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Sex and Power at Harvard Business School

Vivia Chen

September 10, 2013


Correction: Drew Gilpin Faust is the first female president of Harvard University; she is not HBS's first female dean, as stated in the original post. We regret the error.

I don't know whether I should feel optimistic or discouraged about what's going on at Harvard Business School on the gender front. As Jodi Kantor of New York Times describes it, the school essentially underwent a "gender makeover" in the last two years.

Before Harvard University's first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, arrived on the scene, the school was basically a boys' club. NYT reports:

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). Alcohol-soaked social events could be worse.

Moreover, though entering female and male students had similar test scores and grades, women ended up with worse GPAs at the end. And female professors weren't staying: "from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left."

To change this environment, HBS  took drastic measures in 2010, installing stenographers in classroom to monitor bias, coaching female students and untenured female professors to be more effective in class, and mandating students (male and female) to attend meetings about gender issues.

Some students and faculty grumbled about the social engineering, but the class of 2013 showed impressive gains on the gender front. Let's look at the major improvements:

- Class room participation by women increased.

- The grade gap disappeared.

- Women constituted 40 percent of the Baker scholars (top 5 percent of class).

- Classroom discussion became more civil: "Cruel jokes, along with other forms of intimidation, were far rarer," and student satisfaction ratings went up.

Powerful stuff, right? It shows what institutions can do if they make a concerted (or is it "radical"?) effort at correcting a problem.

So why am I not optimistic that a systemic overhaul will fix gender inequity? Because if you read closer, the students (male and female) haven't changed much in their private attitudes. In fact, they seem downright retro—more so, I'd say, than what you'd find in a law school environment:

- Women felt "they had to choose between academic and social success." One student in the article, Neda Navab, blew off studying for an exam to participate in a dating event because she felt it was her "last chance" to meet a suitable mate "among cream-of-the-crop-type people."

- "Women were more likely to be sized up on how they looked. . . many of them dressed as if Marc Jacobs were staging a photo shoot in a Technology and Operations Management class."

Bascially, you have all these super-bright women who should be focusing on running the Fortune 500 strutting their stuff so they can fulfill their primary mission: catching a husband. (Note to Princeton mom who advised gals to snag a husband in college: Wait until B school—hubby candidates there have much higher earning potential.)

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the gender divide persists once these graduates enter the job force:

Like graduates before them, the class of 2013 would to some degree part by gender after graduation, with more men going into higher-paying areas like finance and more women going into lower-paying ones like marketing.

Men assume positions as masters of the universe while women gravitate to far less powerful and lucrative positions, even though many women now presumably qualify for those fancy finance and consulting jobs. It's back to the same old order.

So how does this affect the gender situation in other professions—such as law? Given the dearth of women in power positions on the business side, Corporate America will continue to be a thoroughly male culture.

And you're still wondering why female lawyers are having a hell of a time trying to develop business from the guys?


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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"So why am I not optimistic that a systemic overhaul will fix gender inequity? Because if you read closer, the students (male and female) haven't changed much in their private attitudes. In fact, they seem downright retro—more so, I'd say, than what you'd find in a law school environment."

I had the same reaction. Law schools still have sexist aspects, but women lawyers seem to be a bit tougher. I thought that it was really weird that Kantor described one woman and former engineer as "no-nonsense" as if this were anomalous. Aren't all, or most women students at the nation's most prestigious B School practical and driven?

Good point about the connection to women lawyer's and the difficulty in getting business.

The hostile environment described sounds a lot like Wall Street where there is no hall monitor...

The measures HBS took to minimize bias are commendable from an academic perspective. It dispels any argument that women are somehow less capable of excelling at HBS. However, it doesn't fix the bigger issue of why some men create that sort of environment.

Social Issues:

This article indicates a societal challenge that we have yet to address. Many women think that jobs are plentiful and suitable mates are rare. That's the only reason someone would abandon studying for a "dating event". And when you hear professional women describe their regrets they are mostly related to "personal shortcomings" like not marrying, getting divorced and not having children. Younger women have heard those messages loud and clear and those messages are influencing decisions.

I am working on an article on this right now for another source, but I agree with some of your overall conclusions - a) nothing much has changed at HBS from what I read, and b) law school is a very different - and yes, better in many ways - environment. I will share it when I finish.

This statement is factually incorrect (see below). HBS has never had a female dean and Drew Faust is President of Harvard University, not HBS.



Before HBS's first female dean, Drew Gilpin Faust, arrived on the scene, the school was basically a boys' club.

From the article, it seems --and worries me -- that Harvard is looking merely to help women survive in what some might call a hostile environment. What women see is texture, nuance and context, so the logical conclusion would be that the issue requires a multi-pronged approach that includes but is not limited to also realigning men to the new , incontrovertible realities of women's value in business (in legal parlance, “asked and answered!”)HBS has the juice to create change, or at least ripples, and it would be total waste if they merely perpetuate more of the same. They might want to start with whom they recruit and admit: perhaps they should shift their focus from ibankers (heavily male dominated profession and testosterone-fueled culture) to entrepreneurs or others actually conducting business in the New Normal.
Do women still have other institutional, societal and personal hurdles that stand in the way of success? Absolutely. But teaching women how to raise their hands is simply a bandaid; the real work should be in investing in a “two-gender solution” that encourages men and women to acknowledge -- and understand -- each other’s communication styles.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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