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Fifty Years Later, A Look At How Harvard's Women MBAs Have Fared


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. Just over 50 years ago, the first 8 women to attend Harvard Business School began studying for their MBAs. To commemorate, the Harvard Business Review sent out a survey to some 25,000 of its graduates from throughout the intervening years to see how things turned out for them.

In the December issue, it's publishing an in-depth analysis of the results, focusing especially on the differences between male and female alumni. Earlier this week, I spoke to two Harvard women about this survey. Robin Ely is a professor in the business school and a co-author of the report. Karen Firestone is a graduate who is now CEO and co-founder of an investment firm in Boston. I started by asking Professor Robin Ely exactly what researchers wanted to know.

ROBIN ELY: We initially wanted to just know what are our alumnae in particular doing, and how many of them are out of the workforce, full-time caring for kids? And if they're not doing that, what are they doing? We wanted to know also just generally what's important to them in terms of career and life more generally, and how satisfied are they? How do they define success? Do they feel that they've achieved success? Those kinds of things.

VIGELAND: Karen, let's bring you into this conversation. You are one of the people who Robin talked to. So tell us a little bit about how you got to Harvard, maybe when you graduated, a little bit about your career trajectory since then.

KAREN FIRESTONE: I graduated from Harvard Business School in 1983. The percent of women at the school was I'd say roughly 15 to 18 percent, so there weren't a lot of women in the numbers. I had worked for four years after college in the investment business. And I think that I wanted to be either running an investment company or managing a large mutual fund or having a real central role in a financial services firm.

VIGELAND: And that's exactly what you did.

FIRESTONE: I guess so, yeah.

VIGELAND: Well, so you are in your 50s now. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that journey has been like for you, particularly any expectations that you had that either weren't met or were met in a way that was unexpected for you?

FIRESTONE: Well, the number one aspect of my life that I hadn't expected was that I never thought I would have four children. And I certainly didn't think I'd have four children by the time I was 30, but that was the case. I had known that my husband - and we were married in 1980 - so when I went to business school, we were married. I knew he was going to be working in Boston in a family business.

We both expected that he would eventually run that business, and I would have a career. We would have a family. We would live in Boston. And beyond that I can't say that I had big expectations of how that would exactly go. But I knew that I enjoyed working and wanted to continue to do so.

VIGELAND: All right, well, Robin, now that we've heard some of Karen's story, there were lots of differences, obviously, in the responses that you got between men and women, between white people and people of color, between generations. Can you describe some of those differences in the aggregate and perhaps whether some of them surprised you more than others?

ELY: We asked about the importance of various career and life factors. How important were they to our alums? And then we asked them how satisfied were they with those same factors? And where we saw similarity is on importance. So men and women across the generations - I mean, everybody, you know, was citing personal and family relationships as highly important. Practically 100 percent of people agreed with that. And also similarity in the importance of having professional accomplishments or having meaningful careers and opportunities for career development - those kinds of things were similar.

Where we found differences was in the satisfaction, and that's where we saw women were significantly less satisfied with those factors - in particular, the career factors. Another set of differences, not particularly surprising, but we found that women were less likely to be members of their company's top management team. They were less likely than men to have direct reports. They were less likely than men to be in profit and loss responsibilities. And that's, of course, controlling for all sorts of things.

VIGELAND: Karen, one more question for you. You have four kids in their 20s now, right?

FIRESTONE: Two are in their 30s.

VIGELAND: I wonder, based on your experience, what you would recommend to them in terms of their expectations. And is your advice any different for your daughter versus your sons?

FIRESTONE: My daughter has two children and she also has a Ph.D. And I think she is experiencing the frustration of being a young mother with two children and trying to find how to use that degree in a way that's fulfilling. So it's not that different. I tell her to be patient, to keep at it and you have to persevere. And I tell my sons that it's important to support their partner - their wives - the way their dad - my husband - supported me.

VIGELAND: That's Karen Firestone. She's a graduate of the Harvard Business School and now the CEO and co-founder of Aureus Asset Management. And we've also been speaking with Robin Ely of the Harvard Business School, one of the co-authors of the study we've been talking about. Thank you both very much.

ELY: Thank you.

FIRESTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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