Jodi Kantor’s bombshell article in The New York Times on gender issues at Harvard Business School stirred up a firestorm of discussion about the gender and class environment there. The article described the school’s attempts to change a culture that often alienated women and held them back from achievement.
Interested to learn more about the experiences of students at other elite business schools, we talked to women at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and New York University’s Stern School of Business. While all acknowledged that gender and class divisions exist at their schools, they told us the toxic atmosphere that Kantor describes at Harvard isn’t anything like what they’ve experienced.
Whether they could or couldn’t relate to it, one thing’s for sure: Kantor’s article put a glaring spotlight on gender inequality at business schools and the business world at large. According to Rachel Nayman, a recent Wharton graduate, that’s a good thing.
“It’s bringing these issues to light,” said Nayman. “Putting it on the front page of The New York Times is amazing because we’re in a really pivotal moment for women. This is a great opportunity to think about women who are high achieving — what’s going to happen to them in the future and how we can shape the business school environment and future companies.”
Still, the gender tension portrayed at Harvard is nothing like what Nayman has seen at Wharton. As the co-president of Wharton Women in Business, the school’s major women’s group, she said she was pleasantly surprised to learn that men at the school weren’t resistant to talking about gender issues — at least within the confines of her group.
“Men were really open to having these conversations and oftentimes would approach us and say, ‘What can we do? We really want to be involved and help out,’ ” Nayman said.
However, outside of groups like Nayman’s and one required first-year class on teamwork and leadership that touches on gender, the obstacles women face in class and in the workplace are rarely discussed on campus. That could use improvement, said Nayman, who has worked and continues to work on opening up the dialogue.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) is even further removed from what’s described at HBS, several students told us. Although class and gender divisions are present, students say there’s a culture that works to minimize any feelings of exclusion or disadvantage.
“Gender, wealth, and social status are issues that students at elite MBA programs will always struggle with,” second-year Stanford GSB student Christine Su told Business Insider in an email exchange. “Differences in spending habits and lifestyles are unavoidable when you throw entrepreneurs who have sold companies, finance professionals, company managers, and nonprofit leaders into the same social scene.”
While Kantor describes an HBS clique called “Section X” as an “on-again-off-again secret society of ultra-wealthy, mostly male, mostly international students known for decadent parties and travel,” Su told Business Insider that displays of wealth and exclusionary behaviours are heavily discouraged by students at Stanford. In fact, she said that last year an annual satire show at Stanford named and skewered people who posted photos of luxury hotels from international trips.
“I don’t know of any social group as exclusive as ‘Section X’ — and if there were, they would probably be embarrassed to show off their activities publicly,” Su said. “Our small class size means most people know each other. This means that if someone is noticeably rude or excludes a classmate, he or she will get talked about and put their entire business school network at risk.”
Su, who worked at McKinsey and private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts before coming to Stanford, was warned by older students to avoid joining cliques based on wealth or background. She makes a point of hosting and attending more inclusive, low-key events, like having dinners at home versus pricey Palo Alto restaurants and organising camping trips instead of booking rooms at lavish resorts.
“From class to class, it is unofficially passed on by MBA2s (second-year students) that exclusionary behaviour is not cool,” Su said.
The school also hosts a series of weekly speeches called “TALK,” where students share what are often very personal narratives each week about the events and experiences that have shaped them. What’s more, most women at the school participate in a Women In Management (WIM) group, where they can discuss gender issues in a confidential space along with a facilitator.
Jodi Kantor’s telling article about class and gender at HBS shows that top-down edicts can help change deeply ingrained issues. At the same time, transforming a culture takes the belief and effort of the students themselves, and that process seems well under way at several elite business schools.
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