she would encourage other women to do the same. But she sounds a note of caution. “If you can, work out a system where everything is balanced – and you’re not doing 20 hours a day on Wall Street!”

All four women agree that it is important to take control of your own progress. “Don’t just do the job and think the rest will follow, make sure you get noticed,” says Ms Doyle.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.