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.

"Take The Tough Roles Other People Are Afraid Of"

Photographed by Christopher Churchill.
Farah Ahmed
HBS class of 2015

I came to business school because I wanted to explore: I'd been in one industry for three years, and I wanted to be exposed to more things, be surrounded by people from all different cultures and countries.

When I came to HBS, I was about to get married. On top of that, I’m a practicing Muslim, so I was in a completely different mindset from many of my peers who see these years as prime time for dating and partying. But, HBS was always very welcoming and inclusive, even though I was at a different life stage than many of my classmates.

Being Muslim means making certain choices about what environments I want to be part of. I don’t drink, for instance. I’m fine with being around people who do, but there are obviously certain things that my friends go to that are not fun for me because I’m not drinking. I sometimes wonder whether I am missing out on important parts of life because of my choices, but at the end of the day, this is me; it’s who I am.”
In some ways, I’ve been trying to balance these competing identities my whole life. My family is originally from South India, but my grandparents moved to Pakistan in the late 1940s during the partition of India, seeking a better life for their children, my parents. A generation later, my own parents crossed the Atlantic and found their way to the US, carrying the same dream with them.

After college, I went into the energy sector, working for BP. After a year and a half in Houston, I moved to a field role in Amarillo, a rural area in West Texas. Part of my job involved going to operation sites, so I would drive out to rigs or pipeline jobs. Most of my colleagues were men, which made me stand out. And there was also the issue of how I looked — which is to say, foreign. I’d say I was from Houston, and people would say, “No, really, where are you from?”

There would be a happy hour after work and rather than drinking a beer with the guys, I would grab a Sprite or something. I’ve found that if you’re a hard worker, a strong performer, and have a good attitude and personality, everything else doesn’t matter that much. I’m someone who hopes I have those attributes, so my background and my religion are part of me, but don’t have to define me.

In the South, there are lots of people who follow a faith of some kind. They talk openly about going to church, so it’s totally normal to bring up religion, and I can relate to people in a way that can be difficult in some secular environments, like HBS. In some ways, people there are more willing to listen to you and be open-minded when you talk about your faith, even if it is different from theirs.

Here at HBS, there are not that many Muslims. But, even if it’s not initially apparent, I’ve found that are also plenty of people who, like me, prefer to be more laid-back and low-key. At the end of the day, everyone makes meaningful relationships in different ways. Some people compete on teams and against friendly rivals in intramural sports; others travel together; I loved getting to know people through small dinners. I’d rather people just know me for who I am.