The Day Women Took Over Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School, women grad students

Dear Harvard Business School,

Celebrating 50 years of women MBA graduates is a major milestone and please accept my sincere thanks for inviting me to the big bash.

Here is what I loved about last week’s “W50 Summit:”

*I spent time with 800 women, 99% of whom I had never met before. We struck up conversations at every opportunity and discovered the varied paths each of us has taken since graduation. Women in their 20s, their 70s, married, single, gay, straight, SAHM, moms who have worked every day since they graduated –  all in.  There was no judgement, no mommy battles, just deep curiosity and respect.

Harvard Business School, women's summit, standing ovation

* We listened to Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female President of Harvard University, welcome us and speak of how educating girls around the world is “fair, smart and transformative.” The standing ovation we gave her was the first of many.

* I met women from the first class (‘65) and imagined what it was like to be one of the eight who  studied beside 676 men.  Unlike the men who resided in dorms on campus, they lived across the Charles River. Barred from the campus dining room, they brought their lunches and used makeshift ladies rooms still equipped with urinals.

* We listened to Sheryl Sandberg (‘95, COO, Facebook) remind the SRO crowd, “to believe in ourselves, to keep raising our hands, to take a seat at the table.”  And, if anyone describes a little girl as “bossy,” correct them, saying that she has “early leadership potential.”  These were words every one of us could have used when we were still in your classrooms.

* We heard women speak with both intelligence and emotion about being a woman and being a HBS student.  It was liberating to be in the classroom with women giving voice to a perspective none of us had ever before heard within those campus walls.

*We heard Ann Moore (‘78 Retired Chairman and CEO of Time, Inc.) recount highlights of her 33 year around-the-world career. On one such trip she met Princess Diana, still married at the time. Knowing she was returning to London the next day, a colleague asked her if she was glad to be getting back. Diana replied that no, she was not happy to return to a very empty palace. Ann gave us one bit of advice,  “Regardless of the choices you make, try to go home every Sunday night, for dinners with your family.”

* Finally, I understood why Dean Nitin Nohria, our host, took a moment a the last session to let his emotions subside. He pledged to be “in for the long fight” of working toward the W50 agenda: accelerating the advancement of women leaders who make a difference in the world because “otherwise his wife would kill him.” Laughing as he said this, Dean Noria’s two teenage daughters and working wife may the the extra motivation for his commitment.

So, thanks, HBS, not only for inviting me to the party but also for admitting me three decades ago. When I arrived at HBS, I was terrified, daily, of speaking in class and saying something stupid. No one urged me to lean it and raise my hand and I tried hard to go unnoticed.

mens bathrooms for women, Harvard Business School women's summit

In part I felt challenged because there were so few women in the classroom with me.  The oil portraits of the former school deans (all men) stared down at me in Baker Library. There were those urinals, still, in the ladies room!  I felt that HBS was designed for the guys and we women were merely guests. (Eventually the bathrooms were remodeled but for the Summit, a few of the men’s rooms were temporarily taken over by the women.)

Spending two days with younger alumna has shown me how far women have come in business education. Having gone back and seen the progress the school has made, has led me to believe that I am welcome at the table that you began setting for me and all the women of HBS half a century ago.

In gratitude,

Mary Dell Harrington
MBA 1982

Photo Credit: HBS archives



  1. says

    Wow, just reading about it gave me chills! Must have been amazing to be a part of. After so much disheartening stuff in the news about women in the world and how they are viewed and treated this was a pleasure to read.

    • says

      Thank you for the kind words. It was an amazing gathering and I feel so fortunate to have been able to participate.

  2. says

    I just heard an interview with Sheryl Sandberg on NPR. She talked about what things were like for women in business (or other professions) even a generation or two ago. Thank you so much for sharing this! I hope that things continue to change and that women like Sandberg keep pressing for more dialogue about their experiences.

    • says

      Sheryl Sandberg is definitely taking the lead with her Lean In organization and book tour. But there are so many ways that women can provide leadership beyond the business world. I hope that all efforts (volunteer as well as for-profit) are appreciated and opportunities expanded.

  3. says

    Congratulations, Mary Dell! You are a tribute to women everywhere. I’m sure your daughter is so proud of her mom. You are an integral part of the history of the women’s movement.

    • says

      Mindy, thank you so much and you are so kind! Not so sure that mine (or any) kids think much about these things until way later in their adult lives. The women who went before me at HBS were really the pioneers and they deserve much credit!

  4. says

    So proud of you, Mary Dell! I can relate to how terrified you must have been in that setting. You and the others paved the way for future generations of empowered women. I wonder if you knew my cousin, Jane Schmeiser? She was in the same program around the same time as you.

    • says

      Helene, Jane is one of my very best friends! She and I lived down the hall from each other and were section- mates. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding. She encouraged me to go to the summit and we had a great time there together. Small world!

  5. says

    What an experience that must have been – I think the more educated we are the more respectful we are (or should be) and I love that these women all listened and appreciated each other’s path. And what pioneers those original 8 were – can you imagine the daunting energy they must have faced? I’m sure you can! Thanks for sharing a peek with us.

    • says

      Barb, it was remarkable and I am so happy to have been part of the women’s gatherings. No, I cannot imagine how difficult it was for the first few classes of women – they deserve much credit!

  6. Anne @GenFab says

    Wonderful to read, Mary Dell. Here’s to the next fifty years of women being trained for leadership. I can’t wait to see what we do.

    • says

      Anne, I hope that there will continue to be real progress on opportunities for to grown in leadership positions, regardless of the field. Thanks!

  7. Carpool Goddess says

    Congratulations, Mary Dell! You must be so proud to be part of this tremendous achievement for women.

  8. says

    i hope that you feel as proud of yourself as we do of you mary.

  9. says

    Mary Dell,
    I had so many of the same impressions and experiences at the W50 Summit, and wrote about them here: Such an empowering two days. I am already looking forward to what in next on the HBS agenda for alumnae. I did wonder at one point, looking around at the faces of so many educated and generous women, who were so open to thoughtful exchanges, whether this is what it has felt like to be ‘one of the guys’ all these years. I came away determined to “own” more of who I am, and to work harder to stay in touch with this powerful female network ….
    Well done.