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7 Shocking Discoveries From Harvard Business School’s Attempt To Improve Gender Equality
Students cheer at the Harvard Business School graduation ceremony REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Harvard Business School, one of the world’s most elite institutions, is nothing but a microcosm of the larger business world, where students are judged by wealth, appearance, and social status; a testosterone-fueled environment quiets, objectifies, and holds women back from achievement; and a predominately male leadership continues replicating itself.
That is according to a riveting new article by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times, which exposes the vast inequity on campus and also a controversial attempt to turn it around.A two-year experiment initiated in 2010 by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, set out to improve the numbers and effectiveness of the school’s female professors, as well as the classroom participation and academic achievement of its female students, according to the Times. Faust brought in a new dean, Nitin Nohria, who vowed to “remake gender relations at the business school” by changing “how students spoke, studied and socialized,” the article says. Administrators provided coaching to teachers, made attempts to level grading inequities, assigned students into study groups, and addressed the social environment. The findings are pretty incredible.
Female students revealed a hostile environment for women:
Rather than an environment devoted to academic rigor, women called Harvard "worse than any trading floor," where they were seen as objects of amusement more than intellectual equals. "Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would 'kill, sleep with or marry' (in cruder terms)," Kantor writes. "Alcohol-soaked social events could be worse.”
It was like high school all over again, where men were judged by their cars and women by their looks:
There was a clear pecking order, and it was not meritocracy. At the top were men who "worked in finance, drove luxury cars, and advertised lavish weekend getaways on Instagram," according to the article. While the ultra-wealthy, mostly male students reigned, female students were judged on their looks. Many of them "dressed as if Marc Jacobs were staging a photo shoot in a Technology and Operations Management class," says Kantor.
Some of the smartest women in the world silenced themselves:
Women at Harvard struggled to find their voices and suffered for it. A subjective measure known as "class participation" made up 50% of each final mark, the article says. And despite doing fine on their exams, women lagged far behind on this metric. "Every year the same hierarchy emerged early on: investment bank and hedge fund veterans, often men, sliced through equations while others — including many women — sat frozen or spoke tentatively,” writes Kantor. They were coached to speak up and raise their hands, as HBS alum and "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg now advises, and stenographers sat in on classes, so that teachers had a more objective way to grade participation.
Women felt they had to choose between their academic and dating lives:
As if it were the 1950s and women were majoring in husband-hunting, the article reveals that many female students were more concerned with meeting a suitable match than acing exams. What's more, some felt they couldn't be both desirable to men and academic stars at once. “One particular factor was torpedoing female class participation grades: women, especially single women, often felt they had to choose between academic and social success,” Kantor writes. One female student quotes a male student as saying, “She’s kind of hot, but she’s so assertive."
Female professors made up only a fifth of the tenured faculty, with 76 male tenured professors to just 19 women, and garnered little respect:
Because the business world is skewed toward male leadership, it was harder to find qualified women to teach at HBS, the article says. The environment also made it difficult for them to succeed. It says they faced "uncertainty over maternity leave, a lack of opportunities to write papers with senior professors, and students who destroyed their confidence by pelting them with math questions they could not answer on the spot or commenting on what they wore.”
Female leaders can make all the difference:Gender dynamics at the school were not actively addressed until a female leader, President Faust, forced the issue.
An administrator, Frances Frei, observed the female teachers and discovered they were either too lenient or too tough. She exclusively provided them feedback, coaching them toproject warmth and high expectations simultaneously. Just this small amount of attention sent their teaching scores way up.
Female students began asserting themselves, raising the profile of women and the confidence of their female peers. When one female investment banking veteran took the lead on a class study session, another called it a "powerful message" to the class that a "girl knows it better than all of you."
Despite some hesitation by faculty members and grumbling by mostly male students, the social engineering worked:
By graduation, female teachers were performing better, female students were participating more in class, and record numbers of women were winning academic awards, the article notes. Many male students seemed to resent the effort to create a more female-friendly environment and called the time spent on it a poor investment of their money. Some of the faculty, too, wondered at the uses of the initiative, since gender dynamics in the real world would prove harsh in comparison. Even so, it worked, showing a laissez-faire approach to gender equality in organizations is not the answer. At a time when we are debating institutional policies to level pay inequity and get more women on boards and in management ranks, that is a powerful finding.
See the full New York Times article, "Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity."
Category: Business school