How Business Schools Are Part of the Solution Against Sexual Harassment

How Business Schools Are Part of the Solution Against Sexual Harassment

In the last year, Americans have recognized the plague of sexual harassment in the workplace, arguably more than ever. A slew of scandals that resulted in the disgrace of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Fox News figures Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly have rocked the United States. Women in Silicon Valley have come forward to describe a pervasive culture of sexual harassment. First, Susan Fowler described a toxic workplace at Uber. Then, more women came forward and accused Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck and 500 Startups founder Dave McClure. Allegations continue to surface among venture capitalists. As a result, the male dominated Silicon Valley culture is under intense scrutiny for its perception and treatment of women and minority groups.  


Most importantly, these troubling headlines have shone a spotlight on gender inequity and dysfunctional management in a number of industries. Conversations about the future of management beyond these scandals beg the question, “Where are the business schools?” After all, they are training the next generation of executives, male and female alike. The good news is that many b-schools are ahead of the curve.

Truly, this story begins a few years ago. That's when millennial students began entering business schools. They were used to increased diversity. While many of them expressed interest in creating inclusive environments, they quickly realized the reality of campus life was not matching up. Inequity continued.

Harvard Opens Up the Conversation

Business schools watched in awe in 2013 as Harvard Business School (HBS) revealed its grand experiment to help women students. Its aim was to improve the grades of women and help them become more vocal in class. Of course, they also wanted to combat sexual harassment. Part of a feature story in The New York Times, HBS faced some backlash from those who felt gender equity was being shoved down their throats.

Still, some efforts proved successful. Having stenographers in class to help professors recognize who was actually participating, rather than relying on memory alone to determine class participation grades, seemed fruitful. Teaching women how to raise their hands may have appeared patronizing, but it was also empowering. And providing extra help also made a dent. Women increased their grades, and more of them rose to the top of the class.

However, conversations about sexual harassment and gender roles remained awkward. They brought to light how male students sexualized their female counterparts, class differences divided MBA students, and social pressures encouraged MBA women to find high-achieving spouses.

Men Get on Board

What became abundantly clear is how business schools, just like businesses, need men to be part of the solution. Soon, in response to HBS’ efforts and changing times, men at business schools began gathering to discuss their role in women’s plight.

They would have panel discussions, speakers, and lunch-and-learn talks about becoming more sensitive to the kinds of challenges thrown at women. Ultimately, they were taking a stand to show their support of inclusion. Perhaps, most importantly, they were ushering in a new era and setting a standard for what future workplaces might be like.

Seeing this activity among men on campuses sparked interest from the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium of leading companies and business schools encouraging women to achieve success in business. It developed the Men as Allies initiative, which supports these groups.

The Changing Tide

Next, the Forté Foundation developed a set of best practices and a toolkit to help anyone interested in organizing such a group. Aside from developing sensitivity to these issues, men join women for  conversations about tough topics, such as what constitutes harassment. The discussions have extended beyond gender gaps into other divides based on race, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality, says Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation in Austin, Texas.

Eight groups at business schools launched chapters of the Men as Allies program initially. Now there are 24. HBS, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University were among the first to have one of these groups.

What drew Sangster and the foundation into this movement was the idea that these men had initiated the activism themselves. They were willing to invest time and thought for the sake of their mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends. They saw things they did not like in the workplace, says Sangster, and they wanted to help cultivate change.

Making the Case for Equity

Many business schools rely heavily on case studies to teach students business frameworks. But some schools are using cases to bring issues around diversity and gender to life. For instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management used an exercise, Gender at Work, which is published by the Harvard Business School Press, as part of Lessons for Leaders: Gender Parity in the Workplace, a one-time, three-credit seminar that took place Oct. 23, 2017. During the Gender at Work portion of the course, students reflected on how gender intersects with work, according to an email from Kara F. Blackburn, senior lecturer at Sloan. The six categories on which they focus are job transitions, diversity and performance, compensation and promotion, bias and stereotypes, leadership, work/life balance, and relationships.

“The goal of the seminar includes: bringing the topic of gender equity into the academic curriculum; creating space for MBA students to examine and engage with the topic of gender equity and how it has impacted their personal and professional lives; exploring strategies for how, as leaders and managers, the MBA students can create more equitable work environments,” writes Blackburn in the email.  

Breeding a New Culture

Until now, Sangster adds, most people have been reactive to whatever injustice has fallen upon women. Even in the Weinstein story, people are stepping up to do the right thing now, after the damage has been done. On the contrary, the business schools, led by their students, are being proactive.

“They are educating future managers,” says Sangster. “They will have a voice and will be able to show their leadership in a unique way.”

Men in these groups and the women with whom they partner come away with awareness, sensitivity, and the language to speak knowledgeably about these issues, including sexual harassment. While having zero-tolerance policies for sexual harassment on the books is good, companies need to set a standard with action. That’s what these future business leaders can bring to the table.

“It is better to design and build a culture,” says Sangster, “that is proactively working toward inclusion and creating a safe environment from the start.”

Indeed, the business schools hope that they are on the right path now. But they recognize they still have a long way to go.

“This is a people issue, men and women together must continue to make the case for gender equity,” writes Blackburn in the email. “We need to continue to share the data to reflect the reality for women at work, implement structural changes to reduce the impact of bias in hiring, pay, and promotion, and address behaviors that perpetuate gender inequity at work. We must also recognize and address the distinct challenges at the intersection of gender and race in the workplace.”


Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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