There are some of us out here who can remember covering events at the National Press Club from a sort of balcony purdah, high above the ballroom, watching as the men reporters ate lunch. The day a cheeky friend and I brought snacks, we were banished to the back stairs. We wouldn't have dared to ask for equal pay in those days. If we were caught doing men's work, we might be busted back to the typing pool where we belonged.
For women like us, the idea of an MBA from Harvard Business School was too farfetched to even contemplate. We watch in wonder as young women doctors, lawyers and reporters earn more in their first jobs than we ever made in our lives, complaining all the while that they're still not getting their due.
For women like us, "Women Like Us," a study of 82 of the 88 women who enrolled at Harvard Business School in fall 1973, brings discouraging news: The problem, it seems, is men.
We'd had intimations before, of course, as we followed the tale of Mary Cunningham, class of '79, and William Agee, class of '63, the He'loi se and Abe'lard of the Bendix board room. But one assumed that their case was unique.
The profiles that unfold in these pages show that while the words may differ, the music is the same: A woman may have an MBA from the most prestigious business school in the country, but cast her loose in the corporate jungle and she's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. It could be grounds for a curriculum change up there on the banks of the Charles.
For "Mary Pat" (all have imaginary names, we're assured) disaster struck before she even got her degree: A dashing fellow student spent the night, then in the morning told her to get lost. She was so devastated she could hardly finish the crucial assignment due the next day, and she seems drawn ever after into mistake after mistake in her business and personal life. Attractive and vivacious, "Phoebe" is persuaded to enroll at Harvard by her South American boyfriend, who later marries her and beats her so badly that she shows up late for work.
"Tess" had already been jilted by one lover and turned down for stewardess by five airlines before she read "Sex and the Single Girl" by Helen Gurley Brown five times and got a grip on herself. By the time she enrolled at Harvard, she had found a husband and a good job in a Pawtucket, R.I., sweater mill. She got bad grades, and when she turned to the business school psychologist for help, he advised her to wiggle her toes to relax. She dropped out for a term to plant pachysandra in the yard but came back to finish -- pregnant, with her husband refusing to let her have an abortion. She landed a good job where she was paid more than her busband, who confides to the author that their sex life is a mess. When we next see "Tess," she's been fired from her job, but soon finds another paying $60,000 a year. She has decided to go into therapy and is feeling "a strong physical attraction" for the corporate recruiter who had found her her job. Clearly the gods will have more sport with "Tess" and "Martha" and "Holly" and all the rest further down the road.
Sex is not the only weapon in this war. "Suzanne," the one woman among the 82 who personifies for the author what it takes to reach the top -- no personal involvements, a single-minded obsession with work -- faces the age-old differences that won't go away. Discussing a man she has recently hired, she reflects: "I began to realize that he expects to have continued promotions . . . He is so self-confident and so unhumble that it surprises me . . . I don't dare ask for something more until I feel sure they can't say no. And that in a way worries me about getting into senior management. Because I don't believe it's my birthright." (For six years Suzanne had been a pediatric nurse and had signed on at Harvard after being rejected for a job by a Boston bank because she couldn't type.)
Despite its absorbing material, this book is needlessly tiresome to read. The author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, tends to turn her tape recorder on and forget to turn it off, even when she's talking to herself. (She's had problems, too.) The dialogues tend to sound like a Tupperware party or an all-girl luncheon at Schrafft's. She also interviews the six key graduates twice -- briefly at the beginning of the book, in deeper detail later -- which keeps you flipping back and forth to keep people straight. The author, meanwhile, skips back and forth within the interviews to interview others about the person she's interviewing, interjecting her own reactions to what is being said. It seemed to me that the whole works could have used some sharp shears and another trip through the typewriter.