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“I thought, ‘What are you talking about? Why shouldn’t we all be here?’ We were being told, in effect, that teachers would not be responsible to teach to the different needs and learning styles of the students. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t be held more accountable for the success of some extremely bright and capable students.” Today, she attributes her own sensitivity to her HBS students’ differing needs at least in part to her antithetical experience at MIT.

“I became acutely concerned with unacknowledged differences,” she says. “Equality doesn’t mean homogeneity.” A healthy 25-year-old should not be insured in the same way that a 55-year-old diabetic is, she says, and in her era at MIT, women should have been called “women,” not “coeds.”

“At Wellesley College, there were women,” she recalls. “At MIT we were this strange subsector” that often felt socially marginalized by peers and overlooked by faculty. Herzlinger did find romance at MIT, meeting her husband George, to whom she’s been married for 41 years, while both were students. But she still remembers the words to a self-deprecatory jingle that was floating around: “But I’m just a Tech coed/Mother dropped me on my head/I wear a slide rule on my belt/Man, oh, man, am I svelte.”

Nevertheless, she views what she calls “feminist whining” as unproductive. “I have female colleagues who’ve become depressed because of the unfair difficulties they face,” she says. “And they do face them”–Herzlinger herself encountered at least subtle vestiges of sexism at MIT, at Harvard, and in industry. “But you can’t let it overwhelm you.”

A problem-solver’s pragmatism is what she still recommends to women in the sciences and academia. “It’s about the metrics,” she says. Even in the 1970s, when few women were earning doctorates or faculty appointments in business administration, she saw that teaching evaluations gave her a competitive advantage: her courses consistently received rave reviews from her accounting students. “No one was ever going to define me but me,” she says.

Dubbed the “godmother” of consumer-driven health care, Herzlinger is on a mission to reinvent the way health care is paid for, organized, and delivered.

“I want to give consumers the money that is taken from them by government and business and allow them to choose the health insurance and health care they want,” she explains. She favors individual control over 401(k)-like accounts, which employers or the government fund, and which consumers manage themselves, selecting the coverage, deductible levels, and provider networks that meet their needs.

At $2 trillion a year–almost the size of the GDP of China–the U.S. health-care market should, Herzlinger argues, behave more like a consumer market, offering a wider menu of products that compete on quality and price. She wants to bring more market discipline to the business of healing; increasing demand, she says, should encourage more competitors to enter the market, driving prices down, not up. Herzlinger also contends that the supply of goods and services should not be so regulated by government that rationing and shortages result. Individuals–not government, not employers, not insurers–should have both the purchasing power and the knowledge to make informed choices.

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Credit: John Soares

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