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Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 1am

Tackling Gender Inequality at HBS Produces Mixed Results: MBA News

Tackling Gender Inequality at HBS Produces Mixed Results: MBA News  main image

Measures taken by Harvard Business School (HBS) to address perceived gender inequality have produced some interesting results.

The school began a two-year experiment in 2011 aimed at raising the confidence of its female faculty as well as trying to change how students spoke, studied and socialized in an effort to improve the experience of both female students and teachers at Harvard.

The results of Harvard’s experiment on the graduating class of 2013 have just been analyzed in an edifying feature-length article in the New York Times.

On the one hand, female faculty members were enjoying improved teaching scores. Female students were also participating more in MBA classes and taking home a much higher proportion of HBS’ academic prizes.

On the other hand, however, the school encountered resistance in its attempts to level the playing field from both male and female students, who felt that the imposed measures were too intrusive and aggressive. The school also realized just how far there was to go to completely remove gender inequality from their campus and student-body. 

HBS wanted to foster a better environment for female faculty and students 

It was Harvard’s first-ever female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, who took the decision to directly confront gender inequality.

In 2010, Faust appointed current Harvard dean, Nitin Nohria. The pair spoke of their desire to completely refashion gender relations at Harvard Business School. They saw it as the school’s duty as a standard-bearer for American business to tackle this issue head-on.

Together they then appointed administrators to install stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading and to provide private coaching for untenured female professors. One such administrator, Frances Frei, revealed the grandiosity of Harvard’s plans when she said, “We have to lead the way, and then lead the world in doing it.”

With regards to the female faculty members, the team found that those they had assessed were coming across as either too soft or too tough on their classes, with a desire to be liked or to be respected thought to be the root cause. Working just on this very small feedback and by being encouraged to project warmth and high expectations at the same time, those coached dramatically improved their teaching scores almost instantaneously.

Harvard’s female students also quickly benefited from the new measures. According to interviews with more than 70 professors, administrators and students, female students were participating more in class and won a record number of academic awards.

A generally much-improved environment was also cited in an academic year in which HBS celebrated 50 years of women enrolling on its MBA programs.

Perceived intrusion of experiment has seen resistance from both male and female students 

As for the problems they encountered. Amongst students, some saw the school’s interference as overly intrusive and aggressive in what they termed ‘social engineering’. For example, when word got to the administrators that students were considering wearing costumes to class at Halloween, Frei expressly banned them from doing so fearing the kind of gender-stereotypical costumes commonly seen in American college movies.

“How much responsibility does HBS have? Do we have school uniforms? Where do you stop?” asked Laura Merritt, a co-president of the class, by way of response. Some students even took to donning t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Unapologetic’ in a direct rebuke against the work of Ms. Frei. 

The experiment also led to fears from the faculty itself that such a concerted attempt to remove gender inequality and was taking them further and further away from the reality of the business world these students would face on graduation.

Despite the concerns raised, Harvard vows to carry on the experiment it began with the class of 2013, but did not say whether it would consider scaling back its firm-handed approach. It knows the project has brought new issues to light as much as it has achieved progress.

“We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is,” said Ms. Frei.

Tenured female faculty at Harvard Business School currently represent just one-fifth of the total and this proportion does not look like drastically improving in the near future, with women accounting for under a third of HBS’ untenured faculty body.

However, according to the NY Times article, Harvard remains sure in the knowledge that a vast improvement in HBS’ record on women could have a huge impact at other business schools, at companies headed up by Harvard alumni as well as in the Fortune 500, where only 21 chief executives are women.

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