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Remarks by President Faust: W50 Summit — Celebrating the 50th anniversary of women being admitted to the two-year M.B.A. Program

Harvard Business School, Boston, Mass.

As delivered

It’s so good just to be in this room — the energy in the air!  Thank you so much for inviting me and making me part of this historic event, a historic event in and of its own right.  And thank you, Dean Nohria, and everyone else who worked so hard to make today possible.  We are delighted to celebrate the women of Harvard Business School, and to take special note of the 12 women who in 1963 crossed the Charles River every morning from their Cambridge apartments and dorms to enter as regular students at Harvard Business School.

Now, 1963 was an auspicious year for American women.

Betty Friedan published a best-seller called “The Feminine Mystique.

The President’s Commission on the Status of Women wrote its final report that year, declaring that, and I quote, “women at all ages need more education,” and hoping, as commission chair Eleanor Roosevelt put it, that “the remaining outmoded barriers to women’s aspirations” would come to an end.

The women who entered Harvard Business School that fall alongside 676 men signified those aspirations.  And these pioneers built on the inspiration and dedication of those who had gone before, on the efforts of other women who had sought their place at Harvard from its very earliest days.

In 1826, for example, Margaret Fuller, the legendary Cambridge intellectual who would one day write America’s first feminist tract, gazed from her high window near Massachusetts Avenue, past the slate roofs of the all-male Harvard College, looking across the Charles toward open ground.  Just 16 years old, she wrote that she and her female friends, and I quote her, “should aspire to something higher, better … than they now attained.”  For those young women every gate to higher education was barred.  But Margaret talked her way into becoming the first female allowed to use the Harvard Library, where the young men, as she put it, “had never before looked upon a woman reading within those sacred precincts.”

The women of 1963 were in fact not the first women to enter the Harvard Business School precincts. Forty-eight women received Masters of Business Administration degrees between 1960 and 1965.  Most actually arrived as second-year students from the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, by then identical in content to the first-year M.B.A. program, taught by the same professors, who crossed what one student called the “iron curtain between the Harvard Business School and the [women’s classroom in the] basement at Radcliffe.”  The women from this program were well prepared.  They had to be.  When these first women joined the Business School class of 1960, readers of the Boston Globe were informed that one was married … and the other two were brunettes.  In 1963, the so-called “first eight” women admitted for the two-year M.B.A. joined the last four students from the Harvard-Radcliffe program.  And all together crossed into what one called “a kind of ‘other world’… up to that point … reserved for men.”

Opening that world — opening the space for education and opportunity in the lives of women and girls — is what I would like to talk about for a few minutes today.

The women at Harvard Business School set out to succeed, even if, as most acknowledged, they could not fully imagine what success might mean. They wanted, as one put it, “to be taken seriously,” to “perceive the obstacles,” another said, and go “around them or … above them.”  That meant crossing the river on Saturday against a tide of football players and fans to drop a Written Analysis of Cases in the slot by 5 o’clock, much easier for male students, who lived on the campus in Business School dorms.  It meant being better prepared than their male counterparts in order to have their voices heard. It meant doing without on-campus housing until 1969, when four female M.B.A. candidates petitioned to room in the women’s lounge space in McCullough Hall. The Crimson noted that perfume wafted up the corridors, and some men complained.  But the new arrangement finally brought women more into the community, and gave the men a chance to discover that women are, in the words of one female student, “absolutely normal.”  Today we celebrate 11,000 HBS female grads who have followed the successes of these pioneers. 

Yet how we define success in the education of women, whether at Harvard Business School or in the United States or worldwide, remains an open and pressing question. Dramatic gender gaps persist. No society, no nation, has fully freed us from that question, Why educate women?  I would like to suggest three answers.

First, we educate women, because it is fair — a level field as we aspire to include women as full and equal participants in society.  We educate women also because it is smart — women are one-half of our human resources, and we increasingly see the beneficial effects of educated women in all realms of life and in every part of the world.  Finally, we educate women because it is transformative; not only boosting incomes and economies, education elevates us, defusing differences, opening common ground, and making the most of all our human capacities.

So, first, we educate women because it is fair.  We all know stories — our own, and others’ — of girls and women who have seized opportunity against great odds.  The stories of their lives have shaped our own.

Roberta Moniz Lasley, in the HBS class of 1960, was raised with few advantages.  From age 14 she worked a half-time job and graduated valedictorian of her high school class.  By age 23, she had earned her Harvard M.B.A. in finance and international economics as one of the first three women ever to matriculate. Passionate about social justice, she helped register black voters in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, and later became CFO of a national corporation. 

Barbara Hackman Franklin, of the HBS class of 1964, who we greeted a few moments ago, remembers as the first female M.B.A. at the Singer company that, in her words, “there was no expectation or agreement on what a woman M.B.A. in business ought to look like, act like, perform like.”  A blond woman in a red dress, she recalls, was “a confusion.”  Her response was to invent a new management function that reshaped the company.  She went on to create the first government relations department at Citibank.  When she was called to the Nixon White House to lead a governmentwide effort to recruit women into high-level federal positions, she tripled their number.  Her initial job title?  Staff Assistant to the President for Executive Manpower.  But there was no confusion when she became Secretary of Commerce.

These are extraordinary women, whose lives and aspirations let us see onto open ground and cross over to a new possibility.  I expect that most women in this room have been called upon — explicitly or implicitly — to represent such possibility. 

When I became president of Harvard, I received an outpouring of messages from girls and women all over the world, confiding in me their aspirations, confessing their difficulties, and telling me just how much it meant to them that a woman could attain my position.  Just two months ago a young woman named Yvonne, who described herself as a “budding researcher,” emailed from Ghana to tell me that she discovered on Yahoo that the president of Harvard was a woman, and so she felt inspired to harder work despite what she called “all the obstacles … ever present in my part of the world.” 

According to UNESCO’s 2012 Education for All report, 66 million girls worldwide are being kept out of school — by poverty, natural disasters, forced labor, restrictive governments.  Sixty-eight countries have not yet achieved gender parity in primary education, and in 60 of them the disadvantaged children are girls.

For daring to attend school, thousands of girls in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India have faced shootings, poisoning, and acid attacks.  Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, was shot in the head by the Taliban last October after speaking out for the education of girls, and she has galvanized worldwide action. Now recovering from her wounds, and in her first weeks back at school, Malala is already repeating her wish, and I quote her, for “every girl, every child, to be educated,” and she says, “I would sacrifice myself again.”

We hope she will not need to. We must work to ensure that she not need to. Efforts to educate girls have made enormous progress in many parts of the world.  For more than 90 percent of the world’s population, the gender gap in educational attainment is now less than 8 percent, according to the 2012 Gender Gap report.  The growing experiment in MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — has created a bridge to learning for more than 6 million students, and is connecting them with one another across barriers of nationality, age, religion, and gender.

Khadijah Niazi, an 11-year-old Pakistani girl, was working on question 6 of the final exam of a college-level physics course on YouTube last fall when her government shut down YouTube access. With the help of online classmates in Malaysia, England, and Portugal, Khadijah regained access to the exam and passed with highest distinction, the youngest girl ever to complete the course.  She posted the word “Yayyy” spelled with 43 Y’s at the end, and now she plans to become a physicist.

Educating girls and women is not only fair — it is increasingly smart.  The social and economic benefits of female education are dramatic, and well-documented. 

Greater female education boosts agricultural production in developing countries and improves human health.  In our knowledge-based economy, female talent raises corporate profits and national GDPs.

A recent World Bank report calls it “the girl effect dividend,” and concludes, for example, that in Kenya, educating the nation’s 1.6 million adolescent girls, including employing those who become adolescent mothers, could add 3.4 billion US dollars to the nation’s gross income every year.

The most valuable resource in the world is human talent.  Unleashing that talent is one of society’s great challenges.  A growing body of analysis shows that for all kinds of reasons, any society that leaves out the wide talent pool of females is undermining its effectiveness — whether it loses the benefits of balance in corporate leadership roles, or the superior creativity and problem-solving capacities of diverse working teams.  The gender dividend is more than diversity for diversity’s sake.  It defines success not only by what is fair, but by what is effective.  As HBS Professor Boris Groysberg observes, and I quote, “There is a big difference between diversity and inclusiveness.  Diversity is about counting the numbers; inclusiveness is about making the numbers count.”  Every nation’s long-term competitiveness depends on how well it educates and brings into play its women and girls.

Imagining the world without female achievements is increasingly difficult, in every field.  Yet much of this talent goes untapped.

A recent analysis of nearly 2,400 companies worldwide by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that corporations with female board members routinely outperform those without women on the board.  Yet we are failing, again and again, to take full advantage of female leadership.  At Fortune 500 companies only 4 percent of CEOs are female.  The number of women on corporate boards worldwide is just above 10 percent, and has stalled at about 12 percent in the United States.

Women worldwide are also underrepresented in the critical realm of politics.  They make up just 20 percent of parliaments — our United States Senate attained a 20 percent female representation just this year.  In 2012, women held only 17 percent of the world’s ministerial positions and served as heads of state in only 11 percent of the world’s 197 self-governing countries.  Yet there are strong indications that women make a real difference when they assume governmental responsibilities.  According to a recent study from the Harris School of Public Policy, U.S. congresswomen sponsor more legislation, collaborate more broadly, and secure on average 9 percent more federal dollars for their constituencies than their male counterparts.  

Female students have begun to outpace their male counterparts in schools worldwide, and increasingly contribute in the STEM subjects. 

Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who won a 2012 Fundamental Physics Foundation prize, led the international research team that detected the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that recently confirmed the standard model of physics.  Her love of philosophy in high school led her to the big questions she is still trying to answer.  Yet the number of female physicists is low worldwide. In the United States, women comprise only 12 percent of physics departments, 26 percent of full professors across all academic fields, 22 percent, I believe, of the Harvard Business School faculty, and 23 percent of university presidents. They lead just 12 of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, even though women earn more than half of all U.S. bachelors’, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Female leaders are increasingly movers in the high tech industry.  In the Harvard class of 2013, female Computer Science concentrators are at a record 42 percent.  Yet female computer science degrees nationwide have dropped from 28 to 17 percent in the past decade, going in the wrong direction, and signs of unused female high tech talent remain evident.  According to recent studies, women run or are founders of fewer than 10 percent of venture-capital funded startups, even though female-led high tech start-ups have lower failure rates than those led by men. 

These numbers count.  Let me give a startling glimpse of the economic costs.  According to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, reducing the male-female employment gap in developed countries would boost the Gross Domestic Product by as much as 9 percent in the United States, 13 percent in the Euro Zone.  In Asia and the nations of the Pacific, according to a UN report, limited job opportunities for women are costing between 42 and 46 billion dollars a year. 

The challenge is not only to educate females, but to create opportunities for their skills and talents to help build better and more prosperous societies to improve everyone’s lives by improving women’s lives.  Accomplishing this is not easy.  Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has shown in her research the continuing power of what she calls “implicit bias”: deeply ingrained assumptions about women and their appropriate roles that can lead even the CEO who believes that he or she is without prejudice to nonetheless bypass an outstanding female for a promotion, or cause a rising female star to hold herself back in the boardroom.  These signals are cultural, and often confusing.  I just returned from South Korea, which has both the highest percentage of educated young women and the largest economic gender gap in the developed world, with females comprising only 1.9 percent of corporate boards, not even one-quarter of the figure worldwide.  The U.S. faces similar, if less dramatic, challenges. 

We can reshape these assumptions and attitudes — through more awareness, through more inclusive policies, and by changing the public conversation.  Dean Nohria and others continue to open and extend the ongoing conversation about gender dynamics at Harvard Business School, constantly renewing a process of self-reflection, discussion, and experimentation.  And Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard Business School class of ’95 and  Facebook COO, has not only spoken about women’s roles with courage and conviction, her number one best-seller “Lean In” has ignited the conversation about gender and leadership for women and men.  We must do more — to ensure these issues are a critical part of the agenda for all of us, as we seek to build a future that engages everyone’s talents. 

Do women need to do more leaning in?  Or, do they need to be confronted with less  pushing back?  I believe the answer is both.  We need to encourage women’s ambitions and aspirations, we must be certain that women consider the fullest possible range of choices as they shape their lives, and we must be certain that they are not victims of implicit bias against themselves.  But at the same time, we need to ensure that the environment in which they choose their life paths makes those choices fair ones.  As a society, we deliver too many contradictory messages, stoking ambition yet often making it intolerably costly in human terms to achieve.  In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Jody Miller noted that, and I quote, “more great women don’t ‘lean in’ because they don’t like the world they are being asked to lean in to.”  Sixty plus hours a week or stay at home — is that a choice?  How can we remake organizations to give women and men alike more and better choices about how to put their talents to use?  I offer this as a challenge to our experts in Organizational Behavior here at HBS as well as to all of us who hold responsibilities for leading and managing institutions. 

We educate women not just because it is fair and smart; we educate women because it is transformative.

The purposes of learning extend beyond the quarterly report and the bottom line, and even the economic and social benefits of a good job or a rising GDP.  The purposes lie in Barbara Franklin’s sense of fairness. They lie in Fabiola Gianotti’s passion for the big questions, in Sheryl Sandberg’s urgings to create what she calls “a counter-narrative of possibility.”  Education creates a realm of larger awareness and greater humanity, beyond higher profits or larger paychecks. Our zeal for achievement can distort the deeper purposes of learning and narrow our definition of success. What does it mean when Korean eighth graders who score among the world’s highest on standardized math and science tests, score lowest in the world in their liking for math and science?

When education becomes too focused on immediate measureable outcomes, or percentages reached or rankings climbed, or when it becomes merely a path to money or prestige, we risk forgetting the inherent value of learning and of our broader aspirations.  Educated women change not just their own lives, and work not just for their own success, but for the world. We can see countless examples.

Fatou Bensouda, now chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, at age 11 in Gambia took a female relative being repeatedly beaten by her husband to the police to file a complaint. When the officers just told them to go home, she remembers saying, “there is something that I should be able to do.”  She went to law school, became Gambia’s justice minister, and now chief prosecutor, and has become perhaps the world’s most prominent advocate for victims of crimes against humanity.

Ursula Burns, whose single mother urged her to always “leave behind more than you take,” was academically “behind,” as she puts it, when she earned a scholarship to Brooklyn Polytechnic.  She excelled, became a summer intern at Xerox, and in 2009 was named Xerox CEO, the first and only African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She has reinvented the business, and helped lead the White House committee on STEM education, drawing more girls and minority students into math and science.

Gail McGovern, one of 30 women accepted into the first co-ed class at Johns Hopkins in 1971, left the faculty of Harvard Business School to lead an ailing American Red Cross back to institutional health — erasing an operating budget deficit during a recession, providing compassionate care around the world, and remaking a 130-year-old organization into a social-media presence that raised 32 million dollars for Haitian disaster relief one ten-dollar text message at a time.

These are extraordinary cases. Each woman deserves to choose her own path, as she responds to many longings — for a just world, for a breakthrough discovery, for a happy family, a rewarding career, a life well-lived.

What was the point, after all, of Margaret Fuller’s long gaze across the Charles in the 1820s?  It was not only, as she put it, to “have every arbitrary barrier thrown down … to have every path laid open to women as freely as to man,” but to create a world in which both genders, in her words, might “learn their rule [not] from without, [but] unfold it from within … [each as] a living mind … called on … for clear judgment, for courage, for honor and fidelity.” As one 1962 MBA put it, more than becoming a captain of industry, success is, “Being master of your own ship. [H]aving a fulfilled life … [D]oing something useful for humanity.”

For more than 100 years, Harvard Business School has changed the language and the practice of business — with the case method, with concepts like “competitive strategy,” “disruptive innovation.” It has been a pioneer of management education, building the promise of a better world. Five years ago, we gathered here to commemorate the centennial of the Business School as the world reeled from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. That event has prompted us to reconsider our aspirations as well as our accomplishments, to acknowledge our interconnectedness and the need for a wider vision in a project larger than ourselves. As we change the conversation about gender and equality, the Business School will continue to lead in those larger purposes —  expanding opportunities, making a difference, crossing the next river, like the women of 1963.

Thank you very much.

Watch the video of the speech on YouTube.