Tales Of The Trailblazers FORTUNE REVISITS HARVARD'S WOMEN MBAs OF 1973 We first talked to them 20 years ago, when they were cocky rookies in business. Now they're older and wiser, and here's their advice: You can do anything, but you can't do everything. So choose carefully.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Here are the trailblazers: the 34 women from the Harvard Business School class of 1973. And oh, do they have tales to tell. There's Kathy Glover, who pursued a business career because she "never wanted to be subservient to anybody--ever." Ilene Lang, who arrived straight from feminist and antiwar marches because she saw a door that had long been closed to women finally open. Devorah Gilbert, who refused to be discouraged when a Radcliffe dean tried to talk her out of taking an economics course, saying, "Our girls, especially our colored girls, don't do well in these courses."
Sometimes defiantly, sometimes breathlessly, they charged into the workplace with high hopes and little warning about what awaited them. They were among the first to devote themselves relentlessly to their jobs, expecting, like men, to be fulfilled, promoted, rich. Over time, they were among the first to see what a long, tedious haul it would be, and to feel that terrible torment of divided allegiance to work and to children. Some were among the first to hit the glass ceiling. And a couple just might be among the first to shatter it.
Little came easily. These women straddled a generational divide in the attitudes and aspirations of women. On one side lay convention: women as handmaidens to their husbands--and God forbid if they didn't have one lined up soon after graduation. On the other side lay heresy: the feminine mystique--and all those rebellious notions about the roles women could play. Between 1963 and 1969, the percentage of Radcliffe women married within seven months of graduation dropped by nearly half.
These women were excluded from golf games, banned from men's clubs, turned away from the old-boy network. When they had babies, they were expected to drop out. When they didn't have babies, they were pitied. Often they felt like guinea pigs. Hard as it may be to imagine now, nobody in the corporate world thought these women were anything more than a historical aberration, much less the outermost edge of a demographic wave that irrevocably altered life in America. While women had always worked at low-paying jobs, mostly out of necessity, it was the arrival of well-educated women into the white-collar work force during the next two decades that changed so much: family life, business life, child raising, the place of women in society, the role of men at home.
These women are not strangers to FORTUNE. Because the Harvard Business School class of 1973 was the first to include a solid number of women--4.4% of the 776 total--FORTUNE has interviewed them twice before. The first time, five years after graduation, they sounded confident and chipper; if life or work had disappointed them, they weren't divulging it to FORTUNE. They had supportive husbands, fair bosses, and high hopes of reaching the executive suite: "maybe president," said Cecilia Herbert, who was an assistant vice president of Bank of Virginia and would go on to become a managing director at Morgan Guaranty. She said then that she and her husband "both really want to be very rich." By 1983, reality had bitten. Although all the women were still working, the mothers among them talked of the tradeoffs required. Almost everyone acknowledged that it would be harder to get to the top than they had thought.
Now they are on the eve of their 25th reunion. Lois Juliber, 49, has made it to the executive suite of Colgate-Palmolive, while Judy Gehrke, 50, is ensconced in the executive office of GreenFlea, a New York City flea market. Susan Denison, 52, now a headhunter, recently left the quintessential man's fantasy job--an executive vice presidency of Madison Square Garden, where she spent many an evening attending Knicks and Rangers games. Elisabeth Spector, 51, is a senior vice president at Legg Mason Inc. in Baltimore. Joyce Fensterstock, 49, is studying for a Ph.D. in psychology after losing a dream job on Wall Street. Elisabeth Rachal, vice president of a privately held Chicago investment firm, died of breast cancer in 1990 at 47, leaving behind five children.
All but nine of the 30 women FORTUNE talked to are still working (two are full-time graduate students). Five quit to spend more time with their families. One stopped working for health reasons, another to do community service. One received an inheritance, and Kathy Glover became an artist. By and large, they have stayed in the work force full-time much longer than women from the class of 1983 (see following story). That probably reflects both a lack of part-time options in the 1970s and a determination to have the careers they struggled so hard for.
None of these women see themselves as feminist heroes. But others do. "What these women did--and it may sound simple-minded, but it was very important--they showed it could be done," says Sheila Wellington, who analyzes and supports women in the work force as the president of Catalyst. "They expanded the horizons for younger women. They showed women, and they showed men."
Their individual stories illustrate the danger of making sweeping assumptions about women at work. For example, despite the difficulty of combining a career with child rearing, some of the best-paid women in this class have been mothers of three children. Despite the notion that corporate America is such a harsh environment, a number of these women flourished there. And while many women bail out of big companies to work for smaller firms, consider the route Ilene Lang took: She worked in startups and small businesses until the youngest of her three children was 10; at that point she became a corporate executive at Lotus and later at Digital.
Then there's Judy Gehrke. Back in 1973, one might easily have voted her Most Likely to Become CEO. She was brilliant, funny, outspoken, uncowed. The daughter of a factory worker at a Miller brewing plant in Milwaukee, she majored in Russian at Northwestern. At Harvard she graduated in the top 5% of the class as a Baker Scholar. She went to work initially for Dansk as a product manager, then International Paper as a senior marketing analyst, then Citibank as marketing vp, after a two-year try at starting and running her own company. On she went to At&T and then to an AT&T electronic services joint venture. "I'm not sure when I picked up on the fact that it wasn't going to happen to me," she says. "You can hopscotch around in your career, but eventually you just move from the same level to the same level. I discovered that I had no talent at all for being political."
Today, Gehrke is the executive director of GreenFlea--a paying job running flea markets that raise money for New York City public schools, including her son's. Some of her classmates say she has one of the happiest marriages in the class--to Luis Rodriguez, who was once her doorman and now has an apartment-renovation business. She feels some conflict about how it has all turned out. "I often ask myself--somebody with my background and being smart, should I have gone further? We were given a set of expectations that we'd be titans of industry, and I kind of rejected those. Some days I wonder, 'Did I do that because I'm an abject failure and unable to get along on the planet? Should I have worked harder at becoming a part of corporate America?' I don't think so. I don't think I regret it." Then she delivers the bottom line: "I'm perfectly happy. In this situation, I'm doing a lot of good for a lot of people. It's the perfect job for me."
The woman closest to becoming a corporate titan is Lois Juliber, an executive vice president at Colgate. But who would have guessed it in 1973? Unlike Gehrke, Juliber sat through her Harvard classes earnest but "petrified," she told FORTUNE in 1978. Early in her career at Colgate, she suffered from the disease that afflicts so many women: lack of confidence. When FORTUNE asked in 1978 about her recent promotion to product group manager in charge of children's cereals, she said it "seemed like an empire" to have ten people reporting to her. "I thought it would be terrific if I could ever actually be a product manager," she recalls. She said she didn't want to be president: "I don't know what the president does."
But Juliber turned out to be well suited to corporate America. She was relentless--so devoted to work that in her mid-30s she and her husband decided not to have children. A friend had advised her not to make such an important decision by default. "Being extremely rational and fact-based," she says, "it was something I had to deal with to get on with the next ten years."
Determined to get results, she learned to work outside the chain of command. That's important, she says, since corporate America's formal systems are often too slow. In her largest market, the U.S., the shares of usually slow-growing items like Palmolive dishwashing liquid and Softsoap have soared during her watch; last year Colgate regained leadership in the toothpaste market for the first time in 35 years. Juliber was patient. "I've been out of school 25 years," she says. "That's a long ladder. You've got to be persevering and [learn] to put up with the good and the bad." Part of the bad, she believes, is meeting a different standard than men do. "I really do believe that day in and day out you have to deliver performance more strongly and more consistently to make it through. You have to put up with the 'How can we be absolutely sure?' and the 'Let's just test her one more way in one more role.' I've run into it over and over and over in 25 years."
As her success grew, so did her confidence. Sometime within the past two years, she decided she wanted to run the show. "Three years ago I wouldn't have said it. But then I came to grips with the fact that I can run a company, and that I want to run a company. Some people do it by taking small steps, some a huge leap. In my case, I really had to convince myself that I can actually do it. Now the question for me is...I know what I want to do, but where do I want to do it?" She would like to stay at Colgate, but that may be difficult given the ages of CEO Reuben Mark, 59, and President William Shanahan, 58. Says Juliber: "They're a terrific team, and as best as anyone can tell, neither one looks as if he would like to retire early."
Juliber is the class' top earner, with a 1997 salary of $450,000 and a bonus of $607,500. Four others have had big years in which they exceeded that mark, sometimes several times over. The average salary of the women in the class is about $225,000--not bad compared with Labor Department statistics showing that less than 1% of women working full-time (0.66%) earned more than $100,000 in 1997.
While many women don't thrive in the man's world that is corporate America, a number in this class do. Some love the money and the perks, just like the guys. Some embrace the competition, just like the guys. Some enjoy the risks, just like the guys. And some have taken big falls--just like the guys.
Joyce Fensterstock, one of a handful of women in the class who became investment bankers, took a fall. As one of three Jewish children in a class of 42 at a private school in Boston, she was the target of a lot of bigotry. She wasn't invited to parties. She'd return to her homeroom to find her books strewn about. She says it made her tough and taught her how to take risks. "If that kind of stuff is going to happen to you when you don't do anything, why not do something?" she says.
After Harvard she worked briefly at Goldman Sachs and A.G. Becker before settling in at Paine Webber as vice president of corporate finance. By 1993 she had become president of Paine Webber's Mitchell Hutchins asset-management business, which included mutual funds. Along the way she had three children, who barely slowed her down. Once she pulled an all-nighter to complete a deal when she was 4 1/2 months pregnant with her youngest. Another time she missed only five days of work with chickenpox, swallowing her pride to return with spots on her face. She took her kids on Paine Webber trips and had the nanny bring them to the office after school so she could help with homework. She never considered dropping out or scaling back. "I have an extraordinarily high need for achievement," she says. "And--this is no compliment to me--I loved what I did. I was driven by the income and the power and the increasing seniority and the lifestyle. It was a tremendous high." She was also very competitive. "If somebody I considered a peer got paid $1 million and I got paid $850,000, I was miserable."
It seems appropriate, then, that when her investment banking career crashed, it was because of business, not family. The 1994 derivatives debacle took down two of her funds and prompted an investigation in which the SEC would, three years later, allege that Paine Webber had violated antifraud provisions of the securities laws by improperly marketing one of the funds as a low-volatility investment. According to the SEC, a fund manager (who was several layers below Fensterstock) was purchasing derivatives even though he had earlier been told those securities were not permitted in the fund. The SEC also said that Mitchell Hutchins failed to adequately monitor the fund and its manager. Paine Webber settled the case without admitting or denying the charges, and was fined $500,000. The fund manager also settled allegations against him without admitting or denying guilt.
"I almost remember that time in slow motion," she says. "It was so painful." She says she watched the funds closely, "asking lots of questions" and getting "believable answers." She adds: "I was exonerated. But I was the captain of the watch." She says she was offered several other jobs at Paine Webber, but she thought her credibility was too damaged to stay. What she didn't realize was that she would be so tainted by the experience that she would be unable to find an investment banking job anywhere else.
It has been a difficult recovery. She didn't do therapy, didn't take antidepressants. She finally made her peace by concluding that "a job is what you do, not who you are." She went to the gym a lot and spent time with her children. "Thank God," she says. With three children, "you can only feel worthless several hours a day. You can't stay in bed till noon; you have to get them off to school." She's changed her career and is studying for a doctorate in psychology at Fordham University. Still, life is not what it was for her. "I miss the adulation," she says. "I miss the people. I am really tired of not making money. I haven't gotten paid any serious money in three years, and it is very debilitating to my ego, not to mention my lifestyle."
For other women in the class of 1973, the big problems weren't public falls but personal dilemmas, mainly discrimination and sexual harassment--subjects not then discussed at Harvard Business School. Although some thought the best approach was to shrug off both, three women said they quit business largely because of sexist bosses. One left after she answered a knock at her hotel room door and saw her boss in a tiny red bathing suit.
Devorah Gilbert, 50, the Radcliffe student who wanted to study economics, was one of five African-American graduates among the women of 1973. She became a strategic planner at CBS, where, at a meeting with record industry executives, one very publicly asked her: "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?" As she tells the story, the room got quiet, and Gilbert told him off in front of the group. From that point on, she says, she had a reputation for being able to handle tough situations. "I guess my reaction was always to run full-front into the storm," she says.
She left corporate America after the birth of her daughter and later began teaching and consulting, often about diversity training. Her favorite part of the job is teaching special-ed children on Long Island to cope with their problems and get on in life. "About a decade ago I gave up being angry," she says. "I don't any longer consider myself a victim. And if there's anything I would have done differently, it's that I would have given up being angry sooner."
After trailblazing at the office all day, these women went home and trailblazed some more: They were the pioneers who began reinventing family life. In 1978, Linda Boothby, then an account supervisor for McCann-Erickson, told FORTUNE, "When I make up my mind on having children, I know they are not going to affect my career." She left McCann seven years ago at 42, regretful that she'd missed so much of her two kids' early years. "The big things in life you have to treat with great reverence," she says.
That was the era when women--even those with Harvard MBAs--followed their men. (The reverse was practically unheard of.) Carol Quan, 49, got a job with American Express in 1973 and eventually landed in Hong Kong. Earlier, she had graduated at the top of her class from the University of Hong Kong; her grandfather had been a founder of the Bank of East Asia. But the man she'd fallen in love with, Norman Quan, was a doctor in San Francisco and wouldn't have been able to practice in Hong Kong. She eventually compromised and moved to San Francisco to take a less glamorous position at the Fireman's Fund unit of American Express. Her jobs from then on never quite sparked the passion that banking had, and in 1993 she quit to spend more time with her three children. Sandra Lafe, 52, married a classmate, and they compared salaries, status, and power. She says she worked six days a week consulting and made more than he did. Over time he persuaded her to move from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh to accommodate his career--to the great detriment of hers: She quit a job she loved at Time-Life Books. "I left, and I hated it," she recalls. They eventually separated, and she now has her own consulting firm.
Of the 30 women FORTUNE interviewed, 11 are still in first marriages. An equal number are divorced, separated, or remarried. Seven are single, and one is widowed. Fourteen (47%) never had children (the overall childless rate among women their age is around 15%). Some regret that, but for others the decision was not the terrible tradeoff many assume it is. "For a while, I felt like I was supposed to want children, and that I should feel guilty that I didn't," says Marcia Jaquith, 54, a career globetrotter first at Philip Morris and then at McDonald's. "I finally realized that everybody doesn't need to be the same. I'm not sure I would have made a very good mother." She recently retired to do community service and bought a pug named Sydney. "If this puppy is any indication, I think I made the right choice," she says.
These days businesses eagerly compete to make top 100 lists of family-friendly companies by developing day care, flextime, and other programs. In the 1970s a family problem was most definitely not a company problem. Judy Katz was having difficulty conceiving a second child. She would disappear from her marketing job at Chase Manhattan Bank for infertility treatments, feeling she couldn't risk an explanation. At her next job, as senior product manager of Chef Boyardee Pizza Mix for American Home Products, she got in trouble for asking to take a long lunch hour to make pizzas with her daughter's kindergarten class. "It was a grave tactical error," she laughs now.
Yet a surprising number of these women navigated the work-family shoals more smoothly than anyone would have expected. Fensterstock and Lang did it, in part, by bringing their kids to work. Others were explicit about what they wanted. Ann Damsgaard, 53, has been a strategic planner at Bristol-Myers Squibb for 16 years and is now director of strategic planning at the company's Pharmaceutical Research Institute. Although she doesn't have much flexibility, she lives close to her office and has a husband who shares in the housework and the care of their two daughters, 16 and 13. She didn't marry until she was 36, but she knew she wanted children--and wanted to enjoy their growing years. "I have a strong maternal instinct," says Damsgaard. "I always loved kids. I wanted to make them a major priority in my life." There were times, she says, when she considered quitting, but she was always too "ambitious in a quiet way" to do that. "People can be successful raising their kids in many different ways," she says. "It is a very personal issue."
This group demonstrates many different ways of pursuing a career as well. While Lois Juliber climbed a ladder rung by rung, some of her classmates took circuitous steps in an increasingly less orderly corporate world. Judy Katz, 53, eventually left American Home Products after the pizza-making incident to stay home with her daughter. One might have thought that would be the end of her career. But three years ago, after a ten-year hiatus, she went job hunting again. It was a surreal exercise, in some ways, as she was repeatedly asked: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? "It was hilarious," she recalls. "I mean, I'm 53 years old. I've lost track of what my goals were supposed to be." She is assistant director of gift planning at Fordham. Cecilia Herbert, 49, the former Morgan Guaranty managing director, says she is beginning to consider working again after a stint at home, while Linda Taylor, 52, former chief investment officer for the United Mine Workers pension fund, is making plans to do so.
The conventional '90s career path for many women today is to head to corporate America, work as long as they can stand it, then strike out for the small time. Ilene Lang, now 54, did just the opposite. In her first decade after Harvard she worked at a do-it-yourself frame shop that she helped to start, then built a photo-services business called The Big Picture. She was not exactly a fast-tracker. When FORTUNE interviewed her in 1978, she already had one baby and might have been considered Most Likely to Drop Out. "It's really hard. I never anticipated the conflicts," she said then. "I just don't want to put in as much time as I used to." When FORTUNE asked where she'd be in five years, she laughed. "I'm not sure," she said. "I'll be 40 and have a couple more kids."
She did have two more children, but she never dropped out. Instead, her career seemed to gain momentum. She spent her second decade out of business school mostly with small high-tech companies. She eventually became president and chief executive of Adelie Corp., a software vendor that was bought by AT&T. In those years, she says, there was no way she could have survived in a big corporation: "It was too structured. Too hierarchical. I speak my mind."
So when Lotus Development tried to recruit her in 1992, she gasped, "I can't do that. It's too big." But by that time her youngest son was turning 10, and Lotus kept after her. She finally took a job as vice president of global product development, then became senior vice president of the desktop business group, traveling nearly constantly and enjoying it immensely. When Lotus was acquired by IBM, Digital hired her. "By then I was a star," she says. "I had had the big job. It really was different. Nobody goes from little to big."
At Digital she became a vice president of the company and the president and CEO of its AltaVista Internet software business, which her team created. With much fanfare, she and her team prepared to take a piece of it public. Then, in an about-face, Digital decided it wanted to keep AltaVista, and it scrapped the public offering. Lang disagreed with that strategy and was devastated. "I left. If I don't believe in the strategy, I can't stick around," she says.
After a year off to regroup, she's back--this time as CEO of a startup called etility.com. She intends for the company to be the first to market basic utilities and household services (telephone, gas, electricity) over the Internet to residential customers and small businesses. And she is psyched: "The fortunes have already been made in content, but there are plenty of fortunes to be made in commerce. Huge."
It would be nice to finish the story of Ilene Lang by saying that everything turned out happily ever after. But that is not so. In her time off last year, she had to confront the failure of her 30-year marriage, which had unraveled in the aftermath of her constant travel at Lotus. It is, she says, her greatest personal loss. Would she have done things differently? Should she have skipped the Lotus job? "No, no, no," she says. "But I would have paid attention sooner. I know I would have." She says her mistake was to get totally absorbed in the job, without fully thinking through the repercussions. "You make choices along the way," she says, "and I guess the big question is whether some of the choices are implicit rather than explicit. I didn't realize that until it was too late."
So many of these problems and conflicts seem to come from that tired old question: Can you have it all? But that really isn't the right question. No one, not even the most successful male CEOs, can have it all; they don't, for instance, spend much time with their children. The right question is about choices: implicit ones, explicit ones; choices made consciously and choices made by default. The wise women of the class of '73 now know this--which is why they are nearly unanimous in the advice they would like to pass along to the women following them. The advice is not about how to break the glass ceiling or how to survive a sexist boss. It is instead to know thyself, and then to make your choices accordingly. "We in this generation were raised to think we could do anything," says Lang. "Our parents told us, 'You're smart. You're educated. You can do anything.' And the answer is yes. You can do anything. But you can't do everything." The trick is having the wisdom to know the difference.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Ann Harrington