When Harvard Business Review was established in 1922, it went without saying that managers — who were seen as the magazine’s core readership — were men. The notion that significant numbers of women might hold higher-status roles in business, or might be readers of the magazine, seemed unthinkable. Starting in the 1950s, however, the magazine began paying attention to the growing role that women were playing in management due to shifts in the law, corporate policies, and social norms. Today HBR writes for readers of all genders, and it regularly publishes articles that address such management concerns as gender bias and discrimination, work-life balance, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
While researching our 2021 book, Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, we took a careful look at how HBR has covered women and business over the years. This article, which is adapted from a Harvard Business School case study that we wrote on the topic, traces the ways in which the magazine’s approach has evolved. In the 1950s, articles mainly discussed whether female managers would ever be fully accepted and, on one occasion, how wives should help advance their husbands’ careers; in recent years, it has included in-depth explorations of such questions as why women still get promoted less than men and what forms of subtle discrimination they still face.
The Early Years: New but Narrow Paths
In 1953 HBR took up, for the first time, the topic of women in business. For their article “Opportunities for Women at the Administrative Level,” Frances M. Fuller and Mary B. Batchelder (the first two women to have bylines in the magazine) interviewed 47 women and 128 men at 95 organizations across the United States. What opportunities were there, the authors wondered, for women who were better educated than most of the women of their time? And how were they received by the men who would have to hire them?
The authors struck a hopeful tone in their introduction, citing the growing number of women in the labor force, but they reported that even those interviewees — both men and women — who were “enthusiastic about women’s capabilities” didn’t see their opportunities as extending to the top of the corporate hierarchy. In fact, the authors found that even when women were doing the same work as their supervisors, their jobs were classified as “clerical.” As one woman complained, “We do the same work but the men get the titles.”
The authors went on to document various beliefs about women’s lesser aptitude and appetite for professional work. Such views, they noted, were “contradictory and can be ‘proved’ or ‘disproved’ by numerous examples” but were also “a powerful force in determining a woman’s career.” The question of likability was also top of mind. “No matter how much technical skill a woman exhibited on the job,” the authors wrote, “the final evaluation of her tended to be in terms of her behavior. ‘Do people like her or don’t they?’”
This article anticipated decades of research on barriers to women’s career advancement, making HBR a pioneer in the discourse about women in the workplace. However, it would be more than 10 years before the magazine would again turn its attention to working women — and in the interim, in 1956, the magazine published “Successful Wives of Successful Executives,” by W. Lloyd Warner and James C. Abegglen, a primer for how wives could help advance their husbands’ careers. “It is the task of the wife,” the authors wrote, “to cooperate in working toward the goals set by her husband. This means accepting — or perhaps even encouraging — the business trips, the long hours at the office, and the household moves dictated by his business career.” As for the husband, they wrote, “He may meet someone who conforms more closely to the new social standards he has acquired while moving socially upward; he may discard his wife either by taking a new wife or by concentrating all his attention on his business.”
By the beginning of the 1960s, such ideas were rapidly becoming outdated. Women were making meaningful inroads into the professional workforce, and the national conversation about gender roles was changing. Harvard Business School began admitting women into its full MBA program in 1963, and in 1964 the Civil Rights Act prohibited sex discrimination in employment.
Changing Times: Women’s Opportunities Widen — Somewhat
In the mid-1960s, in light of the enormous policy changes ushered in by the Civil Rights Act, HBR conducted a survey similar to Fuller and Batchelder’s in 1953, only larger. This time it involved 2,000 executives — 900 women and 1,100 men.
The resulting article, “Are Women Executives People?,” by Garda W. Bowman, N. Beatrice Worthy, and Stephen A. Greyser, probed the extent to which gender stereotypes determined the career paths of women in nonclerical roles. Many of the men interviewed categorically opposed the prospect of having more women in management positions: The article reported that 41% were “anti-woman executive in principle,” and 51% believed women to be “temperamentally unfit for management.” Amid these attitudes, the women interviewed were reasonably optimistic — only 47% were “of the opinion that the business community will never wholly accept women executives” — but they agreed with their male peers that only unusually capable women could prevail. Ultimately, the article concluded that women in senior positions should not focus on combating discriminatory practices in their companies. “When women act like people, ask no special privileges, and display no undue temperament,” the authors wrote, “they are more likely to be treated like people.”
In the years that followed, the magazine began to more forcefully critique discrimination and encourage business to evolve. Public discourse and federal policy also took a harder line. Feminist advocacy groups like the National Organization for Women were bringing attention to employment discrimination, and in 1972 the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act gave teeth to the enforcement provisions of the Civil Rights Act. In 1973, AT&T, then the nation’s largest private employer, paid millions in back wages and pay increases to white women and employees of color to rectify discriminatory recruiting, hiring, and promotion practices.
Throughout the 1970s, HBR explored the consequences of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. One article, titled “How GE Measures Managers in Fair Employment,” by Theodore V. Purcell, described a successful initiative at General Electric to increase the proportion of women and racial minorities in managerial and professional roles. Less sanguine was “EEO Compliance — Behind the Corporate Mask,” written by Frances Lear, the female founder of an executive search firm, which argued that many companies, while paying lip service to the act’s goals, had “developed an intricate corporate dance to keep [women and minorities] out.” (At the time, “EEO” was a common way to refer to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.) This more critical tone was consistent with other articles that HBR published in the latter half of the decade.
Sexual harassment, though it wasn’t referred to as such, made its first appearance in 1978, when the magazine asked 500 subscribers (250 women and 250 men, about 100 of whom responded) to comment by mail on a case study. How should a manager react, the case went, when a junior staff member reports that, on a recent trip, her male colleague told offensive jokes, failed to introduce her to clients, and insinuated to a buyer that they were engaged in a sexual relationship?
A New Era: Obstacles for Women Become Company Problems
In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the body established in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to enforce laws barring discrimination in the workplace, issued new guidelines that defined two types of sexual harassment — quid pro quo and hostile work environment — and held employers liable for enabling them. The following year, HBR published “Sexual Harassment…Some See It…Some Won’t,” by Eliza G. C. Collins and Timothy B. Blodgett, which probed gender differences in views about what constituted harassment, and what harm, if any, it caused. “There is a male code of silence regarding harassment of females that has to be broken,” one executive said. But others were unconvinced. “This entire subject,” another executive said dismissively, “is a perfect example of a minor special interest group’s ability to blow up any ‘issue’ to a level of importance which in no way relates to the reality of the world in which we live and work.”
Meanwhile, pay disparities were spurring gender discrimination lawsuits throughout the United States. For example, in 1983 women employees of the state of Washington were awarded $838 million in raises and back pay when a federal court ruled that the state had paid workers less for jobs that were predominantly held by women, despite the jobs being equal in value to similar ones filled mostly by men.
That same year HBR took up the question of “comparable worth” by asking subscribers in a survey, “Can and should jobs of equal value be compensated equally regardless of other factors?” The resulting article, “Compensation, Jobs, and Gender,” by Benson Rosen, Sara Rynes, and Thomas A. Mahoney, sought to pinpoint the causes of the gender pay gap, spell out how to narrow it, offer advice on determining job worth, and predict the consequences of pegging salaries to a standard other than market value. Men and women, not surprisingly, expressed strikingly different views about the causes of pay differences by gender: Men tended to blame women for choosing low-paying jobs, and women tended to blame biased organizational practices and social norms.
The Great Debate: Do Women Belong at the Top?
HBR didn’t address what we call work-life balance until 1989, at which point women made up over 40% of the U.S. labor force.
It did so in 1989 with “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,” which proposed an alternative career track for women who wished to combine careers with motherhood. Written by Felice N. Schwartz, the founder of Catalyst, a firm advocating for women in the workplace, the article argued that the typical organization’s lack of support for women with children was a form of gender discrimination, and it pointed out that working women were viewed unfavorably regardless of their approach to balancing parenting with profession. “Women who compete like men are considered unfeminine,” Schwartz wrote. “Women who emphasize family are considered uncommitted.”
Schwartz argued that companies should view high-performing mothers as valuable assets and should invest in training and retaining them. She urged companies to actively plan for and manage maternity leaves, offer job arrangements with more flexibility, and provide affordable childcare as part of their talent strategy. The New York Times labeled Schwartz’s proposal “the mommy track,” a term that came to have a pejorative cast, largely because women who took advantage of such accommodations tended to be steered into lower-paid, lower-status roles. But the very notion that working mothers were a valuable talent pool was provocative.
Later that year, “Business and the Facts of Family Life,” by Fran Sussner Rodgers and Charles Rodgers, went a step further, asserting that family responsibilities also affected working men. It was crucial, the authors argued, for organizations to recognize the caregiving obligations of their workers, pointing to studies that found that male employees’ reports of struggling to balance career and family nearly doubled from 1985 to 1988. The magazine gave further attention to the issue in 1993, with an article on the changing views of working fathers, who increasingly wanted to be more involved at home but feared that taking advantage of flexibility programs designed with mothers in mind would cost them respect and status. These articles hinted at the ways that profound changes to expectations for women had begun to shift masculine gender roles too, with related disruptions to traditional workplace norms.
Questions of gender and leadership became prominent as the twentieth century drew to a close, and women began to appear in the pages of HBR less as problems to be solved and more as capable professionals. The magazine regularly interviewed women leaders and published case studies in which they were featured as protagonists. But uncertainties remained. Was there a distinct “female style” of leadership that businesses now needed to adapt to?
HBR addressed this question in 1990 with “Ways Women Lead,” by Judy B. Rosener, which argued that women did indeed tend to lead differently from men, and that their “nontraditional” style was salutary. But in 1992, in “Women as a Business Imperative,” Felice N. Schwartz argued that companies didn’t seem to truly want women in senior management. Addressing a fictional CEO, Schwartz asked, “If women are as smart, capable, and eager to exercise their skills as men are, all of which you say you believe, then why are the highest two levels in your company almost exclusively male domains?”
21st-Century Women: No Longer the Exception
The early 2000s ushered in a cascade of articles on women in management, and the range of topics they explored was wide. Women were still underrepresented in the very top jobs in corporate America, but they were no longer limited to clerical roles. Having a female supervisor was not an uncommon experience for employees in many fields. Workers’ caregiving roles were a topic of serious public discourse and policy debate, not a private dilemma of mothers. And legal recourse for discrimination was far more robust than it had been in the mid twentieth century.
HBR devised its own measurement of progress in 2006, when it repeated the survey of U.S. executives first conducted in 1965 for “Are Women Executives People?” (a survey it had also repeated in 1985). The new survey, by Dawn S. Carlson, K. Michele Kacmar, and Dwayne Whitten, found that male executives’ attitudes toward their female counterparts had become far more positive. The percentage of men who held favorable attitudes toward women in management increased from 35% in 1965 to 88% in 2006. And 71% of men now said they would feel comfortable working for a woman, a considerable change from 27% in 1965. However, views about women’s opportunities had diverged. The statement “A woman has to be exceptional to succeed in business today” elicited nearly unanimous agreement from women and men in 1965, but in 2006 only 32% of men agreed, as compared with 69% of women. “Men tend not to see those barriers,” the authors commented. “But look at the numbers: Women hold fewer than 20% of corporate office positions in Fortune 500 companies.”
As that statement pointed out, progress for women in the white-collar workforce was incomplete. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, women’s compensation still trailed men’s; gender stereotypes continued to influence hiring, assignment, and promotion decisions; and women still faced the no-win trade-off between being liked and being respected. In 2010 “Women in Management: Delusions of Progress,” by Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva, summed up the situation. “Reports of progress in advancement, compensation, and career satisfaction,” they wrote, “are at best overstated, at worst just plain wrong.”
HBR began publishing numerous articles aimed at helping managers better understand the barriers to women’s advancement so that they might do their part to combat them. In 2000 “A Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling,” by Debra Meyerson and Joyce K. Fletcher, proposed a strategy of “small wins” in which organizations would identify and gradually eliminate the subtle barriers for women embedded in everyday practices and norms. Later in the decade, “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership,” a cover story by Alice Eagly and Linda L. Carli, took issue with the glass-ceiling metaphor, which suggests that women’s paths are blocked only as they near the very top. In reality, the authors argued, different obstacles appear at each career stage, and together they require a range of specific remedies.
Different rates of promotion, and not just for C-suite jobs, are one outcome of systemic bias. In 2010 “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” by Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, diagnosed women’s relative lack of sponsorship as a key driver of this disparity. While women were mentored at rates similar to those of their male peers, the authors found, they weren’t reaping many benefits because their mentors didn’t have the organizational clout to funnel meaningful opportunities their way. This and other articles went beyond the magazine’s earlier efforts to explain and discourage explicit discrimination. They urged readers to see that women were prevented from reaching their full potential by a combination of organizational structures originally built for men, a failure to consider the differential impact of policies and practices, and gender biases so deeply embedded that most of us are unaware we hold them.
In investigating the dearth of women in senior management, HBR also addressed supposed gender differences in key leadership characteristics. The 2004 article “Do Women Lack Ambition?,” by Anna Fels, described the lives of girls and young women as full of “microencounters” in which they were expected to deflect attention. When women appeared less ambitious than their male colleagues, the author argued, it wasn’t because women innately lacked the drive to achieve and be recognized, but because powerful social patterns encouraged them to downplay their aspirations, particularly in the presence of men.
As the 2010s advanced, gender became a topic of greater and greater interest for the business community, and articles on a range of related topics accumulated in the pages of HBR and on its rapidly expanding digital platform, HBR.org. By this time the magazine had been covering inequality in the workplace for decades and had to acknowledge that, while much had changed, much remained the same. One 2013 article, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” by Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah M. Kolb, described how discrimination had gone underground, becoming embedded in such processes as performance evaluation, which on their face were impartial yet in reality pushed women off the leadership track. The authors provided a framework for identifying and addressing these subtle inequities, which they called “second-generation gender bias.”
The magazine didn’t shy away from calling out this bias, publishing, among other articles, “Dysfunction in the Boardroom,” by one of us (Boris) and Deborah Bell, which revealed that male leaders tended to view the dearth of women in high-status positions such as corporate directorships less a problem of barriers and more a reflection of women’s capacity. Most male board directors responding to a survey from the authors did not agree that female directors faced distinct hurdles, and many characterized the lack of gender diversity on boards as a pipeline problem. The vast majority of female directors surveyed, by contrast, mentioned not being fully accepted, respected, or heard in the boardroom. The assumption that gender disparities stem from women’s choices or characteristics rather than bias was also challenged in “Rethink What You ‘Know’ About High-Achieving Women,” by Robin J. Ely, Pamela Stone, and one of us (Colleen), and “What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women,” by Catherine H. Tinsley and Robin J. Ely.
The More Things Change?
In recent years the Covid-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on women workers, and worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd breathed new life into racial justice movements. Businesses have become increasingly committed to addressing inequality and fostering diversity, or at least increasingly aware that many stakeholders expect as much from them.
The twin crises of the pandemic and racial injustice, like the #MeToo movement a few short years earlier, galvanized employees and citizens to call on business leaders to acknowledge and confront the inequalities in their organizations. In addition, mainstream discourse evolved to recognize what scholars had been noting for years: Sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination are entangled with one another and cannot be rooted out with platitudes or pat solutions.
In this climate of urgency, HBR continued to grow its coverage of women and the ways that other identities intersect with gender to create barriers that impede some women far more than others. Critiques of, say, the tiny share of Fortune 500 CEO seats held by women now had to acknowledge that white women made up almost the entirety of that small club. The expansion of digital content on HBR.org created more space for increasingly nuanced conversation about inequities in the workplace, while the growth of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a field and a practice brought more voices into that conversation. The discussion about inequality had moved from the margins to the center, across the business press and certainly in the print and digital pages of HBR.
Yet workplaces have not solved the problem. The business community has been wrestling with gender bias for decades, but women are still not on equal footing with the men around them. Women who inhabit additional marginalized identities — such as lesbian women, trans women, women of color, and women with disabilities — are particularly disadvantaged.
Where does that leave us? Laws and policies have addressed many of the most overt forms of gender discrimination in the workplace — with more success on some fronts than others. The task ahead of us now is to confront more its subtler, deeply embedded forms. Doing that will require sustained engagement from the many managers who do the daily work of developing, assessing, and supporting their colleagues and employees. We hope that HBR will continue to help them understand and address the challenges that lie ahead.