Stop, drop, and read: HBS’s experiment in sex equity

Check out this article about the Harvard Business School’s two-year old (so far) scheme to close the gender gap in terms of student grades and participation in class.  It’s been a huge success, and it also appears to have increased students’ overall satisfaction with their experience at HBS.  (Also, if you don’t already know, you’ll learn about what a “search fund” is.  Sounds pretty scammy and potentially a kind of pyramid scheme to me–I’m not really clear as to where our HBS grads are adding any value whatsoever, but you be the judge.)

[HBS ’13] had been unwitting guinea pigs in what would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy: What if Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success?

The country’s premier business training ground was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem. Year after year, women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left.

Some students, like Sheryl Sandberg, class of ’95, the Facebook executive and author of “Lean In,” sailed through. Yet 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.

But in 2010, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president, appointed a new dean who pledged to do far more than his predecessors to remake gender relations at the business school. He and his team tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized. The administrators installed stenographers in the classroom to guard against biased grading, provided private coaching — for some, after every class — for untenured female professors, and even departed from the hallowed case-study method.

And, it worked!  At least, it worked in terms of what HBS could do to reshape its students’ experiences.  In the end, while they closed the gender gap with respect to men’s and women’s grades increased women’s representation in the top 5% of the class (their honored Baker Scholars), women HBS grads were accepting jobs with lower pay and prestige than their male peers.  Many of the women felt themselves or experienced pressure to enhance both their social/dating capital as well as their intellectual capital:

This was the lopsided situation that women in business school were facing: in intellectual prestige, they were pulling even with or outpacing male peers, but they were not “touching the money,” as Nori Gerardo Lietz, a real estate private equity investor and faculty member, put it. A few alumnae had founded promising start-ups like Rent the Runway, an evening wear rental service, but when it came to reaping big financial rewards, most women were barely in the game.

In the end, the architects of these changes feel much less optimistic about changing faculty culture:

As Ms. Frei reviewed her tapes at night, making notes as she went along, she looked for ways to instill that confidence. The women, who plainly wanted to be liked, sometimes failed to assert their authority — say, by not calling out a student who arrived late. But when they were challenged, they turned too tough, responding defensively (“Where did you get that?”).

Ms. Frei urged them to project warmth and high expectations at the same time, to avoid trying to bolster their credibility with soliloquies about their own research. “I think the class might be a little too much about you, and not enough about the students,” she would tell them the next day.

By the end of the semester, the teaching scores of the women had improved so much that she thought they were a mistake. One professor had shot to a 6 from a 4. Yet all the attention, along with other efforts to support female faculty, made no immediate impact on the numbers of female teachers. So few women were coming to teach at the school that evening out the numbers seemed almost impossible.

Isn’t that always the case in academia?  Even in the face of good intentions, we find it so much more difficult (if not impossible) to reform our own working conditions.  There’s always plenty of will and administrative (as well as political) muscle when it comes to changing things we want to change about or on behalf of our students, not so much when it comes to facing the reality of our own workplaces.

An aside:  I guess I was a little surprised that student evaluation numbers appear to be such a big deal at HBS, when any faculty member knows that they can be ignored or used however the tenured faculty want to use them.  (That is, why should the Dean coach women faculty to get better scores from the students instead of retraining the faculty in the appropriate or inappropriate uses of teaching evaluations, if her goal is to not let women’s teaching get in the way of their tenure?  Also:  since when does teaching count for tenure so much at a place like HBS that that’s the best use of one’s time and attention?)  But, I suppose that that’s the distorting effect of being a member of a faculty for a school that charges $50,000/yr. for tuition and still has to turn thousands of perfectly qualified people away at the door.  Adult students who clear that kind of hurdle doubtless have a lot more to say about the faculty than your average first-year or sophomore student at a woebegone aggie or directional university.

28 thoughts on “Stop, drop, and read: HBS’s experiment in sex equity

  1. It was a fascinating article, though even with this, the atmosphere at HBS sounded pretty miserable. It was clear that class was a key issue too; and I found it intriguing that students could deal with class issues more openly than gender ones. It was pretty clear that the up and coming captains of industry (or at least finance and banking) are not at all interested in egalitarian relationships with women…


  2. I have a friend who teaches in the college of Business at my uni. I was shocked by how much her department cares about teaching. Or at least cares about the student response to her teaching, which is different. She basically has to offer free tutoring to any student who requests it. All that in addition to publishing a lot. My department takes student evaluations seriously, but recognizes how problematic they can be.

    I think the amount of money they charge for a degree combined with the demographics of their student body make “pleasing” students much more important than in the Humanities. Then again, she makes twice as much as I do, and has taught for half as long. Shrug.


  3. I read this, and it’s interesting. Evaluations are evaluations. As a member of the noisy, scary, long-haired generation to which they were thrown as a cheap bone to hopefully keep us from blockading the president’s office, or burning down the ROTC building, I don’t think they have any legitimacy whatsoever. But the powers that be will conclude what they conclude. But that HBS or anywhere would allow students, no matter how old, how experienced in the workplace, or how much they pay, to express with regard to junior faculty “who they would ‘kill, ****, or marry” (and this when they’re *not* drunk, worse when they are) does shock the conscience. The tool of choice for this should be instant expulsion, not workshops. Give Drew Faust credit. She stepped in, when nobody up to and especially including Larry Summers would have done so. But its not going to change the course of capitalism, except perhaps modestly for the elites who inhabit its control towers.

    At my woebegone faux-directional, a faculty member being skulled by a projector plummeting from a rotten ceiling would get a lot less system solicitousness than would a student “skulled” by the same prof. who “assigns too many books and expects us to read most of them…”


  4. At my nonharvard but prestigious professional school, student evals are open information to all and a huge factor in student bid prices for courses. Course enrollments/bids (driven largely by the evals) are certainly a big part of the administration weighing whether faculty are delivering what the student market demands.


  5. Ganging up, ridiculing and better salaries for men all seem natural to me in an MBA competitive environment. After all, we are not dealing with intellectual advantages; we are talking money.

    Course evaluations are institution dependent. HBS may have decided to take them seriously. At my school, after 30 years I am yet to look at my evaluations. No one has mentioned them to me either.

    I know nothing about business schools. If we can distill any school into its intellectual elements, women will do as well as men. In sciences, a student/faculty with talent is always treated with utmost respect, gender notwithstanding.


  6. A big part of the HBS emphasis on student evaluations seems to be the heavy reliance on alumni support and network opportunities. Here at regional comprehensive, we’re talking small potatoes compared to the money the HBS grads can be expected to lavish on their institution (enjoying the hefty tax write-off from their oversized earnings).

    The distortion isn’t just the high tuition, in other words, it’s the alumni financial prospects. And that’s where, for all that they’re pursuing gender equality in the classroom, they’re still going to find difficulty with women lagging in the high-income placements and, thus, women faculty rarely coming from industry (as do the male faculty mentioned whose experience alone commands respect).


  7. How many of the Harvard students had women role models in business? How many of the men (or women) students and faculty had mothers who worked? How many students and professors assume that the women won’t follow through with their careers anyway, and are just taking up space?

    And as a woman who teaches at an almost all-male school, the classroom environment can be difficult, locker-roomish, and intimidating, especially for younger female faculty who are often regarded more for their looks than for their ability as professors. I can’t imagine the difficulties at an school with an over-privileged, over-competitive, student body.

    It’s good that they are trying, but I think the change must be made deep within business culture before lasting change will happen at HBS…


  8. Janice: you’re dead on in terms of the DISincentives to push for sex equity at HBS. And I think Joellecid asks great (rhetorical?) questions about the ways in which even one prestigious school may have only a very small effect on a much larger and more pervasive culture of male entitlement within the world of business.

    One thing that I thought was really interesting in the article was the evidence of a pathological drinking culture at HBS. It surely seemed to play a large role in the larger culture at the school (and in the bullying and groping of fellow students!) Maybe they need to include some alcohol education/sobriety training–show students that it’s really not in their own best interests (legal liability, health consequences) or in their business interests (legal liability, harassment complaints) to get bombed all of the time.

    I for one was totally shocked by the story about the HBS near-grad who essentially killed himself with drink in Portland, ME. The first two graphs of the obit seem to me to completely contradict one another, and yet the article doesn’t explore the fundamental disconnect between “his strong principles, family values, and thoughtful approach to life” and having been asked to leave a bar because of his extreme inebriation & subsequent fall off of a pier & drowning. Now, that’s a completely idiotic death, and yet the students quoted in the linked obit go on and on about how “thoughtful” he was.

    Quite frankly, anyone who’s finishing an MBA and is expecting a baby has zero business getting that drunk in any setting. And no, “start[ing] a blog on fatherhood” is not as important as taking care of yourself and of others so that you don’t fall drunk off of a pier into Portland harbor. (See the linked obit. It’s really amazing.)


  9. Well, I’m not shocked. Hard drinking (and other things HI PILLS AND COKE) are a central part of the jock culture at issue. I fear that all the alcohol education in the world won’t make a dent when the underlying philosophy is pressure to outperform each other by partying harder, studying more, hustling faster.

    It’s funny to hear the word “hazing” applied to the female students, but now that I think of it that way, that’s exactly right. It’s worse hazing than the rest and a very gender-specific iteration. Still, the entire production of B school (and to a slightly lesser degree law school, not sure about med school) is essentially a giant frat pledge in the very worst sense, papered over with a Charlie Sheen meltdown rationale about WINNING.

    I have no idea whether it was like this 15 years ago, but it’s very much the case now and has been for a while.


  10. “Some MBA candidates arrived at Kellogg’s open bar event already over-served and began to vomit on themselves. Some students spat at people and threw things at the museum’s $8.3 million Tyrannosaurus Rex.”


  11. Wow. What, I wonder, would be the penalty for anyone else, or for black or Latino gang members (or any group of less-privileged age peers) who behaved like that in public?

    I’ve long decried the crazy culture of undergrad drinking and town-trashing that seemed to reach an apex in the late 1990s and early 2000s with riots & couch burnings, etc. How disheartening to see that this is what the postgrads do, too.

    One thing a school can do to curb drinking is to raise academic and professional standards. How can people poison themselves with drink and still perform at a high level? I doubt that they can. At the very least, bad hangovers mean more missed classes. So I say raise standards and more 8 a.m. classes. Also, hold classes on Fridays as well as every other work day of the week. People who skip class or show up intoxicated & slovenly should be put on academic probation and/or expelled after a point.


  12. Curmudgeon is right on about the frat house/alcohol culture. Ive-plus B-schools (Harvard, Stanford, et al) are 2-year cocktail parties punctuated with the occasional drunken football tailgate, where the most important lesson is the social capital of the alumi network. The female students in the article who were concerned about jeopardizing their social value understood the instituion perfectly. It’s quite simply disgusting and, to my admittedly skeptical view, impossible to eliminate as long as these schools exist.


  13. Ellie’s understanding about business school=2-year cocktail parties is mine as well, gathered through some close college friends who went to business school. They’d admit precisely this: the MBA is a credential rather than an education, per se. Students go only because they have to for any serious career advancement, and while they do have to focus on their schoolwork to some degree, the networking is as important, if not more important. There is no way to make the educational aspect so stringent as to tamp down the alcohol, because the networking would have to remain. (Not to mention that the argument would likely be that students are coming from and will reenter Wall Street and other high-flying sectors, where drinking and functioning at a high level are expected.


  14. Yes, but it’s a shame that MBA programs enlist universities that offer non-bullshit degrees in this scam.

    But, as Janice notes way upthread: it’s the alumni money from the business school they can’t do without.

    (Or, maybe they should hold more networking & heavy drinking events on piers & docks, to weed out the weak ones?)


  15. Slightly side-bar to the topic, but Margaret Mead’s father was a professor at the Wharton School at Penn early in the 20th century, when it was an undergraduate school, the MBA had never been heard of, and Wharton (as well as Penn) was more of a finishing school for a profoundly more local Philadelphia constituency than it became later. When it was his turn to parent (as it apparently sometimes was) he would walk her down Locust Street to a building that you will remember well, Historiann–but which was twice as big as it later was– turn her over to the secretaries, and go to “work.” She was apparently already doing some anthropology even as a five year old. His “case study method,” she reports, was to have students write up analytical accounts (probably misspelled and filled with typos–but also doubtless proprietary information) from their fathers’ companies, to which they fully intended to return. He had an archive of stuff that would still be fueling business and economic history monographs, but when he retired he unsentimentally threw out the whole thing, as it had only been a “tool” for his job. [Badly remembered from _Blackberry Winter_, which is not to hand, but I think that’s basically the story]. That was networking when your family was already networked back into Tudor England. Try that on a touchscreen device.


  16. Thank you Mary Anne for the link about what the heck fairness even means in the academy and about the ideology of scientific excellence.

    The notion that ” In sciences, a student/faculty with talent is always treated with utmost respect, gender notwithstanding.” is a completely self-serving delusion.


  17. There’s a story slightly parallel to Indyanna’s that I heard in grad school about a very eminent US historian teaching at Harvard. He kept a file of student papers. On one occasion, having been invited to give a paper to some local historical society in New England, he took a student paper on the subject of the town’s history, and used that for his lecture. An older gentleman at the talk was increasingly agitated; it turned out his son had plagiarized his father’s work, and the historian in question had plagiarized a plagiarized work…


  18. Also, my sense when my brother went to bus school was there was a fair amount of work, and not as much drinking, but he was not at a place with lots of rich people, which may make a difference.


  19. two thoughts:

    -absolutely agree with the frat boy drinking that goes on in b-schools, which is not at all limited to the Ivies. I have a number of friends in minor corporate positions at large companies in Saint Louis (Boeing, Purina, AB), and my god can they drink- the men and the women. their lives revolve around drinking, going back to Ames/Columbia/Bloomington/etc. for football and basketball games, and once in a while some actual work.

    -of course the b-school people believe the student evals. we’re talking about people who trust focus groups.

    to whit:


  20. On Janice’s point about the fundraising, I think she’s overestimating the dependence of the university as a whole on the donations from business school alumni. With a few, spectacular exceptions, the bulk of those donations go straight into the B-schools’ own pockets, and those funds don’t trickle down to the rest of the institution except indirectly (classroom buildings, etc.). HBS students give to HBS, and HBS ain’t about to share their stuff with the riff-raff from the rest of the university.

    This was true of physical resources, in my experience: at Harvard, undergrads weren’t allowed to use Baker Library; at BFU, Wharton had its own email terminals in its classroom buildings that only Wharton IDs could access and non-Wharton students had restricted borrowing privileges for books held in the Lippincott Library.

    And it’s definitely true of fundraising: most universities follow some form of a policy where each component part of the institution keeps what it kills. At my current institution (big, midwest public), the B-school is rolling in money raised from its own alumni by fundraisers that work for them exclusively, and none of it is being redistributed to other parts of the institution except in cases where non-business courses are scheduled in the business building. No amount of arguing by Arts & Sciences deans can convince the PTB that the B-school should spread some of its privately-raised wealth, since B-school undergrads take half of their courses in A&S.


  21. Ellie, good points about the proprietary nature of alumni donations in the age of the neoliberal university. I don’t think Janice’s comment suggested that the b-school alumni were funding the larger university–my comments may have tended that way, though. You’re entirely right that universities now “eat what they kill” because schools and colleges are expected to pay for themselves. No wonder b-schools like to keep all of their wealthy alumns to themselves.


  22. I dug up and re-read the relevant chapter in Mead’s _Blackberry Winter_, and I had remembered it pretty rightly (Ch. 4: “My Father and Academia”). It’s an interesting read on a variety of fronts, and I think I would put it (the chapter or even the whole book) on a grad. syllabus, if I was going to teach grad. classes again, which I’m thinking about not doing for a while.

    I actually observed MBA student study groups/teams at Wharton about two decades ago sitting in the coffee bar (I was only there for the coffee bar) doing presentation and case study workups, and while the gender ratios were pretty horrible, the gender dynamics as I’m recalling them now seemed far less jungle-landish than the HBS portrait suggests. My consciousness was also far less evolved then than now, but it wasn’t entirely un-evolved, so maybe it’s a memory thing. The very modest changes in gender equity circumstances made in the last half generation have swum cross-stream and upstream against a generalized coarsening of the whole culture. So the same underlying mix of cultural elements may well produce much rawer forms of public behavior today.


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