For Rachel Werner M98 RES01 GRW04, the label of “pioneer” is nothing new. Her research in the world of health economics—most notably on the unintended consequences of quality improvement incentives—has been groundbreaking and transformative. Now, in her new role as the executive director of the Leonard Davis Institute, she’s still blazing trails, this time as the first-ever female director of the renowned 52-year-old organization.
Werner, who’d been a senior fellow at LDI since 2005, is also the Robert D. Eilers Professor of Health Care Management at Wharton, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School, and a practicing physician at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The truth, she says, is that her work landscape has always been heavily male; to be one of the few females in the room or the first woman anything wasn’t an aspiration so much as a reality of circumstance. While she’s excited for the new job, her feelings about being recognized as LDI’s first female director are a bit mixed.
“I’d rather people not think of me first as a woman —I’d rather be considered a successful director,” she says. “But I also know that being a woman is a big part of my identity, and that serving as a role model, mentoring other junior women, and helping to grow the success of the people around me matters. And I’m very happy to play that role.”
As it happens, Werner isn’t alone in this capacity. As of July, Wharton’s leadership includes three more female faces: Samuel A. Blank Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics Diana C. Robertson, recently named one of the top 50 undergraduate business instructors by Poets & Quants, is the new vice dean of Wharton’s undergraduate division; Nancy Zhang—Wharton professor of statistics, celebrated researcher, and former doctoral program co-director for the stats department—has been named the new vice dean of the Wharton doctoral programs; and Martine Haas, award-winning global business researcher and longtime Wharton management professor, is heading up the prestigious Joseph H. Lauder Institute.
“Seeing women in leadership roles like these absolutely matters,” says Jordyn Wilson W21, president of the student organization Wharton Women. “Seeing one woman get promoted isn’t necessarily special , but when you see lots of women being promoted, it’s inspiring. Like a tide is turning.”
It’s no big secret that men still dominate the C-suites and other leadership roles in the business world. And when it comes to the lingering perception of Wharton as an offshoot of that culture—the old narrative of Wharton as a male-driven finance school—well, the gender-gap facts are sort of a mixed bag. In terms of admissions, the news is good: Wharton admits more women than any other business school in the United States. Female students make up 47 percent of the 2021 MBA class, 43 percent of the 2023 undergraduate class, and 38 percent of the doctoral student body. Notable, too, are the number of vocal, active student-run groups—including Wharton Women, the MBA organization Wharton Women in Business, and the doctoral division’s Wharton Society for the Advancement of Women in Business Academia—that aim to support female students and decrease the gender disparities in women’s pay and power in the post-business-school landscape.
But the story of gender equality at Wharton is still evolving, a fact we see most clearly in its leadership. The School’s Board of Overseers, for example, is just 17 percent female, while four of the 13 vice deans are women, including Robertson and Zhang. Women currently make up roughly a quarter of Wharton faculty.
“While we celebrate the success of Nancy, Diana, Martine, and Rachel,” says Deputy Dean Michael Gibbons, “women remain underrepresented in the faculty.” And because of that, he says, the School is working to recruit and increase female professors and “to continue to support the next generation of leadership among women faculty.”
“I started teaching here 12 years ago for the second time, and in that span, it’s definitely improved,” Robertson says. “There’s been a real effort to make sure that it does get better.” In her experience, Wharton has been great at investing in and growing its people. As a result, she adds, the perception and the reality of Wharton are gradually evolving.
“I believe very strongly that it’s important for women to take leadership positions,” she says. “We can’t teach courses saying you’re the future leaders but not have any role models or mentors who look like them. We have to show these students—not just women, but men, too—that women are leaders. After all, they’re going to go into businesses and positions where women are in leadership, particularly over the next 20, 30, 40 years.”
The chance to prepare students for the future is, in a nutshell, what drew Martine Haas to her new role as the Anthony L. Davis Director of the Lauder Institute. “To be able to help develop the global leaders of the 21st century is a very compelling and exciting vision for me,” she says.
Haas, who is herself an internationally recognized thought leader in the realm of global business, is the first-ever woman to lead the Lauder Institute—a milestone that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the institute’s famously engaged graduate network. “I got a fair number of emails from alumni saying, ‘It’s great to have a woman,’” she says.
For her part, Haas says, she’s found Wharton “a very positive place to be a woman” and notes the number of active, influential women in her department, as well as supportive colleagues and mentors. She recognizes that not everyone has had the same experience—and of course, she adds, “Clearly, women are still underrepresented globally at the senior ranks of corporations.” All of which serves to underline the ambitious educational mission at Lauder, where nearly half the graduating class of 2020 is female.
Like Haas, Nancy Zhang has given much thought to the job of preparing students for their future and says she’s excited to support them on their Wharton journey in her role as the vice dean of the doctoral program. But another aspect of that gig, she says, involves inspiring new students who will join the esteemed doctoral ranks and then go on to careers as academic leaders. Many departments—most notably the STEM-related ones such as statistics, which is where Zhang came from—“are still predominantly male and could benefit from having more women,” she says. “The encouragement for women needs to start early, at the undergrad stage or even pre-college. We want to reach out to them—not just women, but the best women.”
Jordyn Wilson, for one, says she’s heartened by this leadership lineup. There was a time when she questioned even going into business because it felt so male-dominated. “But coming to Wharton and seeing things differently changed that,” she says. “We still definitely have a way to go. But I also have had incredible professors who are women, and that’s meant so much to me.” In fact, she adds, one of those professors was Haas, who is inspiring to her as a professor and a professional role model. “And now,” Wilson says, “she’s doing even more.”
Christine Speer Lejeune is a freelance writer and editor based in Philadelphia.
Published as “View From the Top” in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Wharton Magazine.