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

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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 Want To Find That Awesome Thing I Love & Just Get It"

Photographed by Christopher Churchill.
Oneica Greaves
HBS class of 2015

One of the main reasons I came to business school is that it put me on a great track to get to the next stage of my career. But when I got here, I started thinking that I could be doing more with my life. In the moment, you just don’t always realize how big an opportunity this is and you take it for granted. But when you put it in perspective, you realize we have the opportunity to go on to do whatever we want with our careers — and also a big opportunity to inspire other people.

I grew up in Brooklyn. My mother immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana. She was a single parent and I am an only child. My grandparents were close by, and so were both my aunts, so after school I'd go to my grandparent's house, but I also learned to be independent. I think we just managed, you know?
What did I want to do when I grew up?  I wanted to do so many things. I think at one point I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a high-powered CEO in tech and then finance. I knew I wanted to be successful; that was always in the back of my mind. For me, it meant earning money and being in a powerful position. Being at the top of a company, that’s how I envisioned it.  

You arrive at HBS and you’re suddenly surrounded by 900 students who have done well in their careers. Every day, I’m around people who have done so many spectacular things and, at times, I wonder whether I’ve really done that much with my life. There are people here who have started a company. I see all the possibilities of things I could do and I think, my god, I want to find that awesome thing that I really love and go after it.
To a certain extent, it’s true that men are more aggressive than women. I have been sitting next to some of my guy friends thinking, I need to talk at some point, too. Women tend to think through our thoughts before we say them — we might have more internal monologue than men do, or men just know how to ignore it.

Especially in my first year, I’d find myself sitting in class thinking I had this perfect comment, and you go through all the internal dialogue, trying to frame it perfectly. Then you look across and see your male colleague speaking up and think, wait, I had that comment, too, why didn’t I raise my hand? You don’t want to be that sort of person.

This environment pushes you to just speak up, even when you don’t have a perfectly well thought-out comment. Speak up, voice your opinion, be able to defend it.
Most of my bosses have been men. As you move up, there more men than women — because it’s a tough industry. There’s a busy season where we’d work nonstop for three months,  and if you’re a woman who wants to start a family it’s difficult juggling all of that.

Right now, I’m 30 and I’m focused on building my career. I know this is probably the wrong way to look at it, but I’m just not ready to get married yet. There are still so many things I want to accomplish, so much I need to learn about myself. I want to get married when I’m ready and willing to give my all.