“What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?”

Three women from the Class of ’72 discuss what it was like to be at Stanford GSB when the school was 98% male.

March 26, 2021

| by Allison Felt

Fifty years ago, in 1971, only five of Stanford Graduate School of Business’ 308 first-year MBAs were women. The summer after their first year, three of those women — Susan Phillips, Anne Thornton, and Barbara West, who were in the same class section — joined forces to document the challenges they faced trying to navigate a male-dominated business culture.

The result was a voluntary presentation titled “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” — the exact question they’d been asked several times by faculty and peers. Fortunately, slides and recordings of that original presentation still exist. In honor of Women’s History Month, we recently gathered the trio together via Zoom to share their stories about what it was like to be businesswomen at a time when the world expected them to stay home.

Many thanks to Luther Nussbaum, MBA ’72, for restoring the original presentation from the archival images, audio clips, and typewritten transcript — a major creative effort that enabled us to bring this project back to life.

Full Transcript

Anne (1971): I think 10 or 20 years ago, women had to make a conscious choice between being a wife, mother, homemaker, or having a professional career, but we aren’t willing to be forced into that choice. And I think our classmates respect us for it.

Barbara: Hi Susie, how are you?

Susan: I’m great. Hi Barbara, hi Anne, this is so exciting to be doing this interview together and be reunited wonderful, what a treat.

Susan: Barbara, Anne and I had the good fortune, even though we were only three of five women in our class of MBAs, which numbered about 308, the visionary Dean of the Stanford business school, Gary Williams, who admitted us, he put three of us in the same section and that gave Barbara, Anne, and I a chance to become close friends. So at the end of the first year, based on our closeness, we volunteered to do a class project on marketing, deciding we needed to educate the school, the faculty, the administrators, and our fellow students about what our experience was like. It was a very compelling, unique experience to be that small a minority in an environment that was dominated by men. We started interviewing one another, taking pictures. The full title is “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” That’s exactly the question that faculty, administrators and fellow students posed to us.

Susan (1971): For myself. It’s not that I find homemaking an inferior role for women. It’s simply that I believe that women should have the freedom to choose other roles if that’s what they’d like to do, that’s where their talents and interests lie.

Barbara: There were indeed males in our class who just oozed confidence. And it’s expressed in that question. “What’s a nice girl, like you doing in a place like this?” They clearly felt they had every right in the world. And we, solely because we were women, did not.

Anne: I don’t mean to be glib, but to me, it’s when did I take them seriously? I don’t think it really got to me.

Barbara: What were the first couple of months like in business school? Um, they were a shock. I’m about 10 years older than either Susie or Anne. I had worked for a number of years in the real world. I was surprised, first of all, to be in a room that was nearly all men and deeply grateful to see Susie and Anne.

Susan: The camaraderie with Barbara and Anne was immediately helpful. I walked into one class, I think it was econ, the very first week of school, first year, and the professor turned to me in front of all the students who had already arrived. And he said, “You’re an MBA?” And from the back row came this voice “She sure is!” And that was my future friend, Anne Thornton.

Anne: I love that, Susie. That’s great.

Anne (1971): I remember when we got back our first accounting exams and the professor put the curve up on the board, someone from the back of the room and shouted out, “Well, how did women’s lib do?” Suddenly everyone in the room knew our scores. We really weren’t allowed to be anonymous. People were very interested in our performance and perhaps they felt a little threatened by us.

Susan: I just had to adapt at the business school to this reality that many did not have the same positive expectations for my success in the world of work and in leadership. But my family background, my undergraduate peers, Anne and Barbara, that helped me.

Barbara: We were the unusual ones. We were in the unexpected place doing the unexpected thing.

Anne (1971): Luckily the young culture does not engage in the kind of discrimination that the older culture is doing. So I think that it’s going to be better.

Anne: It just seemed that people were saying that things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. And I think that the politics of that time, I think that’s what inspired all of us. I mean, you know, this was the sixties, seventies, and we thought we could change the world. And we kind of did, in some ways.

Susan: The curriculum at the Stanford business school at the time, it was actually still in its formative stage. There were very few women who were presented as leaders in the case studies.

Susan (1971): Certainly our case studies here at the business school have shown us only women who are doing mindless assembly line work and who were unable to relate to other women except in the most superficial sorts of ways. I think that if we can present ourselves as real people in this program, then maybe they’ll understand us better.

Barbara: I felt that people began taking me seriously after we did the marketing presentation.

Susan: I really felt that we found many fellow students who became truly great friends who saw us as individuals, saw us as we saw ourselves. That made a big difference.

Susan: Anne, I hope you realize how much your support meant to me when we were new students at the business school and part of this very very tiny minority. You were able to deal so well with these questions about why we were there. I took so much encouragement from that. Barbara, it was great for Anne and I to be a close friend and fellow student with a woman who had made her way in the business world and had a lot of wisdom to share with us. You know, Barbara is no one’s fool. So she always said it like it was, and she always proved herself.

Barbara: Thank you.

Susan: If I had a chance to talk to the woman I was when we made that program, I would tell her to keep doing what she was doing. She was on the right track, she’d have a wonderful career. She’d always be very grateful for her Stanford Graduate School of Business education, it was going to all pay off.

Anne: I would do it again, and I would say, go for it. You have nothing to lose.

Barbara: If I could go back and talk to myself, knowing now what I’ve seen in the last 50 years, I would say, hey lady, stand up. It’s your responsibility. You’re good at it. Go ahead.

Interview by Steve Goldbloom.

Women in the Stanford GSB class of 1972:

Susan Phillips, MBA, AB
Barbara West, MBA
Anne Thornton, MBA, JD
Leonade Jones, MBA, JD
Anne Wyser-Pratte, MBA

Three women

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