What It's Really Like To Be A Woman At The Country's Most Prestigious Business School

If you do an image search for “business school student," you get this guy: a handsome if bland white man in a suit, with a briefcase over one shoulder that's probably stuffed with applications for a job on Wall Street. He looks nice, kinda boring, like he could be named Steve.

If he’s what you imagine when you think of business school, you’re imagining wrong.

This spring, we spent a few days at one of the most elite MBA programs in the country, Harvard Business School, talking to the class of 2015. The women we found there were a diverse, driven, and expectation-defying bunch. We met a professional drummer, and a practicing Muslim who cut her teeth working on remote oil fields in Texas. We met women dreaming of the corner office, and women dreaming of anything but.

For all their differences, these scholars shared a belief in themselves, an almost infectious confidence about the world and their place in it.

Business school — Harvard's especially — has always had a reputation as a boys’ club. And it sounds like it’s earned: Edith Dorsen, who graduated HBS in 1985, summed up her experience as a woman there like this: “There were still urinals in the women’s bathroom, and a Marilyn Monroe poster hung in the classroom, if that helps you visualize it.”

It’s come along way in recent decades — women make up 41% of the current class, up from 25% a generation ago — and the school has been actively working to improve the culture for and success of its female students.

But, no matter how they fare in B-school, the women of the class of 2015 will be heading out onto an unequal playing field. Women like them, at the highest education levels, face the most pay discrimination and biggest wage gap of any group. "At top jobs, pay can go into the stratosphere, and women are still less likely to have those very top jobs," Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at IWPR, tells us. It's not something these women don't know about; each, in her own way, has a unique plan to tackle the gap, whether via statistic-defying hard work or forging a new path.

Ahead are highlights from those conversations with four women from HBS’ class of 2015. In their own words, they tell us about their two years at Harvard, what they learned (including lots of amazing getting-ahead advice), and how they’re planning to conquer their futures.

Read on for some serious wisdom.

Photography by Christopher Churchill. Interviews by Elizabeth Segran.

"I'd Play In Poland Or Mexico, Then Be Back In Class The Next Day"

Photographed by Christopher Churchill.
Kiran Gandhi
HBS class of 2015

I’m at HBS to solve the problems of the music industry. I really believe that art influences life. If pop culture presents women in a demeaning way, then when a child sees that, it molds their perception of what’s accessible to them in the world. I want to stop that from happening. It’s not just about having a blast. It’s actually about social change.

I got into drumming because I hate swimming: It’s so annoying and you get wet and it’s a total disaster. At camp when we had to swim, I’d sneak and hide out in the theater. There was an old dusty drum set there and I just starting hitting it. The maintenance man heard me, and I thought, oh god, this guy is going to tell me to go. He’s going to turn me in. But it turns out, dude knows how to drum. He’s a dope drummer. So he came up to me and started teaching me. Afterwards, I said, "I’ll see you tomorrow at this time?" And he said, "Yeah I got you."

When I graduated college, I moved to L.A. and got an internship, then a job, at a big record label. During the day, I was intellectually stimulated, but at night I was musically stimulated: I’d go home and practice drumming.
One day, I heard at work that M.I.A. needed a drummer. I went to her manager and said, “M.I.A’s new drummer should be a young, Indian chick who really knows how to play.” She said I should send her a video of me playing and that she would pass it along to M.I.A, so I did. Right before Harvard started, they got back to me with an offer to tour…and a million tour dates. I thought, fuck. I had school. And if you miss two classes, you get put in the bottom 10%, and if you’re in the bottom 10% in several classes, they pretty much kick you out.

But, I decided to just do it. I accepted the tour and traveled while in school. I’d leave Friday then come back Monday morning. I’d be in Poland or Mexico for a single day. I slept a little on flights and napped in between sound check and going on stage.

It was wild.
I feel like my brain has become razor sharp here. I have been able to take brand-new information, process it quickly, then produce an opinion about it. Perhaps what I can contribute to my peers is this idea that it is okay to be the outlier. Sometimes, if you have someone who is a super outlier, like me, then the next person over doesn’t seem so crazy. I think this is what I can offer them. I can be their buffer. I think where I differ from my colleagues is that I don’t like the idea of finding a job in a formulated way. That sounds fucking crazy to me. I don’t like this idea that a consulting company is going to come here on one day in my first year and if they like my outfit and my vibe, they’ll hire me.

But, at the same time, I know that everyone’s story is different. A lot of people here are the first in their family to be making real amounts of money, and this is the best way to do it. That’s why they’re pursuing those things. So for them, getting that consulting job is an amazing story.

For women, though, the problem is what happens when you leave HBS. When women are in their 20s and early 30s, it’s less of an issue, but the second they want to have a family, things break down. The old model was that men would go to HBS, get a job and make a lot of money and all they needed was a wife to do all the cleaning and baby-having. But what happens when women are going to HBS and getting the high paying jobs? Are they going to get wives? Everybody needs a wife in this model — that’s the problem. There’s no innovation around how women can do the things men used to do if we don’t have anyone replacing what the women were doing before.

I think the solution is for people to construct alternative relationships — whether you choose to be in a relationship with a man or a woman, it’s just about thinking relationships through differently and coming up with completely radical solutions.