A Woman’s Place

This article appeared in Stanford Business magazine in June 1992.

The surprising thing about the March 1992 celebration of women at the business school is that it took 66 years to think of it. After all, women have played a part in the school since its founding.

Student affairs officer Sib Farrell came up with the idea. She proposed that four women representing different parts of the Stanford GSB community be honored at a reception for the entire school. Their recollections and the comments of a current MBA student would be videotaped and shown at the party. The tape would be the first in an ongoing oral history project on Stanford GSB women. The women selected were Ilse von Witzleben, former manager of office services; Myra Strober, one of the first women faculty members; Carol Marchick Dressler, SEP  ’75, the first woman associate dean; and Doris McNamara, a sponsor and friend to women students and faculty.

By many accounts, the person who really ran the school during its first two decades was a woman. Lillian Owen was in fact the school’s executive secretary, but she served in deed as admissions officer, registrar, purchasing officer, information officer, and counselor to students and faculty. It was no secret that if you wanted anything — a research paper typed or a place in the next MBA class — you’d have to run your request past Lillian Owen. When Owen left in 1942, she was replaced by Carole Remele, who ably carried on the Owen tradition. Hired as a secretary in 1962, Ilse von Witzleben followed in Owen’s and Remele’s footsteps. Von Witzleben eventually took charge of building services (when the school was still spread out among five or six buildings) and personnel. Before her retirement in 1981, von Witzleben hired several of the women working at the school today.

If the school was long accustomed to women staffers, it wasn’t quite ready for female faculty when assistant professors Myra Strober and Francine Gordon joined 96 men on the business school faculty in 1972. “It was a very male environment,” says Strober, a labor economist who is now a professor in the School of Education. “Many of the men felt that we were invading their club. They didn’t want us.”

Strober’s research dealt with women’s labor issues such as the economics of childcare, a subject some of her male colleagues believed unworthy of scholarly study. Nevertheless, she and Gordon enjoyed the support of Dean Arjay Miller. And word got out to prospective students.

“As soon as women found they were welcome here, they began to apply in large numbers. So I was privileged to see social change before my very eyes,” says Strober. “It was difficult for many of our male colleagues to understand that we were the beginning of a social revolution. I’m not sure that we understood it ourselves!”

Carol Marchick Dressler was both a part of and a witness to the revolution. A graduate of Connecticut College, Dressler earned an MA in education at Stanford and then became assistant director of the university’s placement center. In 1974, she moved to Stanford GSB as assistant dean for placement, becoming the first woman in the dean’s office. Dressler eventually became the school’s first woman associate dean, overseeing placement, alumni, development, and news and publications, before moving back across the street to become the university’s associate vice president for development. “It wasn’t just the women,” says Dressler. “What I saw was a number of people struggling with different issues in the early seventies. The presence of more women pursuing career goals meant that many of the students in Stanford GSB realized that they would be one part of a dual career. They were looking at issues about lifestyle and balancing career and family differently than they might have in the early sixties.”

As more women enrolled, Biz Wives became Biz Partners. MBA women established Women in Management as a forum for women’s issues and a support group. Another source of support came from outside.

Doris McNamara, a longtime resident of the San Francisco Peninsula, never attended Stanford GSB, but she did study business as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in the 1920s. “I think my decision to go to business school was the most fortunate decision I ever made, she says, and she encourages other women to follow. “I decided that I would like to help some of today’s young women interested in business have the same opportunities I had for a lively and challenging life. Funding fellowships seemed an obvious way to start.”

In 1982, McNamara established several student fellowships that give preference to women. She soon discovered “a real need for women in Stanford GSB to talk to each other, to exchange ideas about their problems, and to develop real friendships.” McNamara helped meet those needs by paying professionals to facilitate eight-to-ten-person support groups open to all women MBA students. McNamara also established a faculty fellowship. An activist donor, she meets with her students during the year and tries to keep up with her faculty recipient’s research. For all that she has done for Stanford GSB, McNamara feels that she has gained as much as she has given. “I sometimes think this has been my best investment!” she says.

Thirty years after Ilse von Witzleben joined the business school staff, the day-to-day business of the school is still women’s work, women hold the great majority (82 percent) of all administrative staff positions. But today they have cracked the administration’s middle management. Slightly more than half of exempt positions are currently held by women, and the directors of MBA admissions, alumni relations, development, management communications, news and publications, and placement are all women.

In the 20 years since Strober and Gordon joined the faculty as assistant professors, Joanne Martin rose through the ranks to become a full professor — the school’s first and only woman in that position. She is also director of the PhD Program. Martin is a prolific and respected researcher, and, yes, she deals with gender issues (as, in fact, do a couple of her male colleagues). But even now, only 9 percent of the school’s tenure-track faculty is comprised of women, and it is likely to take years before their representation approaches half. One happier statistic: 27 percent of the school’s PhD students are women. They will be the faculty of tomorrow at Stanford and other business schools.

The number of women entering the MBA Program grew to 106 last fall. They make up 31 percent of the Class of 1993 — a respectable percentage, but not good enough for admissions director Marie Mookini. Mookini is trying to get out the word that business school can be an appropriate and supportive place for women. Perhaps she should ask Vaneetha Rendall Demski to do some recruiting. Demski, a second-year student, was selected by Women in Management to represent MBA students at the March reception. She summed up her experiences at the school on the videotape.

“When I heard that the class had more men than women, I was afraid there would be discrimination,” said Demski, “but I haven’t felt that at all. When I’ve made comments in class, I’ve felt that my words and ideas have been taken as seriously as men’s. The atmosphere here is so warm and friendly that it’s a great place to learn, a great place to go to school.” In short, “Being a woman at Stanford has been great!”