The Shocking Discoveries Of Harvard Business School's Experiment To Improve Gender Equality

Harvard Business School graduationREUTERS/Brian SnyderStudents cheer at the Harvard Business School graduation ceremony

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-fuelled 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:

“Many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor, with first-year students divided into sections that took all their classes together and often developed the overheated dynamics of reality shows. 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.”

It was like high school all over again, where men were judged by their cars and women by their looks:

“The men at the top of the heap worked in finance, drove luxury cars and advertised lavish weekend getaways on Instagram, many students observed in interviews. Some belonged to the so-called Section X, an on-again-off-again secret society of ultrawealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel.

Women were more likely to be sized up on how they looked, Ms. Navab and others found. Many of them dressed as if Marc Jacobs were staging a photo shoot in a Technology and Operations Management class.”

Some of the smartest women in the world silenced themselves:

“Women at Harvard did fine on tests. But they lagged badly in class participation, a highly subjective measure that made up 50 per cent of each final mark. 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.”

Women felt they had to choose between their academic and dating lives:

“After years of observation, administrators and professors agreed that one particular factor was torpedoing female class participation grades: women, especially single women, often felt they had to choose between academic and social success.”

Female professors made up only a fifth of the tenured faculty, with 76 male tenured professors to just 19 women, and garnered little respect:

“Female teachers, especially untenured ones, had faced various troubles over the years: uncertainty over maternity leave, a lack of opportunities to write papers with senior professors, and students who destroyed their confidence by pelting them with maths 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 to project 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, the school had become a markedly better place for female students, according to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, who cited more women participating in class, record numbers of women winning academic awards and a much-improved environment.”

See the full New York Times article, “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity.”

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