Gender Engineering at Harvard Business School


This semester, Harvard Business School marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of its first female students.  Just in time for the occasion, the New York Times ran a lengthy front-page feature on a new experiment at HBS intended to boost the performance of female students, which has tended to lag behind that of the men.  The article, by Jodi Kantor, is a confusing mix of lifestyle journalism and academic reportage based on extremely thin data; the program it chronicles seems to be an equally confusing melange of sensible measures and gender policing run amok.

In recent years, women have made up more than a third of students at Harvard Business School, coming in with test scores and grades similar to those of their male peers; but they were consistently underrepresented among recipients of academic honors.  Thus, the class of 2009 was 36 percent female–but only 11 percent of the Baker Scholarships, awarded to the top 5 percent of the graduating class, went to women. In 2010, women accounted for 38 percent of the students but 20 percent of the Baker Scholars.  This performance gap is the issue that the business school’s administration decided to tackle under the leadership of Dean Nitin Nohria–who, according to the Times, pledged to pursue a feminist makeover at the school when he was appointed in 2010 by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first woman president.

According to the Times report, Dean Nohria’s team, which includes crusading professor-turned-administrator Frances Frei, “tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized” and to address such issues as “the links between romantic relationships and professional status.”  Some of this effort is not quite as sinister and intrusive as it sounds: since women’s academic underperformance at Harvard Business School is due in large part to their less aggressive class participation, which counts for 50 percent of the final grade, the school offered class-participation workshops where female students were coached on such things as how to raise their hands more assertively.   (Since the workshops were directed at all women, not just those with confidence problems, they had the side effect of making some female students feel patronized.)  Coaching was also offered to junior female faculty, apparently with the effect of considerably improving their student ratings.

But overall, Kantor’s article leaves an unmistakable impression of Big Sister at work–an impression apparently shared not only by many male students in the class of 2013, but by many female students as well.  The administration provided stenographers to record classes so that professors did not have to rely on their memories for grading students on participation, as well as a software tool that kept instant track of the gender of students being called on.  The traditional case study method in which students are “cold-called” to offer solutions to business problems has been “rounded out” by–or perhaps downplayed in favor of–“a new course called Field, which grouped students into problem-solving teams.”  According to Kantor, the Field courses are widely resented; many students see them as pointless, and some even suspect that the extra work is intended to keep them too busy for partying (which the reformist deans view as detrimental to women’s academic success).  Moreover, “students used to form their own study groups, but now the deans did it for them.”

Students were also herded into mandatory meetings on gender relations which even a male student who described himself a feminist, and was sympathetic to the deans’ goals, found to be “forced” and “patronizing”; quite a few women apparently agreed.  One meeting, Kantor writes, was prompted by a female student’s mention to a faculty member that an unnamed male student had groped her in an off-campus bar. The “stumbling conversation” about sexual harassment was suddenly energized by a change of subject when one woman raised the issue of the social disadvantages faced by students who did not come from a wealthy or elite background.

Efforts to manage the student’s sexually incorrect social lives included a ban on wearing costumes to class for Halloween, in order to “head off the potential for sexy pirate costumes” (prompting class co-president Laura Merritt to ask if school uniforms would be next).  When Andrew Levine, director of the school’s annual spoof show, was placed on academic probation and barred from social events because some students had consumed alcohol in the auditorium after the show, students went into full-scale rebellion, donning T-Shirts that said “Free Andy” or “Unapologetic”–in a sarcastic reference to Frei, who frequently uses the word to describe the gender-equity program.

By one measure, the program has been a success: the grade gap between women and men at the business school has disappeared, with women getting nearly 40 percent of the Baker Scholarships in the Class of 2013.  Yet some faculty heretics are wondering if this accomplishment is partly due to inflated participation scores, given the strong pressure to produce improved results for women.  (Amusingly, Dean Nohria told Kantor that “he had no cause to think the professors had used the new software, and the subjective participation scores, to avoid gender gaps”–despite the strong message to professors that it was their responsibility to help solve the problem.)  It is worth noting, too, that at this point it’s unclear whether the improvement is permanent: the performance gap has fluctuated over the years and has been shrinking steadily since 2008, well before the Nohria-Frei “makeover.”

There is nothing wrong, of course, with taking steps to improve women’s performance in traditionally male-dominated fields–though one might legitimately wonder about the paucity of efforts to combat far more widespread male underachievement across the academy.  But these efforts may do more harm than good when they cause women’s performance to be seen as suspect or link women’s success to oppressive social engineering.

For now, the Harvard Business School reformists are vowing to continue their efforts.  Their concerns include such hard-to-control things as a tendency for women to be judged on their looks more than men, or the popularity of crude games in which students rate their classmates on what the Times euphemistically calls a “kill, sleep with or marry” scale–played not only by men but, horror of horrors, by women themselves.  It’s unclear what the gender-equity crusaders intend to do about that, or about the frustrating tendency of some of the business school’s top female graduates to choose family-compatible jobs over pioneering and higher-paying ones.  But at the very least, incoming students should brace themselves for more workshops.

(Photo: Women at Harvard Business School. Source: HBS.)

Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Newsday, is a regular contributor to Real Clear Politics and Reason.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *